Air Power – The Metonymy of the RAF

First published: 16th April 2014 | Cmdr. Graham Edmonds RN Cmdr. Paul Fisher



1. The Authors

2. Preamble

3. The Aim

4. Historical Background

5. The Myth of Air Power

5.1. The Characteristics of “Air Power”

6. The Four Roles of the RAF

6.1. Role 1 – Control of the Air and Space or Air Defence

6.2. Role 2 – Air Mobility – or Aerial Delivery (Logistics), Paratroops and SF

6.3. Role 3 – Intelligence and Situational Awareness – or ISTAR and AEW

6.4. Role 4 – Attack or Deep Strike, Ground Attack, Close Air Support, Maritime Operations

7. The Five Dimensions of Air Power Operations

7.1. Command and Control – The Gordian Knot

8. Conclusion

9. Footnotes

10. Bibliography


The Authors

Commander Graham Edmonds RN joined the Royal Navy in 1966 and retired in 2007. During a wide-ranging career that included service in ten warships around the world he acquired considerable expertise in maritime air warfare and gunnery. Currently a Board member of the UK National Defence Association, he is also a defence researcher.

Commander Paul Fisher RN qualified as a Principal Warfare Officer (PWO) and specialised in Anti Air Warfare. He commanded a patrol boat in Northern Ireland and a destroyer in the Persian Gulf during the UN embargo of Iraq. More recently having played a key role in the BAE Systems element of the bid to build new aircraft carriers for the UK, he is interested in iconoclastic strategy development and naval futures.



(Metonymy’ – Concise Oxford English Dictionary –‘Substitution of the name of an attribute for that of the thing meant’.)

The RAF Vision:
“An agile, adaptable and capable air force that, person for person, is second to none, and that makes a decisive air power contribution in support of the UK Defence Mission.”

In the foreword to Air Publication (AP) 3000, “British Air and Space Power Doctrine (4th Edition 2009)”, a Royal Air Force (RAF) open document that describes national ‘joint’ air power doctrine, the then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, sets out his strategy to implement the RAF ‘vision’. He states that “this sound conceptual basis … reflects the inherently joint nature of air operations and the contribution to other components.” Juxtaposed with this introduction is the amplification that the RAF “provides a decisive air power capability to the Joint Force, while retaining a unique and independent ability to project national influence whenever and wherever it is required. The principles that underpin today’s RAF were equally evident in 1918, when Lord Trenchard’s vision of an independent air force was rooted in the experience of expeditionary warfare and a tradition of joint operations.”
‘Independent’ – Oxford English Dictionary – free from outside control; not subject to another’s authority.


The Aim

The aim of this paper is to explore the validity of Edition 4 of AP3000[1].


Historical Background

Towards the end of WWI, airpower theorists Sir David Henderson, Mark Kerr, Sefton Brancker (and later the better known Sir Hugh Trenchard, Giulio Douhet and William ‘Billy’ Mitchell) espoused grand visions for the potential of air power, then a new and little-understood factor in war. They argued that the aim of air forces, independent of navies and armies, was the strategic destruction of the enemy’s capability to wage war, and that this alone held the key to quick victory.

Moreover, they believed that independent air operations could such results without being chained to the support of armies and navies. Nevertheless in 1919 Sir Trenchard told Admiral David Beatty, then-First Sea Lord, that the RAF existed to support the Royal Navy and the Army and that ‘specific elements of the RAF would train to work with the older services’. This may well have persuaded Beatty not to demand the return of the Royal Naval Air Service which, prior to its transfer to the RAF, had supported the Army by sending Naval Squadrons to fight over the Western Front. The RNAS had also played a major role in defeating the early U boats and making the sea-lanes safe for the transportation of thousands of fresh American troops. The Naval Division of sailors acting as soldiers had also provided direct support for the Army on the Western Front.

And yet, despite Sir Hugh Trenchard’s assurances, the air power pundits’ conception of air power – of the importance of air superiority, the primacy of strategic bombing, and the value of interdiction over close air support – remain an enduring belief of modern air power exponents. Indeed, they remain enshrined in AP3000.

After WW1 “independent” air forces were created by a number of nations, but not – significantly – by the USA, where the USN, US Army (USAAF) and USMC retained single service air forces until 1949, when the USAF was formed. In the UK, the RAF was formed on 1 April 1918 by a merger of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps. Brought about largely because of the public and political shock generated by a German daylight bombing attack on central London in June 1917, and the air power enthusiast’s exploitation of the situation, the new RAF would only see six months’ active operations before the armistice.

For much of that time, the RAF fought much like its RFC/RNAS predecessors. Though a new ‘independent’ bombing force using former RNAS bombers carried out raids on German border towns and zeppelin sheds, the majority of operations were carried out in direct support of the Army. But six months gives little time to draw conclusions about expeditionary warfare, or build a tradition of joint operations!

Between 1918-1939 the RAF Charter ruled that the first duty of the RAF was to police the British Empire. Using DH4 biplane bombers, the RAF attempted to prove that air operations could fight counter-insurgency operations without the help of the older services. Successes were noted in discouraging kidnapping, inter-tribal bickering and caravan raiding – but large scale uprisings always required the help of substantial ground forces. Nor did operations against primitive tribesmen require the sophisticated equipment that needed for use against a modern industrial power, and the experience of imperial air control did not prepare the RAF for a future war with Germany.

WW2, therefore, was the proving ground for the air power theorists. Initially the most successful demonstration of combined land-air manoeuvre was the Wehrmacht’s and Luftwaffe’s ‘blitzkrieg’ across Poland, northern France and the Low Countries. After the fall of France and as a prelude to invasion of the UK, the Luftwaffe turned to the tactical attack of the RAF’s ground facilities and then to a strategic attack on centres of government, civilian populations and war industries.

After sustaining enormous casualties and suffering steady attrition, Operation Sea Lion (the invasion of Great Britain) was cancelled by the Germans. Both the Luftwaffe and the allied air forces (RAF and USAAF) continued the strategic bombing campaigns envisaged by Douhet, Mitchell and Trenchard. While secondary to German priorities, it represented the western Allies’ ‘second front': From 1942 to 1945, Bomber Command and the 8th AF Bomber Force dropped over two million tons of ordnance on Axis targets in Europe. Although this offensive killed nearly 600,000 civilians of various nations and reduced German cities to rubble, their will to resist remained unbroken, contrary to the expectations of air power advocates. Further, this strategic ‘quick win’ turned into a lengthy attritional campaign in which thousands of aircrew lost their lives. Similarly, Japan’s cities and ‘vital centres’ were destroyed by a campaign of relentless intensity – but the Japanese people remained unbroken. This lesson should have been sooner understood from the staunch support that the British civilian population – especially those who had suffered bombing – gave to the war effort.

This massive investment in an independent strategic bombing force had diverted considerable resources from tactical air support of maritime and land forces. As a result Coastal Command – a true “Cinderella Service” – was unable to provide adequate air cover in the mid-Atlantic to counter the U-Boat threat, which had the potential to strangle the UK into defeat and remove the one secure base from which to retake mainland Europe. The Royal Navy had only regained full command of the Fleet Air Arm from the RAF in 1939, and so the Service had to be creative in providing aviation at sea. The mid Atlantic gap was only then closed in mid 1943 by both the FAA, with the commissioning of 44 ‘Woolworth Carriers, and by Coastal Command with sufficient long-range aircraft purchased from the Americans. This, and much improved naval ASW weapons and tactics, turned the tide against the U-Boats.

Churchill rightly considered that the Battle of the Atlantic, fought from the first to the last day of the war, was the one battle the allies could not afford to lose. It ensured the vital logistic resupply that kept aircraft in the air and tanks moving on the ground as well as ensuring the safe delivery of vital supplies and war materiel and the eventual transport of the US Army to train for D-Day. Churchill wrote in ‘Closing the Ring’: “The battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome.”

Yet the continued myopia of air power enthusiasts was highlighted from within the staff of the Joints Chiefs by Major General Sir John Kennedy. Sir Kennedy, Director of Military Operations, informed Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke: “In my view the only well-founded ground of criticism of our central war direction now lies in the use we are making of our Air Force….I should like to take 50% of our bombing effort off Germany even at this late hour, and distribute it to the Atlantic, and in the Middle East and Indian theatres.”

Further evidence of the intransigence of the RAF to fully embrace the implications of joint operations is witnessed in their disregard to the planning for Operation Overlord whereby Allied armies were to re-occupy mainland Europe. The strategic pivot of the historic invasion was “boots on the ground”. Yet ACM Sir Arthur Harris, AOC of the RAF’s Bomber Command, and Gen Spaatz of the USAAF 8th AF, actually prevented their staffs from making any contribution to D-Day planning. They argued that the amphibious assault was a ‘containment side show’ that would divert strategic assets from the bombing of Germany and thereby actually lengthen the war. It took the intervention of Winston Churchill and Gen Eisenhower to force them to participate in Overlord planning, but only from the beginning of 1944.

So strong was the belief in the potential of air power that Sir Trenchard felt able to write after the second World War; “With regard to Navies: here I consider we must face a major change in our traditional outlook. We must get away from all preconceived ideas of prestige being enhanced or even dependent upon the number and size of battleships kept by the nation. The days of the big ship are past. They can no longer operate in the face of Air Power. Carriers were a passing phase and could only be used when one power ruled the air and was predominant over its enemy.”

Certainly, the advent of the airborne missile offensive by German V1 and V2 rockets was an early demonstration of a vulnerability that still exists today. The vulnerability of the UK to cruise and ballistic missile attack. Systems which while being from the air, are more often than not from the air, but some surface/sub-surface based system; yet despite this the potential of air power was consistently overestimated for decades after WW2.

Today, nuclear weapons aside, air power exponents have largely come to accept that, whilst air power is a ‘force multiplier’, there are limits to its efficacy – particularly in low-intensity, counter-insurgency wars. They could hardly do otherwise considering the volume of evidence that has built up:

• In Korea, air-power’s effectiveness only took root after Chinese forces over-reached on vulnerable logistics, offering “a perfect target”[2].

• In Vietnam, even with strategic bombers operating against tactical targets,[3] airpower made a minimal impact on the course and conclusion of the war.

• Before the Yom Kippur War, Israel “deluded itself into believing that airpower was the answer to… [Its] weakness in artillery,”[4] and suffered accordingly, as did Rhodesia in 1979.[5]

• In the Falklands War, even heavy Argentine aerial attacks caused minimal losses to British amphibious forces,[6] and failed to change the course of the conflict.

• Over Afghanistan, even today’s high-tech airpower was no panacea – early battles found old-fashioned artillery more valuable than modern aerial munitions.[7]

In each of these conflicts, airpower was a critical tool, offering vital tactical and logistical support to ground and maritime forces. Indeed, naval forces often supplemented and enhanced these support functions. And yet, air-power was never a guarantor of success, even under the most favourable of conditions – whether Argentina’s closer proximity to the Falklands, or Rhodesia’s total aerial dominance. Instead, victories were won by professional ‘boots on the ground’ enjoying sustained logistics, well-integrated fire-support and appropriate strategies.


The Myth of Air Power

RAF air power papers and documents variously list three characteristics, four roles and five dimensions of air power, to which we will turn shortly.



Air Publication 3000’s foreword (p.5) states that the publication’s purpose is to set out “the direction necessary to underpin the conceptual component of [only?] the Royal Air Force’s fighting power…”

In its foreword and within the text, it mentions the “Joint Force”, that is Joint Operations, but there is no mention at all of the contribution to UK national Air Power of the aircraft and weapons of the rest of the “Joint Force”. These air forces and the other resources of the Royal Navy and British Army, which between them will deploy by 2020 about 24 F35B and 240 helicopters of various types, are excluded. The Navy also deploys long range Ballistic, Cruise and Surface to Air Missiles.

AP3000 asserts that “British air and space power is not, however, delivered by the RAF alone. It is a product of many factors including: the organic aviation assets of the other Services; the resources drawn from a history of alliances and partnerships formed over nearly a century of air operations; the legacy of air-mindedness bequeathed by Britain’s role as an aviation pioneer; the innovative technologies provided by a strong aerospace industry; and the critical mass created by world-leading airlines.” (p.15) This is a rare if not only mention of non-RAF resources, of which the strongest influence is undoubtedly the aerospace industry.

The Air Staff appear to make the mistaken assertion that that ‘British Air Power is the RAF’

AP3000’s text is full of assumptions (p.5): “Since its inception ninety-one years ago, the RAF has provided a decisive air power capability to the Joint Force, while retaining a unique and independent ability to project national influence whenever and wherever it is required.”

Apart from the lack of any evidence or examples of “the provision of decisive air power capability to the Joint Force” (p.5) by the RAF there is ample evidence to the contrary. In fact, several campaigns demonstrate that this last claim might be unfounded. The RN with its FAA demonstrates a continuous record of successful deployment of air power both from the sea, and more recently on land providing support to operations in Afghanistan. However, this record of air power receives no credit or recognition within the pages of AP3000, nor discussion as to how it fits into national doctrine. And yet, from 1950 onwards, naval aviation made invaluable contributions to national security these are just some:

• In the Korean war of 1950-53, the British contribution to air power was almost wholly provided by the RN working alongside the RAN, USN and USMC air forces. A FAA piston engined Sea Fury shot down a jet engined MIG15.

• In the 1956 Suez crisis, whilst the RAF provided a night bombing campaign, the FAA destroyed over 200 Egyptian aircraft and launched the first ever seaborne helicopter assault from HMS Theseus.

• “The effectiveness of the carrier-borne attack (Flight Magazine learns from interviews with those who directed and who took part in the operation) was due essentially to a combination of three factors: – These were the short range from ship to target (giving a long time over target), the quick aircraft turn-rounds, and the fact that, with three carriers flying a staggered operating cycle, it was possible to apply a continuous pressure, as opposed to the periodic peak efforts of the long-range RAF aircraft.

• “Meanwhile, Ocean and Theseus, under the command of Rear-Admiral G. B. Sayer (normally Flag Officer Training Squadron, acting on this occasion as Flag Officer Helicopter Group), were operating as helicopter assault carriers. They carried the eight Whirlwind HAS 22s and two Whirlwind HAR 3s of 845 squadron, RN; and six Whirlwind HAR 2s and six Sycamore 14s of the Joint Helicopter Unit from RAF Middle Wallop.”

• In the 1961 Kuwait crisis, the arrival of the FAA in advance of the British Army did much to dampen Iraqi military ambitions on the new nation.

• In 1964 HMS Centaur, with RM, Army & RAF units embarked as well as her own Air Group, quelled the local Army mutiny in Dar-es-Salaam and released the captured High Commissioner.

• The 1972 Belize Crisis, with Guatemala was stalled by the arrival overhead of Buccaneer aircraft from HMS Ark Royal, operating 1000nm away in the Bahamas – a clear demonstration of seaborne, speed, height and strategic reach.

• In 1974 FAA helicopters from HMS Hermes evacuated British citizens from the North of the Island and flew them to RAF Akrotiri.

• In the 1982 Falklands Campaign, FAA squadrons provided 160 aircraft for strike, fighter, anti-submarine, anti-surface units, general support, and rescue facilities. All air-to-air combat in the Falklands was undertaken by FAA aircraft, some flown by RAF pilots.

• In May 2000, a Joint Force was deployed to resolve the difficulties experienced by a UN force trying to resolve Sierra Leone’s long civil war. This spearhead intervention was a classic example of the type of maritime / littoral expeditionary capability envisaged in the 2004 Defence White Paper and SDSR2010.

• There were never more than 1200 marines and paratroopers, or two battalions, on the ground in Freetown, in addition to the naval task force ‘in being’ just “over the horizon.” The RAF’s modern airlift fleet deployed a small expeditionary force of 600 paratroopers from barracks to Freetown in just 36 hours and the Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) delivered 42 Cdo and supporting elements. HMS Illustrious provided Sea Harrier F/A2 ‘reassurance’.

• A crucial factor was the amphibious capability of the Royal Navy, centred on HMS Ocean with 18 helicopters, supported by an aircraft carrier with fixed wing fighter / attack aircraft. This amphibious and carrier Task Force provided UK leaders with the ability to launch and support ground operations from what is essentially a base at sea – that is ‘littoral warfare’.

Al Faw March 2003 – Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched by an amphibious operation that was preceded on 20 Mar by two deep strike barrages of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles aimed at key Iraqi command facilities. The missiles were launched by USN surface ships and RN and USN SSNs. Prior to the main amphibious assault on the al Faw peninsula by 3Cdo Bde RN ships conducted Naval Gunfire Support (NGS). An airborne assault by 40 Cdo was conducted by FAA Sea King helicopters from HMS Ocean and Ark Royal and Rigid Raider craft took in assault engineers and other troops ashore. 42 Commando was taken by helicopter from NE Kuwait and the rest of 3 Cdo Bde’s sea-borne units came ashore by landing craft and helicopter RN ships on the same day. By the late afternoon of March 21 the entire peninsula had been secured by the Royal Marines and US Marines.

Naval aircraft tend to be multi-role in order to pack as many tactical capabilities into the limited number of aircraft a carrier can operate. They have to be stronger to withstand catapult launch and arrested recovery. They need to fold their wings and withstand the corrosion of salty air. Hence they are complicated and possibly more expensive. All of which runs counter to the late Marshal of the RAF Slessor’s view that;“The inescapable conclusion, I feel bound to say, is that Naval Aviation is and always has been the most extravagant and least generally effective form of fighting force ever yet devised.” His opinion is all the more surprising, if not malicious, since he had worked closely as AOC Coastal Command in the early days of WW2 and could not be ignorant of the advantages of having aircraft in the immediate vicinity of a convoy (so useful the Escort carriers were built specifically to provide it) let alone on other operations without the use of airfields.

AP3000 has a split aim in that its preface (p.7) states its purpose is “to provide authoritative direction on the employment of air and space power to airmen; and to explain as clearly as possible its utility to sailors, soldiers and all of the other actors…”

In view of the evidence of those forces which have actually conducted flying operations since WW2, it might be that Air Force personnel need an explanation as to the utility of air power but to suggest that sailors and soldiers with their integrated air arms also need this instruction whilst omitting their contribution to such joint air operations seems bizarre.
It is worth observing that the last air-to-air combat ‘kill’ by an RAF pilot in a RAF aircraft was in Palestine in 1948. Since WW2 FAA aircraft have shot down some 25 enemy aircraft.

“The principles that underpin today’s RAF were equally evident in 1918, when Lord Trenchard’s vision of an independent air force was rooted in the experience of expeditionary warfare and a tradition of joint operations,….” (p.5)

This is a pivotal sleight of intellectual hand which evocatively conflates the founding father’s name and his application of air borne military capability to a continental land battle. It is probable that his experience was no more expeditionary or ‘joint’ in today’s parlance than that of anybody else during WW1. The fallacy of independence was derived from the embryonic technological development of aircraft being applied to warfare. It is based on the misconception of one very influential man that the novel business of manned aircraft required a separate and independent organisation for it to survive and develop, despite the ingenuity and clear success of the RNAS over the previous nine years and later.

However, post WW1 budget constraints were viewed by Trenchard as a threat to the RAF’s existence and in spite of the cost, he planned institutions which would develop ‘airmanship’ and engender the ‘air spirit’. As a result, money that should have been spent on essential technical research was spent on bricks and mortar for separate facilities. Nevertheless the future of the RAF was far from assured and Trenchard judged that the chief threat to the RAF came from the First Sea Lord, Admiral Beatty. In reality, Beatty had been remarkably generous in agreeing to Trenchard’s 1919 request that Beatty refrain for one year from making any public criticism about the RAF in order to give the new service a chance to prove itself. Taking the initiative Trenchard argued that the “air is one and indivisible” and put forward a case for an air force with its own strategic role which also controlled army and navy co-operation squadrons.

In 1919 Trenchard stated that the RAF existed to support the Royal Navy and the Army and that ‘specific elements of the RAF would train to work with the older services’. However those elements assigned to direct support were never given priority for resources. Coastal Command was the least resourced and by 1939 was very poorly placed for the demands of trans-Atlantic convoys. On the other hand Bomber Command received priority for resources. Politicians, suddenly aware that the national air defences were also threadbare, forced production changes in favour of Fighter Command. But the Air Ministry’s philosophy, based solely on theory and not practical experience, remained that only the bomber could win the war.

In similar fashion, when the USAF was created after WW2, a dynamic similar to that between Beatty and Trenchard ensued between Eisenhower and the nascent USAF; Eisenhower agreed to support independence on condition of significant allocation for the Tactical Air Force, a promise that was almost immediately broken.

During the early 1920s the RAF’s continued independent existence and its control of naval aviation were subject to Government reviews. The Balfour report of 1921, the Geddes Axe of 1922 and the Salisbury Committee of 1923 all found in favour of the RAF as Trenchard and his staff worked assiduously to show that the RAF provided good value for money and was essential for the UK’s strategic security.

With the loss in the 1960s of the strategic deterrent to submarine launched missiles, the RAF finally lost its strategic role and any pretence at ‘independence’ disappeared. AP3000 seems to overlook this fact and represents an attempt to re-establish the conceptual basis for its independence. Furthermore, it can be shown that, even if the concepts outlined in AP3000 are used to calibrate actual RAF capability, then the reality is worryingly vacuous and extremely expensive. One has to question whether it is good value for money. In fact, the detail within the publication is based upon a misconception. Even if the root assumptions are incorrect, or even not agreed, then the frame of reference for debate is as if the dialogue is conducted in two distinct languages. Notwithstanding this caveat, it is worth focusing on the practical reality of the capabilities and resources deployed by the RAF to meet its vision. This will be achieved by using AP3000 terminology to take the discussion forward.


The Characteristics of “Air Power”

The core characteristics of “air power” are defined as speed, reach and height which combine to provide additional strengths of ubiquity, agility and concentration and which are only limited by impermanence and limited payload. This summary rightly defines the characteristics of a subset of airborne military capability, namely “aircraft” and implicitly the “manned aircraft” or more specifically “RAF manned and operated aircraft”.

Speed – “The rapid arrival and build-up of aircraft near or in trouble spots provides a visible sign of presence and intent. Modern air operations are also extremely flexible and can be switched between attack, defence and support depending on the needs of the moment.” (p.16)

This either requires a Multi-Role Aircraft (MRCA) or a variety of specialised aircraft types. The RAF won’t have a fully operational MRCA until at least 2021 with the Tranche 3 Typhoon and the F35B, which will be shared with the FAA from about 2020. However a MRCA Typhoon fully loaded with weapons and fuel tanks on external pylons is impeded from being multi-role and fast. As a recent RUSI analysis discussed, the weapon load as a bomber reduces speed and prevents its use as a fighter. It flies into combat as either a bomber or a fighter but not both. The F35B has an internal stores bay to overcome this problem.

Transport aircraft have a limited lift capacity – in comparison to an amphibious ship – and need many sorties to land a sufficient force.

Height – “Air power is less vulnerable to enemy fire when compared with land and sea forces.” (p.16)

This is an extraordinarily sweeping and unjustified statement. Gary Powers exposed that myth in 1960, as did the Vietcong with their rifles in the 70s and the Falklands Task Force in 1982 in which 20 Argentinean aircraft at various heights were destroyed by SAM/AAA. Further, military aircraft spend most of the time on the ground at fixed locations, where they are extremely vulnerable to attack (Palestine 1948, Falklands 1982, Camp Bastion 2012) whereas not a single aircraft carrier has been sunk by enemy action of any sort since WW2.

Reach – “Air operations can also be conducted from bases far away from the opponent’s military forces. During Operation Allied Force, for example, RAF Tornado operated from their home base in Germany and attacked targets in Kosovo. These missions were supported by in-flight refuelling. These characteristics can be combined to increase the effectiveness of air operations.” (p.16)

When RAF bases in Germany were closed by poor weather, FAA aircraft operating from carriers in the Adriatic were able to continue the Kosovo air campaign. However, as the Libya air campaign demonstrated in 2011, it took time to negotiate the lease of Bari airfield in Italy and initial air attacks had to be flown from the UK. Once deployed RAF aircraft could only operate to a fixed air tasking programme, as the distance to Libyan targets prevented the quick reaction that was provided by French Aeronavale Rafale on board the carrier FS de Gaulle, the USMC AV8Bs embarked on USS Kearsarge (LHD3) or the AAC Apaches embarked in HMS Ocean operating off the Libyan coast and offering many more sorties per aircraft per day than the RAF could manage.

The Four Roles of the RAF

AP3000 lists the four principal roles for an Air Force. It is inferred that if an air force can fulfil these roles, without support from another agency, and sustain them for a considerable period of time or at least for a significant military operation, then it can be considered ‘independent’. It is worth delving down into the practical applications of these current roles. The merits of the FAA and the AAC in the delivery of airborne capability are ignored completely. There is no mention of defence against cruise and ballistic missiles, nor their use in offence, which is extraordinary given their strategic threat to the UK in particular.


Role 1 – Control of the Air and Space or Air Defence

“The primary role for the RAF is air defence of the United Kingdom.” (MoD RAF)
The protection of the UK mainland from aerial assault requires an investment to counter the potential threat. Ballistic and cruise missiles launched from a variety of platforms pose that potential, but hopefully unlikely threat, but which cannot be countered by the RAF’s current Air Defence posture. There is no potentially hostile air force within striking distance with large bomber formations and therefore there is no need for the massed wings of fighters which valiantly fought the Luftwaffe when Britain stood alone in 1940.

However, there remains a possibility, albeit slight, that such an air attack could be launched against the Falklands and other British Overseas Territories and there are obligations by treaty to NATO allies and the Commonwealth. Many of the latter two organisations have air defence systems that match those of the UK, but there is a duty and responsibility to both. Discounting the British Antarctic Territory, there are 13 British Overseas Territories, of which only six have airfields suitable for military operations. The maritime Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of these territories is a considerable national resource and represents 88% of the UK’s total EEZ and over sea airspace. Carrier borne aircraft (F35B cost £120m approx) which are needed in the event of a threat to our overseas responsibilities is not mentioned in AP3000.
Consequently, the projected force of between 96 and 107 Typhoon Tranche 2 and 3A MRCA costing £127m per aircraft (PAC figures) appears profligate especially as they provide no defence against missile attack. The Typhoon programme has cost £30 Billion to counter a near non-existent threat whilst ignoring the reality of a clear and present danger from missiles.

An investment to counter the potential threat posed by missile attack is required and RAF Fylingdales provides early warning of ballistic missile attack. However the only UK capability against such weapons in the future will be the Sea Viper system carried in the Royal Navy’s six T45 Destroyers.

AP3000 does not discuss the integration of RN SAM (Sea Viper) to counter this missile threat and currently the ABM defence of Western Europe is sustained by two Aegis equipped ships of the USN stationed in European waters. The RN’s Seawolf (range 2.7nm) and Sea Ceptor (range 13.5nm) SAM systems are very capable against cruise missiles and the latter could be developed for land based point defence.


Role 2 – Air Mobility – or Aerial Delivery (Logistics), Paratroops and SF

“No. 1 Air Mobility Wing is a high readiness, Air Combat Service Support Unit (ACSSU), part of the A4 Force under HQ Air, AO A4, capable of providing early entry air movements support, both in the UK and abroad, to operations and exercises.” (MoD RAF)

Clearly there is a need to move military personnel quickly to meet a crisis. By 2020 the RAF will deploy some of the most expensive fixed wing airlift capability in the world (£13Bn for 14 Voyager aircraft, £3Bn for 22 A400M, £1.7Bn for 8 C17 Globemasters). This is both expensive and yet is insufficient to deploy 16 Air Assault Brigade in one ‘lift’. The Voyager aircraft are operating under a PFI arrangement, in which they are operated by ‘Air Tanker Services’ for civilian charter flights when not required to support the RAF.

Deployed RAF aircraft require considerable logistic support, it is worthy of note that a more cost effective form of operational logistic deployment and support might be achieved by mirroring the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, whose ships are manned by personnel trained for the Merchant Navy. The RFA, as ‘non-warships’ and flying a defaced Blue Ensign can enter many more ports around the world than RN warships without complex diplomatic clearance. Overflying rights, airfield usage agreements and logistic infrastructure all need to be negotiated and can take time and cash, while limiting the speed of establishment and use of aircraft.

Military transport helicopters are controlled by Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), which ‘unites’ some 243 aircraft for command and co-ordination purposes and this has been particularly effective in Afghanistan. JHC reports to the Army HQ in Andover (RN ASW and AEW helicopters remain under Fleet command). However, with withdrawal from Afghanistan imminent it is likely that the ‘providers’ of battlefield military transport – essentially the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) and the RAF’s Chinook and Puma squadrons – will lapse into single service activity. The CHF’s Merlin helicopters are being converted to operate from sea (folding rotor heads etc) and will become essential to support the future maritime-based expeditionary warfare. The Chinook, which can be operated from the new carriers, HMS Ocean and the Bay Class LSDs, will not be ‘marinised’ and therefore will be able to deploy to amphibious ships only for limited periods before salt water conditions take a toll. AP3000 does not address this important aspect of air power – helicopter amphibious assault in littoral warfare in which the RN and FAA have had considerable experience from Suez in 1956 to Al Faw in 2003, via Malaya, Borneo and the Falklands.


Role 3 – Intelligence and Situational Awareness – or ISTAR and AEW

“On the modern battlefield, information, particularly accurate and timely information, is vital to any force commander. To supply this resource, the RAF operates a variety of aircraft equipped with world-leading reconnaissance systems. As a maritime nation, protection of the sea lanes is also of paramount importance.” (MoD RAF)

ISTAR is not a unique RAF capability but one that both the Army and Navy must also provide from within their own capabilities. Intelligence, Surveillance, Tracking, Attack and Reconnaissance is a glamorous acronym of an old concept, one that is as old as warfare itself. It is an integrated facet of maritime and land operations and some of that capability is supported by each services’ airborne vehicles. Every naval unit from submarine to UAV is potentially an ISTAR platform and the Army deploys three UAVs types for different tactical reconnaissance roles.

Despite MoD RAF’s statement above, the RAF can no longer deploy any specialist maritime reconnaissance capability at all; aircraft with radar and radio can fly over the sea and communicate with ships, but without data links and specialist aircrew this is hardly much of a capability. The RN has purchased the ScanEagle UAV and deploys AEW Sea King helicopters, to be replaced by Merlin with ‘Crowsnest’. To state that the maritime dimension is of “paramount importance” and yet deliver a near zero priority in resource and to scrap the Nimrod replacement, revives a return to the era between WW1 and WW2.


Role 4 – Attack or Deep Strike, Ground Attack, Close Air Support, Maritime Operations

The RAF has a very reduced capability to mount attack missions, particularly against targets that are defended by integrated Air Defence Systems. These have to be neutralised or destroyed by long range cruise missiles, such as the ship / submarine launched Tomahawk, before ground attack aircraft can close their targets to launch air to ground missiles (Storm Shadow and Brimstone in the RAF inventory) and precision guided bombs (Paveway). Further, the RAF has no capability to conduct Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) operations and has no airborne ECM support aircraft. In recent operations (Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq) the RAF has required considerable support from specialist EW aircraft of the USN and USAF before and during attack missions. The RAF no longer has an anti-radiation missile in its inventory.

Deep Strike missions are conducted by the RN’s long range (1500nm) Tomahawk cruise missile, which is launched from SSNs that have strategic mobility and stealth, whereas airfields are static and vulnerable. The RAF’s cruise missile, Storm Shadow, has a history of misfires, not guiding to target and warhead failures on hitting a target. The RAF has substantial stocks (900 were ordered) costing £850,000 each. RN stocks of Tomahawk were limited by Air Staff intervention to an initial purchase in 1995 of 60 missiles at a cost of £340,000 each, approximately half the price of the Storm Shadow, and considerably more accurate and reliable. The RN has since bought a number of the Block IV version at £680,000 each.

The removal at a stroke, on the advice of the Chief of Defence Staff (a RAF Officer) and Chief of the Air Staff, without the knowledge of the Chief of Naval Staff, a co-owner, of the only aircraft, the Joint Force Harrier GR7/9, which could deliver Close Air Support to the Army and Royal Marines, was as sudden as it was mysterious when the alternative cost savings measured up for consideration at this pivotal decision point was the Tornado GR4. It was made all the more extraordinary in view of the MoD Air Staff Release in Jul/Aug 2005 of an article eulogising the GR7/9 performance in Afghanistan. The immediate loss of the Harriers, which had just been upgraded, was a decision that conflicted with that of the USMC which had determined to keep their AV8BII Harriers in service to 2030. Close Air Support is now provided by AAC Apaches, which demonstrated their effectiveness and flexibility by deploying from HMS Ocean in the Libya campaign (Op Ellamy). The US Army has also been training successfully in the use of the Apache from USN Amphibious Ships.

With no maritime patrol aircraft, nor maritime co-operation squadrons, and the withdrawal of Air Launched Harpoon and Sea Eagle anti-ship missiles from service, the RAF now has no maritime attack capability at all. The FAA has demonstrated its maritime attack capability with Sea Skua sinking a number of enemy vessels in both Operation Corporate and Operation Desert Storm.

By 2020 the RAF will have a maximum of 107 Typhoon Tranche 2 / 3 MRCA and an as yet unknown number of F35Bs, shared with the FAA, as their front line weapon delivering combat aircraft.

In contrast, one USN carrier air wing allows for broad striking power hundreds of miles from the carrier’s position, whilst providing defence in depth for the battle group through early warning and detection of airborne, surface and subsurface targets. It consists of 56 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, 5 EA-18G Growlers (EW support), 4 AEW E-2D Hawkeye, 10 Sea Combat Seahawks Helicopters, 11 Maritime strike Seahawk helicopters and a flight of 2 logistic support C-2 Greyhounds – an air wing of 88 aircraft. It is worth noting that two USN carrier air groups, each commanded by a junior Captain, deploy more serviceable operational combat aircraft than the entire RAF.

The deployment of F35B aircraft to the RN’s carriers is stated in SDSR10 as being limited to 12 aircraft at most. This shows an extraordinary lack of commitment to expeditionary warfare for a warship designed to carry at least 48 aircraft, nor will it contribute to a high level of Operational Capability. Just what will the remaining F35B aircraft, specifically designed for maritime operations, be achieving based on a UK airfield?

AP 3000 mentions the role of the RAF Regiment in support of its air power only obliquely which is curious as this organisation accounts for nearly 3000 light infantry equivalent personnel. “Air Minded Force Protection” (p.22) is described in surreal terms and claims that it is crucial to the forward deployment of air power. Airfield protection inside the UK and the dependencies is a role for the MoD Guard Service and MoD Police and as overseas deployment in the future will probably be to ‘benign’ allied / coalition air bases with their own guard protection, a new direction for the Regiment in support of Air Power might be required.


The Five Dimensions of Air Power Operations

“The need to adapt to a constantly shifting landscape of imminent and actual threats is embedded in the latest articulation of UK air and space doctrine – which engages the RAF as the main player in five dimensions of operations – air, land, sea, space and cyber space.” (Air Power 2013 p.16)

This statement was introduced at the Chief of the Air Staff’s annual conference on UK air power, hosted in London in July 2013 by the Royal United Services Institute.

This is something of a disingenuous claim as the RAF cannot be the main player in the sea dimension – it has no maritime or sea capability at all. In the land dimension it is only a part player and a supporting one at that as it cannot provide Close Air Support. In cyber space the RAF can only be one of a number of organisations responsible for cyber-security; there is little justification for it to be the ‘lead’ player in a cyber-war that crosses military, public and private sector boundaries.

Let us look at the question – is the RAF a ‘main player’ or a ‘supporting player’.


Command and Control – The Gordian Knot

AP3000 addresses the RAF concept of command and control and it is here that the RAF’s concept of ‘independence’ is enshrined. The philosophy encapsulates its own contradiction as follows: “MissionCommand is more important than ever in the contemporary operating environment, but implementing it effectively at anything other than the most tactical of levels is challenging under current models of air command and control.” (p.61)

Mission Command as it is now called is another modern phrase for a basic aspect of warfare that has for centuries been essential; it expects the use of initiative by the man in contact with the enemy. The reason that the RAF sees this as a challenge is that culturally the organisation conflicts within itself. The necessity for freedom of action as seen from the cockpit is tiresome when viewed from the organisational and bureaucratic perspective of the need to justify an independent infrastructure such as the RAF. If discrete elements of airborne military capability are seen as part of the overall battle space (bullets, shells, missiles, UAVs, manned aircraft) then ownership of them is not an issue. The panacea to this conundrum which has become an art form in itself is the planning process which by definition has become enshrined into the concept of “independence”. Planning is important like housekeeping but it is not the ultimate goal.

After WW2 Slessor continued his attack; “What I want to see is the application of what I regard as the only sound principle – that the man who fights on or under the sea should be a sailor, the man who fights on the ground a soldier and man who fights in the air an airman, all under unified direction and control at the top.”

This fundamental difference between the RAF and the air forces of the RN (the FAA) and the Army (the AAC) is that the latter two are an integrated and organic part of the operations of their formations. Aircraft have to land for maintenance and replenishment either on land or a ship at sea. In doing so they have to understand and integrate with the local air defences. Their aircrew are trained both as aviators and naval or army officers and NCOs. Both proactive and reactive their air battle management (a RAF instigated concept) is entirely different to the selective resource allocation methodology of an ‘independent’ air force that is independent in name only. In actuality even the air defence or attack arm of an air force is a supporting arm to ground or ship formation ‘mission’ or military objectives.

In pursuit of strategic independence and the need to retain control of their own resources (i.e. aircraft) AP3000 dismisses organic air power, as practiced at sea, in a few short words:

“The United States Marine Corps (USMC) has its own organic air power, providing a very high assurance of support from airmen with a comprehensive understanding of ground combat operations. However, this did not prove to be a particularly effective model for the application of air power in the 2003 Iraq War; flexing high-value USMC assets to service higher priority tasks elsewhere in theatre was very difficult, and the perception that organic capabilities were always available to the Marines sometimes inhibited a reciprocal flow of air support when it was urgently required.” (p.63)

This is both a revealing testament to the intellectual hoops which are used in AP3000 to “situate the appreciation” whilst demonstrating a lack of understanding of joint operations, and in particular, the most complex of these, amphibious and littoral operations. By picking on one event it completely overlooks the many highly successful operations completed by naval and marine aircraft in other theatres. It is impossible to avoid the thought that everything is sacrificed to the aim of the self-justification of independent air power and thus the existence and survival of the RAF. The future of UK expeditionary operations overseas is to be based, correctly, on carrier and amphibious task groups, and therefore upon organic and integrated air power. Air power delivered from sea is only one part of a maritime task force’s many defensive and offensive weapons and, as previously mentioned, has been effectively demonstrated in a number of wars and operations since the end of WW2 – e.g. Korea, Suez, Malay / Borneo Confrontation, Falklands, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a critical perspective as AP3000 specifically mentions the importance of maritime operations.

As the RAF now has no maritime capability, the FAA, already integrated into a maritime Task Force, will be able to provide its own air defence in depth (F35B) along with ship borne SAM, deep strike (Tomahawk), ground attack (F35B), CAS (possibly embarked AAC Apache), amphibious lift (Merlin HC4), ISTAR & AEW (Merlin Crowsnest), helicopter and shipborne ESM, ECM, ECCM, ASW (Merlin, Wildcat, Lynx, SSNs, frigates etc.)

This obviates the argument in AP3000 that the “air perspective is different as essentially limited resources mean that the air component commander will determine the priority and timeliness of air support to land forces retaining flexibility to decide where to concentrate air power.” (p.63) The Gordian knot is broken by both cutting it and removing its reason for an independent existence. Full integration of air power assets is but one component of the land or sea-based military capability under the appropriate commander and means that air power can be used to support the land or sea-based operation as appropriate. There is neither ambiguity of command nor misunderstanding as to where air power is needed.



AP3000 and other RAF air power publications present an irrational case for the joint national air and space power doctrine that they claim is the role of the RAF. There is a flawed assumption that air power is synonymous with that furnished only by the RAF and it is shown that this is not historically the case, nor will it be so in the future. It fails to acknowledge that technology moves on and with it must move concepts of operations and their command and control. It is patronising by its total disregard of the contribution to the delivery of air power by the FAA and AAC and its assumption that it needs “to explain as clearly as possible its [air power] utility to sailors, soldiers and all of the other actors”. In attempting to achieve this intellectual sleight of hand air power is conflated with the RAF whilst ignoring the considerable operational experience and combat power of the FAA and AAC. There may have been an argument in favour of this line of thought in 1917, when aircraft were new, particularly with the Army, but the technology involved, in both aircraft and missiles, is now well understood by many soldiers and sailors. The air power achievements of the RN and Army since then would indicate that both services now have a very clear perception of the contribution of its utility – the difference lies in the fact that in the RN and Army it is an integrated and organic organisation delivered by personnel versed both in aircraft, missiles and in maritime or land warfare.

The RAF cannot claim to fill its primary role, that of the air defence of the United Kingdom, as it has no defence against ballistic, a very limited capabiity against cruise missiles and there is no perceptible threat from aircraft. The Strategic role is vested in Trident and cruise missiles launched from sea.

Since it no longer has an independent strategic role, its claim to be an independent force is unfounded.

It is therefore a myth and misconception that air power today is an “independent” military capability. Its ISTAR capability is neither a fully joint nor independent one.

Air Power as a joint concept cannot be and is not best delivered from an independent service. The reality today is that the RAF cannot fully support all land operations and cannot deliver maritime / sea operations at all.

Presently the Joint Helicopter Command has essentially a land-based focus and needs to turn its attention to future maritime expeditionary operations – littoral warfare – in which the Commando Helicopter Force has the expertise.

Air forces are, of course, primarily about aircraft. However, it is now well proven that it is the integration of air operations in support of naval and land forces which is essential and any activity not associated directly with this support is excess to requirement.

It seems that the RAF is over resourced. Its combat and air mobility aircraft are among the most expensive in the world, but it has less combat power available than that of one USN Carrier Air Wing. From its creation in 1918 it has not always lived up to Trenchard’s commitment to Beatty to support the Navy and the Army and this has been a frequent cause of self-inflicted criticism and divisiveness. The RAF cannot meet the vision of its public document on British Air Power.

“Because naval aviation operates afloat and the RAF operates ashore each can perform certain jobs which the other cannot. To my mind the big policy question is not: should the Navy be allowed to run its own private water-borne air force? The question surely is: can the country forego the performance of these tasks which only naval aviation can perform?”
Admiral of the Fleet Caspar John 1953



[1] AP3000 4th Ed (2009) was replaced by JDP-0-30 July 2013. “Although the principles it describes are enduring, AP 3000 was written within the context of protracted COIN campaigns. These principles are still relevant, but the UK’s strategic posture is shifting from campaigning to contingent operations….so JDP 0-30 considers UK air and space power within a broader spectrum of conflict, where a cross-domain and integrated approach is more effective than bi-lateral air-land or air-sea cooperation. Our ability to achieve influence, in all four air power roles, is crucial within the emerging strategic context.”

[2]Halberstam, (2007) p507.

[3] Nolan, (2000) p167.

[4] Herzog (1975) p253.

[5] Moorcraft & McLaughlin, (2011) p165: “air support had proved unable to winkle out well-entrenched troops… [the Rhodesians] were even more vulnerable when the aircraft… returned to base.”

[6] Clapp & Southby-Taylor (2012) p274.

[7] Kugler, Baranick & Binnendijk (2009) pXII



Clapp, Michael & Southby-Taylor, Ewen. Amphibious Assault Falklands: The Battle of San Carlos Water (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2012)

Halberstam, David. The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War(Basingstoke: Pan Books, 2009)

Herzog, Chaim. The War of Atonement (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 1975)

Kugler, Richard L; Baranick, Michael; Binnendijk, Hans. ‘Operation Anaconda: Lessons for Joint Operations,’ (Center for Technology and National Security Policy, National Defense University, 2009), Page xii, (Accessed 5th April, 2014)

Moorcraft, Paul & McLaughlin, Peter. The Rhodesian War: A Military History (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2011)

Nolan, Keith W. Ripcord: Screaming Eagles under Siege, Vietnam 1970(New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2000)

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