Why there will always be an Independent Air Force

There are a number of commentators, mostly Navy enthusiasts, but not all, who like to wax-lyrical about why the RAF should be subsumed into the other Services. Most of the debate I have seen is well intentioned, but ill-informed and often tainted by a severe bias and a sense of bitterness against the Air Force. Most of the discussion is tainted by a desire to secure fixed wing aviation for the RN as it is viewed as some kind of panacea. This is dangerous as it is a poor motive disguised as savings with a desire to improve the UK’s defence capacity.
Tornado Gr4 with Brimstone and Paveway IV

A guest post from a new contributor, John.

There are a number of commentators, mostly Navy enthusiasts, but not all, who like to wax-lyrical about why the RAF should be subsumed into the other Services. Most of the debate I have seen is well intentioned, but ill-informed and often tainted by a severe bias and a sense of bitterness against the Air Force. Most of the discussion is tainted by a desire to secure fixed wing aviation for the RN as it is viewed as some kind of panacea. This is dangerous as it is a poor motive disguised as savings with a desire to improve the UK’s defence capacity.

I’ll start by looking at the ill-informed nature of some of the comments I see on social media and in blogs, as it strikes at their credibly when discussing air power and in a sense makes the case for personnel who have spent their entire professional life studying and developing air power to control the assets. Also some people seem to delight in stating factually incorrect things alongside any opportunity to have a go at the RAF, and its personnel, who are making huge sacrifices for the UK.

Misinformation and Sniping

One apparently informed commentator, tweeted a BBC Defence correspondent and claimed that the runway at KAF had been extended for the Tornado at huge cost to the UK. This is simply not true. Mirages were flying from KAF before the Tornado – the runway at KAF was not extended for Tornado.

Following the story about food quality at Akrotiri, some of the usual suspects jumped onto the bandwagon. Forgetting the Iranian IPod incident with the RN and the selling of the story to the Sun. First, this is disrespectful to servicemen and women – not banter from current servicemen, but from people claiming to be serious commentators on defence some of whom have not served a day in their life. Whatever these commentators think of the RAF, these guys are away from the families for months at a time regularly and having people have a go at them from their armchairs having never spent more than a couple of weeks away from home in leaves a bad taste.

Second, when food is being produced by contractors we all know that if you do not complain about standards then the private company gets away with it. Not a big deal really!

The Case For The Sea Harrier To Have Carried Out QRA

I have noticed people on social media suggest that the Sea Harrier should have been retained and taken on QRA from the F3 in order that it would continue to be available to the fleet. This is utter nonsense. It would in effect have meant the UK would have been protected by an interceptor that:

  1. Couldn’t intercept high level bombers over the North Sea.
  2. Didn’t have the range to reach bombers launching missiles over the North Sea.
  3. Couldn’t intercept supersonic bombers.
  4. Couldn’t reach London in time to intercept a hijacked airliner in accordance with requirements.
  5. Couldn’t support our obligations to our NATO allocated area.
  6. Didn’t have the fuel capacity to hold a CAP for the required time.
  7. It is also doubtful the Sea Harrier fleet could have spared the minimum 8 aircraft it would have required.

So the idea from the Navy enthusiasts was to keep an aircraft at the expense of the defence of the UK homeland (the reason the RAF was formed in the first place… more later) in order to provide air cover for the fleet. Lets look at that:

  1. There has been no time since then that the fleet has required organic air cover. Not in 2003 against Iraq or at all.
  2. The prospect of deploying without US air cover was highly unlikely.

With Argentina currently, and for some time to come, incapable of challenging the Falklands Air Superiority assured by Typhoon, we would have degraded home defence to protect a fleet that, at that time, did not need protecting.

I am not, by the way, saying it will not require air defence in the future and I am very supportive of the new carriers and their future usefulness to the UK.

In summary, it is astonishing that it has been suggested that we should have retained the Sea Harrier for QRA when it would compromise UK air defence in order to protect carriers that did not actually need protecting at anytime over that period. It reminds me of why the RAF was formed in 1918 and why the protection of London was removed from the RN in the first place. Misplaced priorities indeed. The first and most important task of the military is to protect the homeland and our people. Put simply there was nil chance of this happening; the British people would have been significantly less secure and we would have compromised our NATO allies in a very serious way. This really is cloud cuckoo stuff which shows a lack of understanding of the UK air defence system, safe response times, capability and wider NATO responsibilities.  It is also another favourite of the RN websites.

‘The USAF Only Lost The A in 47’

By the end of WW2 it has to be acknowledged that air power had provided the conditions for the allied forces to win in Europe. It is often stated that all this was achieved with the US having its air power controlled by the Army. Only a small amount of research would show that the USAAF was, in reality, independent for most of the war with a service chief on a level with the Army and Navy who attended all of the combined international conferences.

“In practice, the Army Air Forces became virtually independent of the Army during World War II, but its leaders wanted formal independence. Over the continuing objections of the Navy, the United States Department of the Air Force was created in 1947. On 16 September 1947, the Army Air Forces became the United States Air Force as a separate and equal element of the United States armed forces. Once the new Air Force was free of any army domination, its first job was to discard the old and inadequate ground army organisational structure. This was the “Base Plan” where the combat group commander reported to the base commander, who was often regular army, with no air power experience.” (Wikipedia).

The Tornado Harrier Argument

The case for Tornado was always far more credible than Harrier. The Tornado force of some 140 airframes had been in service for 30 years, although as with Harrier, the fleet had been significantly upgraded. The aircraft were to remain in service until 2024 (at the time) providing the UK with a longer term strike capability than Harrier, which was due to go in about 2016-2018.

The fleet was cleared to carry a much wider range of munitions than the Harrier force, including ALARM (at the time), Brimstone and Storm Shadow missiles. The funding for the Harrier to carry such missiles (even if it could) had never been approved, meaning that it had a theoretical capability only.

The RN over the last 14 years could have made sacrifices to find the funding – under older arrangements it could have put forward plans to sacrifice other capabilities directly to fund the Harrier. It chose not to do so, preferring instead to try to find savings through joint work. In other words air power was not a priority.

Again, it is telling that the RN has chosen to put other capabilities ahead of funding the Fleet Air Arm. No matter how often people may cry foul about the RAF, the fact the RN was unwilling, or unable to find the money should not be forgotten either, ships will always come first.

The only difference following SDSR for the RN carrier fleet was losing ARK ROYAL early. The RN was always planned to be a single carrier fleet by 2012. OCEAN was due a two year refit in the period 2012-2014. So even if SDSR had kept Harrier, the UK carrier in service, most likely ARK ROYAL would probably have been required to re-role into an LPH to cover for OCEAN. In other words, if SDSR had kept Harrier, the RN would still not have a fixed wing carrier capability. It would instead be focused on delivering an LPH capability which has been shown by recent operations to be of more value to the UK than a carrier.

Navy lobbyists often write to Defence Committees claiming that Harrier could have been used in Libya if it had not been withdrawn from service in 2010. The 1st Sea Lord made it very clear to Parliament (on the record) that if Harrier had been kept (not withstanding its limited capability compared with Tornado) it would not have been able to deploy on ELLEMY. It simply could not support 2 Operations at the same time and would have been committed to HERRICK. However, the Tornado has capabilities the US and NATO value highly, and RAF tankers and ISTAR are always very welcome, and strategic air transport is a capability the French are very jealous of.  Harrier could never have been deployed to Libya even if kept and the RN only had 6 pilots qualified to fly at sea in 2010. Even without previous reductions the Harrier could not have mounted 2 operations at a time.

The very limited usefulness of the UK (at the time) small carriers when compared to Tornado should be understood. The International Fleet review recently claimed that if the UK had kept the Harrier then the RN could have mounted Libya alone without replying RAF personnel- not possible as I have just shown. What about no-fly zones? And all the other assets I have listed? Really? It is this sort of stuff that undermines the credibility of the Navy lobby with those in power.

Tornado Strikes Direct from Marham and OP ELLEMY

“CDS, I’d like to hit targets in Libya tonight”. “Sorry Prime Minister, we’ll have to wait a week or more as the carrier (which has no aircraft on it) sails round and we move weapons and personnel to Italy.”

Or, “yes PM, we will use Storm Shadow and be hitting precise targets within hours of your order”.

There were, of course, other good reasons to continue this form of attack on occasion.

The flexibility of air power was exemplified by a Tornado squadron. It returned from exercise in the USA on 14 March. UNSCR 1973 was issued on 17 March while the squadron prepared for operations from 16th to 18th. The first Storm Shadow mission was flown on 19 March and such sorties continued to the 28th while the first GR4s deployed on 21 March. In total, Storm Shadows were launched against over 60 targets. The Storm Shadow missions included one which was aborted minutes before weapon release owing to collateral concerns. This showed the superb situational awareness that existed.

The UK contribution of ISR contribution to Libya was significant:

  • The E-3D Sentry provided airspace control and co-ordination.
  • Sentinel offered wide area surveillance while its GMTI radar allowed the detection and tracking of multiple vehicles; the RN Sea King also provided GMTI                 capability.
  • Tornado proved its multi-role credentials through the use of the RAPTOR reconnaissance pod. Even target designator pods such as the GR4’s and                              Typhoon’s LITENING III offered useful images though the addition of a data-link to permit real-time sharing.
  • In specialist personnel, the UK provided staff to the CAOC and the assessment teams of the ISR Division18.
  • The RAF’s Tactical Imagery Wing was central to the analysis of ISR products.
  • The Nimrod R1 signal intelligence gathering platform was also involved.

Deep operations (many RN commentators who feel deep strike is not required should remember that deep strike capability also provides deep reconnaissance capability) were flown by Tornados against targets such as ammo dumps and C2 in the south of the country. A regime C2 target at Sebha was listed for attack to be hit within 5 hours by 16 bombs which were to strike within a 10 second window. It is a tribute to the abilities of all involved that this task was achieved. Great distinction was demonstrated with attacks against snipers. Precision weapons with well understood radius of effect were used to neutralise snipers with minimal damage to the building and causing no other casualties.

It was also notable that both Tornado and Typhoon went through the campaign without any urgent operational requirement raised; they were able to cope with a demanding operation using the systems and weapons already provisioned.

In seven months of 24/7 operations, Tornados flew 8,000 hrs and released 1,200 weapons. The PWIV fuze delay could be set in cockpit allowing optimum engagement of targets of opportunity. In short, it was a highly flexible and effective weapon system. During March over Benghazi, the GR4s faced dynamic targeting, ie reacting to fleeting chances in a fast changing situation.

The financial crisis was the greatest threat to the UK at the time. Yet the UK was able to support and then redeploy a force of over 10,000 personnel and equipment over that period from a land locked country – the biggest such operation since WW2. At the same time taking part in operations over Libya, Iraq, several in Africa and maintaining UK homeland defence and the South Atlantic.  On top of the UK military supported the civil powers on fuel and fire strikes and flooding. I am hopeful that investment will follow over the coming years and the UK is now in a much stronger position than most of Europe economically.

Why An Independent Air Force Is Vital To UK National Interests

Firstly, why the Royal Air Force was born of the RFC and RNAS. The merger was decided by statesmen, industrialists, generals and admirals, with no air marshal yet available to assist their deliberations. It was based on common sense and evidence.

It came about because the Germans identified that aircraft had a utility beyond control of the airspace over the battlefield – that it could be used to strike directly at the heartland of an enemy. With attacks on British mainland targets in 1917, the Germans were the first to exploit this new warfare. These attacks provoked an outcry that gave the impetus to the formation of an independent air force. This outcry was the primary consequence of the inability of the RFC and RNAS to co-ordinate their operations in order to provide effective air defence of London and the UK. But there were other reasons too, particularly the need to resolve disputes between the army and the navy over the supply of aircraft and engines for two competing air arms.

John Slessor was an early apostle of jointery and he made the very pertinent point that had the RAF not been created in 1918, it is a fair bet that the RFC, in the years between the wars, would have suffered the fate of the tank corps – and then what would have happened to Britain in 1940?

Largely due to the foresight, vision and determination of such men as Trenchard, the RAF was adequately prepared to fight and win the battle that saved the West in the summer of 1940.

It is safe to state that when most operations are considered air power will usually be the primary instrument of initial reaction and it demands less human and material commitment to achieve political objectives while involving fewer political risks.

The RAF is in the business of winning battles, and to do that you need people to do difficult and dangerous things; things that test not only the quality of their inner steel but also their loyalty and commitment to their fighting unit whether it be ship, regiment or squadron. The motivational and other reasons that persuade people to put their lives on the line are complex, but ethos and ‘tribal’ identity are certainly vital factors. And because of our history and the way we are organised, our ethos and identities in the British military are based on the single services. The Services therefore have to operate jointly where it makes operational sense in terms of military effectiveness and efficiency, while maintaining a clear sense of belonging and loyalty to the parent service.

When flying machines are regarded and employed as airborne tanks, the case for their being owned by the Army would appear to make itself. The trouble is that the mind-set of the land commander is apt to be locked unduly into the task rather than the flying. This matters. As noted before, air power in its several forms and its maturing competencies has proven itself to be militarily and strategically so desirable that all sides want some of it for themselves.

It is all too easy to poke fun at sea-ignorant generals and land-innocent admirals, but what history shows is that military competence in one geographical environment is no guarantee of a like mastery of warfare in another.

There is both a distinctive nature to the preparation for and conduct of warfare in the air and a unique strategic perspective derived from an aerial focus.  Air power can be and sometimes needs to be flying firepower, ambulances, and trucks functioning as an integral component in the land power combined-arms team. That said, in addition and often even instead, there can be a principally air-oriented character to warfare as a whole, as well as specifically in its aerial tactical and operational detail, that history has shown soldiers and sailors do not identify or grasp fully. Broad national security problems, as well as particular challenges, need to be addressed by defence professionals educated in the nature of airpower and its contemporary character at all levels. Air power as land power and airpower as sea power are not adequate as intellectual centres of gravity for determining how best to develop and employ airpower.

Air forces are different from armies in almost all respects save for their ultimate purpose in war. Armed forces necessarily specialised for each geographical domain do different things differently. It is not impossible, but it is improbable, that a lifetime of professional focus upon warfare on land or at sea will prepare a person as competently to understand how air power can be employed most effectively as would a lifelong commitment to air power. It is essential for the aerial dimension to be considered by the people and organisation who by education, training, and experience understand it best.  Air power is the key advantage the West has over the rest – why dilute it?

Support Helicopters

This is an area were some legitimate debate is worthwhile. The French navy has relatively few helicopters; the army has to manage these and this approach is not a great success compared to the British experience, where we are now regularly taking RAF helicopters and crews to sea. It was a good thing that the RAF ‘owned’ the helicopters in the first place because of the engineering back-up which the Army lacked at the time. Since then JHC has been formed and performed with distinction in Afghanistan. Anyone who witnessed the RAF Chinooks working with the RAF Regt and RAF Medics to evacuate casualties from the battlefield before linking into the RAF casualty strategic evacuation system to the UK could not help but see the UK military at its best. No one, least of all the solider on the receiving end has any complaints.


Some historical examples of why an independent air force matters:

Europe 1940

The decision to not send more fighters to France in 1940 was made by the RAF despite the Army and Churchill demanding more be sent. If they had been, Fighter Command would have squandered it’s strength before the German effort to win air superiority over the UK and Channel. This could have resulted in history taking a very different turn, as without air superiority over the Channel the RN would have suffered very high loses trying to prevent an invasion, even if they could. If the Army had controlled air power, the aircraft would have been sent.

North Africa

Close air support in North Africa showed that separate command and flexibility of air power is vital.  At the beginning of the North African campaign air power was used to support the army on the battle field and controlled from Army HQ. However, it was discovered that, while this was useful, having a separate and independent air HQ ensured that air power could be used most flexibly and effectively. So while the army may prioritise CAS to destroy some enemy tanks, the air HQ could redirect assets to attack fuel dumps many miles behind the forward edge of the battlefield thereby stopping an entire enemy advance across the whole theatre.  This centralisation of air power was crucial to winning in North Africa and is held as an example of CAS and interdiction. Air power is a theatre and global weapon and should not be confined to the immediate battle space – history has shown that this invariably happens when it is controlled by generals. This is why the Combined Air Operations Centre for the Iraq and Afghan operations is a separate Air Component Command and holds air assets centrally, other than a few tactical assets. This includes US Navy aircraft. It should be noted that for all the talk of carrier air, the USAF has conducted 3/4 of all raids on ISIS.


All aspects of air warfare contributed to the success of General Eisenhower’s armies on D-Day. The Luftwaffe that could have rendered impracticable the landings and subsequent exploitation out of a beachhead had already been defeated in the skies over the Reich itself. What remained of the Luftwaffe’s fighter assets was committed near exclusively to the continuing, losing battle to defend Germany from air assault. That bomber offensive that destroyed German air power was vital to winning the war despite what anti-air power advocates say now.

UK Air Defence

Ask the RN and Army 10 years ago and they would have not prioritised UK air defence as there ‘were no threats and no need to fight MiGs’. Recent events have made a mockery of that with the huge increase in Russian air activity over and around NATO AORs. An independent service is required to make the case for investment in the full spectrum of air power.  Would the RN have developed the Nimrod into the superb multi role platform she became? Doubtful, they would have focused on their priority, maritime patrol. I expect we will have a new MPA soon and the RAF were not behind behind the capability loss in the first place.


Air power is the advantage the West has had over the rest since the end of WW2 – we take that for granted at our peril… It is why we win conventional wars with minimal casualties.

Ships are not simply tools to move the army, which is why the army does not control the navy, the sea must be controlled and used for its own purpose as well – navy personnel understand this. The air covers both land and sea and is not geographically restrained.

An examination of a hundred years of air historical records clearly shows that the multirole strategic utility of air power cannot sensibly be challenged, but that understanding it is extremely complex. With air power now ubiquitous and indispensable, any conceptualising of warfare without absolute regard to air power is bound to disappoint; air professionals should be more confident in their hard-earned success. Joint warfare depends on and demands the geophysical parochialism that the single Services brings; the leadership challenge is for a unified and strategic grasp and grip upon the joint but separate tools in the military toolbox.

With aircraft now multi-role, would you give land based strike aircraft to the RN or Army bearing in mind they are also likely to be air superiority fighters? The same problem would arise. Would we have CAS assets operated by the RN in a land based campaign like HERRICK? The same question arrises, why would the RN understand the Army CAS requirement better than the Army? Surely the Army would argue that they should control CAS aircraft as ‘they best understand the use of air power in the ground environment’. We do not have enough aircraft for the Army and RN to have their own organic CAS and ISTAR assets. The Army has no desire to take on strategic air and no experience in running complicated airfields. Why create 2 competing air arms who will have to argue for funding with each other?

The truth is, air power crosses all boundaries. If you merged the RAF the savings would be minimal but the loses in intellectual capital immense and it would reduce the UK’s standing in the world. Furthermore, it would likely end in the merge of all 3 services into a defence force as, once the box is open, it will not be closed and politicians will ask, why do we have any independent services at all? So the death warrant of the other single services would be signed by their own biggest fans. The truth is that this is an old hobby horse of the (primary) navy lobby that will either continue to be ignored by those that count or done for small savings rather than operational effectiveness (the US will never do it) and result in the end of the other 2 services simply to spite the RAF. Some commentators often use the USMC as an example to follow – they should remember that they don’t have any strategic capability and rely on the USN and USAF for many capabilities. If we head in their direction we reduce capability and become, in the end, a single defence service.

Finally, No serous military nation has dispensed with the air force as an independent service. That is because serious minds, not amateurs, decide these things based on evidence at the highest levels of government all across the world.

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