“Never in the field of human conflict, has so much been owed by so many to so few”.
Winston Spencer Churchill
20 August, 1940
Alphen, Netherlands. April 3, 2018. The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the oldest, independent air force in the world, and the world’s most iconic. Stood up on April 1, 1918 and formed from the merger of the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service the Battle of Britain image of ‘chaps’ in Spitfires and Hurricanes defeating the might of the Nazi Luftwaffe is an enduring image that underpins a view of Britain and the British even to this day. What does the RAF’s past say about the RAF of today, and what of its future?
The RAF in April 1918 was a massive force of some 22,000 aircraft. It had established air supremacy over the battlefields of the Western Front, and it had pioneered the use of aircraft as strategic bombers. On 8 August 1918 at the critical Battle of Amiens the RAF also pioneered what later become known as ‘Blitzkrieg’, the coordinated use by General Rawlinson’s III Army of aircraft, tanks and infantry to blast through the German front-line. Between the wars, the RAF even pioneered the use of aircraft as part of ‘imperial policing’ in places such as Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq).
A Force for Good?
It was during the Second World War that the RAF really established its reputation as a strategic force. During the 1930s Britain had steadily developed the world’s most advanced air defence system by combining radar (‘radio detection finders’), a highly-effective command and control system, and state of the art fighter aircraft. In parallel, slowly but with increasing tempo, the RAF also developed a powerful strategic bomber force capable of striking targets deep in Germany, albeit at first with limited accuracy.
By way of power comparison on the nights of 14 & 15 November 1940 515 light bombers of Luftflotte 3 carried out a series of attacks on the English city of Coventry. Eighteen months later, on the night of 30-31 May 1942, the RAF carried out the first 1000 heavy bomber raid on the German city of Cologne. As the then Head of RAF Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris said, “The Germans have sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind”.
Many contemporary historians question the strategic utility and indeed the morality of the revenge carpet bombing of German cities. Even Churchill thought the February 1945 destruction of Dresden by some 800 Lancaster heavy bombers a raid too far, even though he was also aware of the message it sent to Stalin and the Red Army. There are also questions about the value of investing of so much of Britain’s war effort in the bomber offensive and the butcher’s bill: of the 125,000 Bomber Command aircrew, 55,000 lost their lives. However, for much of the war, RAF Bomber Command was the only way for Britain to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany. For much of the Cold War the RAF’s V-Force of Vulcan, Victor and Valiant bomber provided London with a strategic nuclear deterrent that also enabled a declining Britain to use the confrontation with the then Soviet Union to mask its own decline and retreat from empire.
A Force for Innovation?
For me, the defining feature of the RAF has been innovation. For all the image of British ‘chaps’ and their ‘derring do’ the RAF was (perhaps) the least class ridden of Britain’s three armed forces, the most international (many nationalities either fought with the RAF or in it), and the most technologically innovative. Two famous squadrons, 9 and 617, point to the centrality of innovation to the ethos of the RAF. Indeed, innovation was a defining feature of such iconic high-precision raids as the May 1943 destruction of the western German dams and the October 1944 sinking of the 42,900 ton German battleship Tirpitz. Both squadrons were also comprised of men not just from the UK but also from across the then Dominions and the United States.
It is innovation which must be the defining feature of the RAF over the next fifty years of its story if the force is to remain a major factor in Britain strategic influence and its future defence. There will continue to be a demand for the RAF to project and supply British specialised land forces the world over and to play its full role in Britain’s future air defence and strike missions – both from land and the sea. However, the challenge for the RAF will be to overcome the very icon it has become – the image of ‘chaps’ – if it is also to reflect and make the most of Britain today, not just Britain past.
Can the RAF meet the innovation challenge? As I have seen at close quarters over the years air forces tend to be run by fast jet pilots who tend to define themselves and the forces they lead as ‘eyes on/over target’ fast jet forces. However, technology is fast changing the very nature of air power and the battlespace in which it must contend and fight. Consequently, RAF 150 must and will be a force able to extend across six other critical ‘spaces’: air, sea, space, cyber, information and knowledge. RAF 150 will also be a force of drones as much as manned aircraft in which sentient machines will provide at least as much of the command picture and command decisions as people.
If politicians give the RAF the means to craft new innovative ways to pursue Britain’s strategic ends RAF 150 will meet the many challenges that will come its way. Indeed, if there is one British force that is open to talent from wherever it comes and which can rise to the challenge of change and innovation the twenty-first century will impose on Britain and its forces, it is the men and women of Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force.
Happy birthday, RAF!