As the aerial warfare branch of the UK military, the RAF is unique in being both the most recent part of the UK Armed Forces and essentially the first official air force in the world.
In fact, the Finnish Air Force was established three weeks prior to the Royal Air Force, but only by the arrival of a single plane to the city of Vaasa.
Since its inception in April 1918, the RAF, by contrast, could boast of already having a large array of military aircraft. It was, after all, the product of a merger between the RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service) and the Army’s RFC (Royal Flying Corps), which had both existed since 1914 and 1912, respectively.
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In fact, by the end of World War 1, the RAF was the largest air force in existence, with 291,170 personnel and 22,647 aircraft in 133 squadrons and 15 flights.
As of 2021, the MOD lists 555 fixed-wing aircraft as being in its possession, as well as 285 drones and 301 helicopters. Some of these are used by (and to train) those in the Army and Royal Navy, though the vast majority are flown by the RAF.
The RAF also has 33,840 Regular and Reserve personnel as of 2021 performing 63 different roles - as compared to over 30,000 for the Royal Navy and 112,000 for the Army.
Though smaller than its 1918 version, today’s Royal Air Force is a complex service that utilises traditional as well as cutting-edge aircraft and technology. This complexity is reflected within its organisation, something that will be examined here.
Squadrons, Flights And Other Units
To get a better understanding of how the Royal Air Force is organised, it is useful to compare it to the Army.
This is because, despite being complex itself, and much larger than the RAF, Army organisation is best understood by focusing on its regiments and battalions. These have been the traditional building blocks of the Army, and to a large degree they still are – with geographically based regiments recruiting a series of battalions bearing the regimental name. For instance, 1 Battalion, Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry; 2 Battalion, Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry (as an historical example); or 1 Battalion, The Rifles; 2 Battalion, The Rifles (as a present-day example.)
Once recruited, battalions have usually taken on certain traditions and a sense of belonging associated with the parent regiment, as well as fighting to maintain and improve its reputation. They have also normally performed certain kinds of specialist roles, being, for instance, tank, artillery or infantry battalions (or, within the infantry, light infantry, mechanised infantry, etc.) Though, in the case of non-infantry battalions, it has often been commonplace for the term ‘regiment’ to be used instead of battalion (i.e. the Royal Tank Regiment and 101 Regiment Royal Artillery today, to give two examples.)
In a similar way, squadrons have always been (and still are) the main building block of the RAF. They too give their members not only a key unit around which to be organised, but also a sense of belonging, traditions and a service history all associated with the squadron. And they too have specific roles, such as flying combat jets, or certain helicopters.
Of course, regiments and squadrons are also very different in composition. Historically, the infantry battalions recruited by the Army’s regimental system have usually had around 1,000 men, while they have between 500 and 600 personnel today.
Squadrons, meanwhile, have historically been organised around a certain number of the same kind of aircraft. In the case of combat squadrons in today’s RAF, there are often 12 aircraft in each squadron, though historically there might have been more.
The term squadron also encompasses far more today than groups of combat aircraft, those who fly them and the associated support and maintenance personnel on the ground. Indeed, some squadrons exist only on the ground, in that they do not even have aircraft. Squadrons certainly can be and still are based around combat aircraft, though they might also perform other roles such as reconnaissance, training and equipment testing.
As an example of just how widely the term squadron applies, there is even an RAF Regiment that exists as part of the Force Protection Force (FPF.) This provides security to aircraft on runways and bases when they are serving overseas. Instead of battalions or companies, the RAF Regiment has squadrons, though these squadrons are not organised around the flying and maintaining of a dozen aircraft. Instead, they contain 171 ground troops (known as ‘gunners’, not soldiers) whose job it is the guard the aircraft of other squadrons.
Squadrons, like battalions, are also subdivided. Whereas Army battalions have companies, platoons and sections within them, the subdivision of a squadron is a flight.
In the case of a combat aircraft squadron, it is normal for there to be two flights of six aircraft each with the squadron, though again this varies considerably depending on the kind of squadron. Within squadrons that come from the RAF Regiment, for instance, a flight is like a platoon within an Army infantry battalion (i.e. a unit of about 40 ground troops.)
Other smaller RAF units are HQ (headquarters) formations as well as its 32 separate specialised units.
While RAF specialised units often are small, they may also be very large. Specialised units can range in size from just a few personnel up to the 900 individuals. This is the size of 90 Signals Unit, which exists to provide those in the RAF with information and communication while they are deployed on operations.
While Army battalions have numbers, the main difference between them is their regimental names.
The opposite is true with RAF Squadrons, which all have numbers, and occasionally names (i.e. 617 “Dambusters” Squadron), while some have letters, such as (F) for Fighter, (B) for Bomber and (AC) for Army Co-operation squadron.
The numbering behind RAF squadrons can be confusing, particularly since some squadrons use the kinds of Arabic-based numerals normally used today (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4 etc), while others use Roman numerals (i.e. I, II, III, IV etc.)
This makes more sense when it is remembered that squadrons have specific service histories, some that go back to the pre-RAF days of the RFC and RNAS in World War One, and some that were created years later. Each one being its own unit, standardisation of numbering, and the more common practice today of using Arabic over Roman numerals, has not always been uniformly adopted.
Whether they use Arabic or Roman numerals, squadrons also do not exist today in a complete sequence. This is because squadrons, as well as other RAF units, can and have been ‘stood up’ or ‘stood down’ (i.e. created or re-created, or disbanded.)
The same is true of the Army, with its Field Army having 1 Division, 3 Division and 6 Division, with 2, 4 or 5 Divisions no longer in existence.
One prominent example of a squadron being stood down and then reinstated is the recent case of 617 Squadron, which is famous for having conducted the “Dambusters” raid during World War 2. It was disbanded in 2014, but then re-established in 2018 and now flies the F-35 Lightning.
Listed below are the 87 squadrons currently in the RAF, with the histories and roles of some example squadrons examined afterwards.
1 (F) Squadron, II (AC) Squadron, 3 (F) Squadron, IV Squadron, 6 Squadron, 7 Squadron, 8 Squadron, IX (B) Squadron, 10 Squadron, XI (F) Squadron, 12 Squadron, 13 Squadron, 14 Squadron, 16 Squadron, 17 Squadron, 18 Squadron, 22 Squadron, XXIV Squadron, XXV (F) Squadron, 28 Squadron, 29 Squadron, 30 Squadron, 32 Squadron, 33 Squadron, 39 Squadron, 41 Squadron, 45 Squadron, 47 Squadron, 51 Squadron, 54 Squadron, 56 Squadron, LVII Squadron, 60 Squadron, LXX Squadron, 72 Squadron, 84 Squadron, 92 Squadron, 99 Squadron, 100 Squadron, 101 Squadron, 115 Squadron, CXX Squadron, 202 Squadron, 206 Squadron, 207 Squadron, 230 Squadron, 617 Squadron
Royal Auxiliary Air Force (RAUXAF) Squadrons:
501 Squadron RAUXAF, 502 Squadron RAUXAF, 504 Squadron RAUXAF, 505 Squadron RAUXAF, 600 Squadron RAUXAF, 601 Squadron RAUXAF, 602 Squadron RAUXAF, 603 Squadron RAUXAF, 605 Squadron RAUXAF, 606 Squadron RAUXAF, 607 Squadron RAUXAF, 609 Squadron RAUXAF, 611 Squadron RAUXAF, 612 Squadron RAUXAF, 614 Squadron RAUXAF, 616 Squadron RAUXAF, 622 Squadron RAUXAF, 4624 Squadron RAUXAF, 4626 Squadron RAUXAF, 7006 Squadron RAUXAF, 7010 Squadron RAUXAF, 7630 Squadron RAUXAF, 7644 Squadron RAUXAF
RAF Police And Raf Regiment Squadrons:
1 Tactical Police Squadron, 3 Tactical Police Squadron, 5 RAF police (ISTAR) Squadron, 6 RAF Police (Lightning) Squadron
1 Squadron RAF Regiment, II Squadron RAF Regiment, 11 Squadron RAF Regiment, 15 Squadron RAF Regiment, 27 Squadron RAF Regiment, 34 Squadron RAF Regiment, 51 Squadron RAF Regiment, 63 Squadron RAF Regiment
2503 Squadron RAUXAF Regiment, 2620 Squadron RAUXAF Regiment, 2622 Squadron RAUXAF Regiment, 2623 Squadron RAUXAF Regiment, 2624 Squadron RAUXAF Regiment (these are reserve regiments that have RAF Regiment and RAF Police in a combined Force Protection role)
Example Squadrons (Histories And Current Roles):
1 (F – Fighter) Squadron is the oldest flying squadron still in service and it can trace its history back as the founding squadron of the Army’s Royal Flying Corps in 1912. Today it flies Typhoons out of RAF Lossiemouth, one of the UK’s two Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) stations. Click here to see an example of a QRA mission used for international policing.
29 Squadron was created in 1915 and fought in the First World War, going on to perform as a defensive night fighter and then offensive night intruder squadron (protecting bombers during night raids) in World War 2. It now functions as a training unit for pilots getting to grips with the Typhoon combat aircraft.
30 Squadron was the first Aerial Delivery Squadron, bringing supplies by air to soldiers being besieged in Iraq in 1916. Having performed an administrative role since 2016, it reformed as flight squadron in 2021 and now flies the A400M Atlas, which is used for tactical airlifting duties.
39 Squadron was established in 1916 to provide air defence for northeast London and one of its pilots (Lieutenant William Robinson – who is mentioned here) shot down a Zeppelin, the first time one had been shot down over British soil. The squadron also defended Britain against the final German bombing raid against Britain of the First World War, and operated over the Middle East, Italy and Greece during the Second World War. It was disbanded for the fourth time in 2006 but re-established the following year as the first squadron within the RAF to pilot drones.
92 Squadron formed in 1917 as a scout fighter squadron and later flew Spitfires. It first became a training squadron in 1992, and then went on to run the training and tactics element of the RAF’s Air Warfare Centre. This is located at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, a centre for ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) activities, and also the site of the Air Warfare Centre, which gives support to frontline commanders as well as providing training.
101 Squadron was formed in 1917 (before the creation of the RAF) and took part in all three of the 1,000-bomber raids during 1942, without losing a single one of its planes. Today it does air-to-air refuelling for other squadrons.
115 Squadron was involved in the first strategic bombing raids on Germany in 1918; it also began flying the American B-29 Superfortress in 1950. It now trains pilots for the Army, Navy and RAF.
230 Squadron was formed in 1918 and first flew Felixstowe F.2 and F.2A flying boats, though in 1962 it began flying Westland Whirlwind HC.10 helicopters, before moving on to pilot the Puma HC1 helicopter in 1972. Since 2014 it has flown the Puma HC2.
601 Squadron RAUXAF was established in 1925 as a light-bomber squadron but went on to fly Hurricanes (i.e. fighters) during the Battle of Britain. It flew another fighter, the Vampire jet, after the Second World War, and was ‘stood down’ as a flying squadron in 1957, then re-established as an RAF staff support unit (i.e. by providing specialist industry and business support to RAF staff) in 2017.
617 Squadron is the aforementioned “Dambusters” squadron, something that is reflected in its badge, which has an illustration of one of the Ruhr Valley dams that the Squadron breached in 1943. It was originally formed in that year for the purpose of the Ruhr Valley mission. Over its history it has been disbanded and re-formed twice and also flown the Vulcan bomber and Tornado. It now flies the RAF’s most recent and technologically advanced plane, the F-35B Lightening combat aircraft.
2623 Squadron RAUXAF Regiment was formed in 1979 to provide Cold-War-era protection to RAF Honington, and today still does force protection work. RAUXAF denotes the Royal Auxiliary Air Force (RAuxAF), a part of Her Majesty’s Reserve Air Forces that provides part-time, volunteer reinforcement for Regular RAF personnel.
Wings And Groups
The next unit up from a squadron is a wing.
Normally, wings are formed from three squadrons and based within one of the RAF’s various stations (i.e. ground locations, or baes) in the UK or abroad.
Like squadrons, wings too can be operational or tactical, or organised for activities like training, support and administration.
There are also EAWs (Expeditionary Air Wings) that, a bit like an Army battlegroup, are not regular RAF formations but are instead put together for a particular mission. They are composed of all the planes, pilots, crew and support staff required for a specific operation somewhere in the world.
There are currently five EAWs based overseas (Nos 901, 902 and 906 in the Middle East, 903 in Cyprus and 905 in the Falklands.) Furthermore, following operations abroad, EAWs are also sometimes retained within the UK where they often train for future re-deployments.
Force Protection Wings, meanwhile, consist of personnel from the RAF Regiment and RAF Police squadrons and they provide security for aircraft and their stations when on operation.
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The next level of organisation up from the wing is the group.
Groups contain a number of wings and are based around a number of different RAF stations if they are in the UK, or certain bases when abroad.
There are currently five groups within the RAF, four of which are based in the UK and provide certain capabilities (air combat, air combat support, multi-domain operations and training), and one of which is an expeditionary air group located in the Middle East (Qatar.) Expeditionary Air Groups are like larger versions of Expeditionary Air Wings, put together to perform roles in a particular campaign or within a particular region.
Additionally, the RAF also have smaller numbers of aircraft that fly to or are based in Gibraltar, Cyprus, Norway, the Falklands, Ascension Island and Mali. Four of these have overseas stations: RAF Akrotiri, RAF Ascension Island, RAF Mount Pleasant and RAF Gibraltar.
Like squadrons, the numbering of groups is not sequential and likewise reflects the way in which they have been created or disbanded over time, as requirements have dictated.
Each one of the RAF’s five groups currently in existence is outlined just below.
An Overview Of The RAF’s Five Groups:
No 1 Group – Air Combat
No 1 Group has 8,500 personnel who protect UK airspace, defend the Falklands, work with NATO and engage in ongoing training within the UK as well as in the Middle East, Europe and the US.
It controls four air forces within the RAF: the Lightening Force, which consists of the RAF’s most advanced fighter, the F-35B; the Typhoon Force, its other jet fighter aircraft; the Red Arrows, the RAF’s aerobatic unit; and ISTAR Force, which stands for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance and entails using both ground-based and air assets to gather data about possible enemy targets and analysing it all to help improve a combat commander’s situational awareness.
Stations where it is based (8 in total):
RAF Boulmer, RAF Coningsby, RAF Fylingdales (part of the Allied Space Surveillance Network and UK Space Command), RAF Lossiemouth, RAF Marham, RAF Scampton, RAF Spadeadam, RAF Waddington
No 2 Group – Air Combat Support
In contrast to No 1 Group, this group has a largely support role, having control of both the Air Mobility Force – which provides air-transport and airlifting for equipment and personnel as well as mid-air refuelling – as well as the RAF’s Force Protection elements, the RAF Regiment and RAF Police, both of which guard aircraft and personnel on ground. Support Force is also under command of No 2 Group, which has cyber, information, logistical and medical capabilities, as well as units performing niche roles such as mountain rescue and even music.
No 2 Group also conducts battlespace management, which the MOD describes as an effort to “ … understand, control and exploit the battlespace” while providing Air Command and Control of air policing operations around the UK and air-counter-terrorism operations abroad.
It also, the MOD says, supports “ … the delivery of Combat Air & Space Power for standing and contingent operations worldwide". Indeed, one station used by No 2 Group is RAF High Wycombe, the centre for UK Space Command.
Stations (12 in total):
Swanwick (78 Squadron), RAF Scampton, RAF Fylingdales, RAF Boulmer, RAF Benson, RAF Brize Norton, RAF Odiham, RAF Northolt, RAF Henlow, RAF Honington, RAF Wittering, RAF High Wycombe (this is the site of a number of RAF commands, including the centre for UK Space Command and the overall command of the RAF itself, Headquarters Air Command)
No 11 Group – Multi-Domain Operations
Conducting multi-domain operations essentially means that No 11 Group is involved in combining operations that have to do with the conventional air element of aerial combat, as well as the newer cyber and (emerging, potential) outer space aspects. It is also meant to be vigilant of any potential new threats in the future and it is the group in command of the Battlespace Management Force, which is behind the ASACS (Air Surveillance and Control System) within the UK. This largely information-based remit is why the group has a presence at two RAF stations but does not control any squadrons.
RAF High Wycombe, RAF Spadeadam
No 22 Group - Training
The role of No 22 Group is to provide the initial training for RAF officers, airmen and airwomen, as well as training for air cadets. It also does training in specialist flight, electro and mechanical engineering, communication and information systems and aeronautical engineering for those needing it across the three services (i.e. the Army and Navy as well as the RAF.)
Because of this, although its own personnel number is 3,800, with an addition 1,900 civilian employees, the group deals regularly with the 41,000 air cadets and 12,000 volunteers who work with them, and ends up training roughly 61,000 people a year across the 53 sites where it has a presence.
RAF College Cranwell, RAF Halton, MOD St Athan, RAF Valley, RAF Cosford, RAF Shawbury, RAF St Mawgan
No 83 Expeditionary Air Group
Based at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, No 83 Expeditionary Air Group is the only Expeditionary Air Group (EAG) currently in formation within the RAF. Precisely because it is an EAG rather than a UK-based group, it is subdivided into wings containing the necessary squadrons rather than its squadrons being located at various stations around the UK.
No 83 EAG’s role is to carry out Operation Shader, the air campaign against Islamic State, as well as more general UK defence objectives in the region.
901 Expeditionary Air Wing, 902 Expeditionary Air Wing, 903 Expeditionary Air Wing (based at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus), 906 Expeditionary Air Wing
If you enjoyed learning about Royal Air Force organisation, look out for more from the Know Your Air Force series on the different transport and training as well as combat, support and heritage aircraft used by the RAF. Click here for a look at the RAF’s most iconic historical aircraft.
Finally, for a podcast about historic aircraft used by the RAF, check out the show MavGeeks.
Cover image: An RAF parade in Llandudno, North Wales for Armed Forces Day, 2018 (picture: MOD)