F-35B Lightning jet on HMS Queen Elizabeth’s flight deck during her Westlant 19 (Picture: Royal Navy).

What's The Future Of RAF Aircraft?

F-35B Lightning jet on HMS Queen Elizabeth’s flight deck during her Westlant 19 (Picture: Royal Navy).

The Royal Air Force's future has been set out in the Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper, including both outgoing and expanded capabilities.

The Defence Command Paper lists the RAF's 'Integrated Force 2030', which features the following: Typhoon, F-35B, P-8A Poseidon, Voyager, C-17 Globemaster, A400M Atlas, Rivet Joint, Shadow, Protector, E-7A Wedgetail, Red Arrows, CH-47 Chinook, Medium Lift Helicopter, RAF Force Protection Wings.

While the Government report has outlined what the next decades could look like for the RAF, it has also referenced capabilities Russia and China are developing, and what impact that could have on the UK.

The Defence Command Paper says China is developing a "full spectrum" of fighter jets, armed drones and pursuing the same ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Targeting Acquisition and Reconnaissance) capability as Britain, while Russia already has the air defence system to fend off UK aircraft in the Middle East.

The report stresses the need for the UK to "contest and even dominate airspace", which has been a factor in what is described as the "future battlefield".

Fighter Jets

The UK currently has 21 F-35Bs, with the Defence Command Paper outlining plans to increase the fleet "beyond the 48 aircraft that we have already ordered".

The commitment for 48 Lightnings is due to be met by 2025, although the more long-term "upper limit" target of 138 jets is not mentioned in the report.

Each Lighting jet costs upwards of £90m, and with both British and American jets having already joined the UK's Carrier Strike Group.

The Defence Command Paper added that further weapons will be integrated on to the aircraft, with investment made "to ensure that its software and capability are updated alongside the rest of the global F-35 fleet".

Watch: How will the RAF look in 2040?

The UK's oldest, 'tranche one' Typhoons will be retired in 2025, although the RAF will fully establish seven Typhoon squadrons.

The 'SPEAR 3' precision weapon will be incorporated on to the aircraft, with investment made in the Radar 2 programme.

Hawk T1 training aircraft used by RAF and Royal Navy frontline units are also set to be retired in the coming years.

While China develops fourth and fifth-generation fighters, the UK will invest £2 billion over four years in the Tempest programme – featuring a sixth-generation jet, built to replace the Typhoon in 2035.

Also known as the Future Combat Air System, the Tempest programme will contain optionally-manned and autonomous aspects, including drone swarms.

It is understood the pilots may fly a central aircraft, flanked by smaller, less costly, less capable planes known at this stage as Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA), which could act as decoys or feed information to the pilot.

New research into similar technology, known as 'loyal wingman', has received £30m investment and hopes to test-fly the concept within four years.

Drones And Surveillance

While unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) may feature in British fighter jet programmes, the entire military is reshaping to prioritise a greater ISTAR capability.

Intelligence gathered by drones or UAVs can be paired with precision fire in a way that threatens the future of tanks and armoured vehicles, experts say.

To keep pace with a redefined battlefield, 16 Protector drones will replace nine Reaper aircraft by 2024.

Watch: How will Tempest transform the RAF?

Protector will use enhanced data links and carry next-generation, precision-strike weapons – the UK-made Brimstone missile (MBDA) and the Paveway IV Laser Guided Bomb (Raytheon UK) – all controlled by personnel at RAF Waddington.

Meanwhile, manned surveillance will see the E-3 Sentry replaced by three E-7 Wedgetail aircraft in 2023, the latter based at RAF Lossiemouth.

Based on a standard Boeing 737 airliner, the modified Wedgetail carries a Northrop Grumman Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array radar which can cover four million square kilometres over a 10-hour period, feeding information to warships and jets.

The Rivet Joint aircraft will also survive to see 2030, following recent upgrades in the US.

Nine P-8A Poseidons will operate from RAF Lossiemouth to secure waters from above, the Boeing 737-800-inspired aircraft equipped with sensors and weapons systems designed for anti-submarine warfare.


The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the value of large transport aircraft in delivering medical support as well as personnel where needed, although experts had predicted cuts to the fleet in coming decades.

According to the DCP, the C-130J Hercules aircraft will be retired in 2023, with the capability transitioned to the C-17 and 22 A400M aircraft.

The British Aerospace 146, which flies VIPs, will be retired by 2040.

The CH-47 Chinook and a medium-lift helicopter capability are set to continue in the coming decades.

By 2040, one vision for the RAF is that it will operate a smaller number aircraft which then work with, or direct, a great many drones and robot airframes in roughly a 20/80 ratio.

Cover image: An F-35B Lightning jet on HMS Queen Elizabeth's flight deck during her Westlant 19 mission (Picture: Royal Navy).

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