RAF has smallest combat force in history with fewest fighter jets

RAF has smallest combat force in history with fewest fighter jets

The RAF now has the smallest combat fleet in its history having lost nearly half its aircraft in the last twelve years, MailOnline can reveal. Britain

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The RAF now has the smallest combat fleet in its history having lost nearly half its aircraft in the last twelve years, MailOnline can reveal.

Britain’s new supersonic F-35 Lightning fighter jets have just completed their first operational missions – rooting out the remnants of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in 14 sorties over the past ten days.

But following the retirement earlier this year of the last of the Air Force’s beloved Tornados, the UK’s 17 Lightnings are part of a forward available fleet of just 119 fast attack jets, down 43 per cent from 210 in 2007.

It leaves the air force smaller than at any time since its creation during the First World War. 

The RAF said number of aircraft does not equate to capability and it has the jets it needs to meet its commitments.

But military analysts have warned that whatever the sophisticated capabilities of the fourth- and fifth-generation planes of which the fleet is now comprised, ‘no aircraft, no matter how capable, can be in more than one place at any time’.

The RAF's fleet of combat jets is now the smallest in the service's history, down to 119 aircraft from 210 just 12 years ago

The RAF's fleet of combat jets is now the smallest in the service's history, down to 119 aircraft from 210 just 12 years ago

The RAF’s fleet of combat jets is now the smallest in the service’s history, down to 119 aircraft from 210 just 12 years ago

For 2007 the graphic above amalgamates the RAF's 106 Tornado GRs and 59 Tornado F3s

For 2007 the graphic above amalgamates the RAF's 106 Tornado GRs and 59 Tornado F3s

For 2007 the graphic above amalgamates the RAF’s 106 Tornado GRs and 59 Tornado F3s

The numerical decline of the RAF to little more than double-figure fighter numbers is the latest chapter in a contraction which has been going on for decades. 

During the second world war close to 35,000 Spitfires and Hurricanes were produced in six years to help win the Battle of Britain and then reclaim the skies of occupied Europe.

In 1989, the final year of the Cold War, the RAF still had more than 850 fighters, interceptors, and fighter-bombers with the power to meet the might of the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies should the worst happen. 

The fleet was comprised of Tornados, Jaguars, Phantoms, and Buccaneers as well as more than 170 Harrier jump jets with the ability to take off and land vertically.

And as recently as April 2007 the RAF’s forward available fleet – planes available to fly which are not undergoing long-term maintenance or held in reserve – still comprised 210 fixed-wing fast attack jets. 

The supersonic F-35 Lightnings have carried out 14 sorties in the past ten days as part of the hunt for the remains of ISIS

The supersonic F-35 Lightnings have carried out 14 sorties in the past ten days as part of the hunt for the remains of ISIS

The supersonic F-35 Lightnings have carried out 14 sorties in the past ten days as part of the hunt for the remains of ISIS

The Tornado GR4, pictured, was the Royal Air Force's workhorse for 40 years but the last aircraft were retired in the spring

The Tornado GR4, pictured, was the Royal Air Force's workhorse for 40 years but the last aircraft were retired in the spring

The Tornado GR4, pictured, was the Royal Air Force’s workhorse for 40 years but the last aircraft were retired in the spring

The Tornado was conceived in the 1960s, based on work by Sir Barnes Wallis.  They entered service in 1979 and retired this year (above) leaving the fleet smaller than ever

The Tornado was conceived in the 1960s, based on work by Sir Barnes Wallis.  They entered service in 1979 and retired this year (above) leaving the fleet smaller than ever

The Tornado was conceived in the 1960s, based on work by Sir Barnes Wallis.  They entered service in 1979 and retired this year (above) leaving the fleet smaller than ever

The RAF’s workhorse, the Tornado, the last of which were retired earlier this year, made up more than 75 per cent of the fleet.

By 2007 the RAF also had 32 of the fourth-generation Eurofighter Typhoon craft:  faster, more maneuverable, and more heavily armed that the Tornado. 

Twelve years on, the combat fleet no longer contains any Tornados, and is comprised mainly of the Typhoon FGR4, of which the RAF had 102 available in a recent snapshot. It is also expecting delivery of two additional squadrons later this year.

And 17 of the fifth-generation supersonic stealth fighters, the Lightning F-35B, are now in active service – although eight are in the USA undergoing ongoing trials and training.

The Typhoon can now carry the powerful Brimstone missiles which were formerly the preserve of the Tornado, and the stealth F35 Lightning took to the skies for the first time this spring

The Typhoon can now carry the powerful Brimstone missiles which were formerly the preserve of the Tornado, and the stealth F35 Lightning took to the skies for the first time this spring

The Typhoon can now carry the powerful Brimstone missiles which were formerly the preserve of the Tornado, and the stealth F35 Lightning took to the skies for the first time this spring

The Ministry of Defence declined to answer FOI requests on the size of its fleet following the retirement of the last Tornados this spring.

But detailed national statistic reports published annually, alongside historical data, reveal how the numerical strength of Britain’s forward available fleet has shrunk almost every year for more than a decade, to a fraction of its numerical strength in the era around the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War.

Aircraft fleets across the world are broken down into the Forward Available Fleet and the Sustainment Fleet, with the FAF comprised of aircraft available to the squadrons for flying and the SF including aircraft undergoing depth maintenance, upgrade programmes, and those held in storage. A split of two-thirds of aircraft in the available fleet and one-third in the sustainment fleet is considered standard.

Britain's newest fighter jets have taken part their first operational missions but the RAF they join is smaller than ever

Britain's newest fighter jets have taken part their first operational missions but the RAF they join is smaller than ever

Britain’s newest fighter jets have taken part their first operational missions but the RAF they join is smaller than ever

The UK has pledged to buy a total of 138 F-35B Lightnings but even the first batch, of 48, will not be fully delivered until 2024 at a cost of more than £9bn.

Warning of the potential for the RAF fleet to dip to an all-time numerical low before the full complement of Lightnings arrive in the 2020s, defence exerts IHS Jane’s predicted four years ago that the fleet might shrink to 127 fighter jets before growing again – in fact it is even smaller than they feared.

Jane’s aviation desk editor Gareth Jennings said at the time: ‘While there is some validation to the argument that, because the Tranche 2 and 3A Typhoons and the F-35Bs are more capable aircraft than those that came before them, fewer will be needed, it is also very true that no aircraft, no matter how capable, can be in more than one place at any time.’

F35s can travel at miles a minute and carry 500lb Paveway IV bombs as well as air-to-air missiles. They are capable of short take- off and vertical landing

F35s can travel at miles a minute and carry 500lb Paveway IV bombs as well as air-to-air missiles. They are capable of short take- off and vertical landing

F35s can travel at miles a minute and carry 500lb Paveway IV bombs as well as air-to-air missiles. They are capable of short take- off and vertical landing

An RAF spokesman said: ‘Numbers of aircraft do not equate to capability.

‘The RAF continues to have the fighter jets it needs to meet our global operational commitments and we are investing in a world class air force to counter the threats we will face in the future.

‘Our state-of-the-art F-35 Lightning Jets have completed their first operations in the fight against Daesh, we have upgraded our Typhoons with additional lethal weapons and we will add two new Typhoons squadrons by the end of the year.’

The MOD said in the coming years F35 numbers will increase to 138 and that with the combination of Typhoon and Lightning, the RAF is now one of the few air forces with the ability to exploit the synergy of 4th and 5th generation combat aircraft. 

It said the UK remains fully committed to the fight against Daesh and the RAF’s contribution to the global coalition.

Downward direction: in 2007 the earliest year for which the MOD has recently published figures the fast attack fleet comprised 210 aircraft but a snapshot of available aircraft earlier this year put the number at 119

Downward direction: in 2007 the earliest year for which the MOD has recently published figures the fast attack fleet comprised 210 aircraft but a snapshot of available aircraft earlier this year put the number at 119

Downward direction: in 2007 the earliest year for which the MOD has recently published figures the fast attack fleet comprised 210 aircraft but a snapshot of available aircraft earlier this year put the number at 119

Those Magnificent Men: a history of the RAF from biplanes to Lightnings

On December 17, 1903, in a field outside Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright showed the world that fixed-wing powered flight of a heavier-than-air craft was possible – and changed warfare forever.

Just eight years later in October 1911 the Italian army used planes in its battles with Ottoman Turkey which prompted Britain to create, in April 1912, the Royal Flying Corps, with the Air Battalion as its military wing.

It was the brave airmen of the Royal Flying Corps who took to the skies over the blood-soaked fields of Belgium to do battle with German flying aces like the infamous Red Baron.

An Royal Flying Corps officer in the First World War, with his Sopwith Snipe biplane

An Royal Flying Corps officer in the First World War, with his Sopwith Snipe biplane

An Royal Flying Corps officer in the First World War, with his Sopwith Snipe biplane

The Corps’ biplanes, including the iconic Sopwith Camel, were kept aloft by a single propeller and the plane’s machine gun, fired from the open cockpit, was engineered to shoot its bullets through the propeller between rotations.

When the RAF was founded in April 1918 out of the Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, Britain became the first country in the world to have an independent air force – and one which already had more than 20,000 aircraft and 300,000 personnel.

In the lean and largely peaceful inter-war years the need for a separate air force was frequently questioned but the RAF clung on and then expanded rapidly as conflict with Germany loomed.

An RAF airfield in 1939. Tens of thousands of fighter planes were built during the war

An RAF airfield in 1939. Tens of thousands of fighter planes were built during the war

An RAF airfield in 1939. Tens of thousands of fighter planes were built during the war

Pictured: a Mk V Spitfire in 1941. The battle of Britain was won by the RAF flying Spitfires and Hurricanes. Their victory prevented a German invasion

Pictured: a Mk V Spitfire in 1941. The battle of Britain was won by the RAF flying Spitfires and Hurricanes. Their victory prevented a German invasion

Pictured: a Mk V Spitfire in 1941. The battle of Britain was won by the RAF flying Spitfires and Hurricanes. Their victory prevented a German invasion 

Aerial battle: A Spitfire flies past the window of a German Heinkel HE-111 bomber, 1941

Aerial battle: A Spitfire flies past the window of a German Heinkel HE-111 bomber, 1941

Aerial battle: A Spitfire flies past the window of a German Heinkel HE-111 bomber, 1941

Tens of thousands of planes, including around 20,000 Spitfires and 15,000 Hurricanes were produced between 1939 and 1945, but the RAF’s defining moment came early in the war, over the skies of Kent in 1940.

Luftwaffe pilots fought for air supremacy which would allow a sea-borne German invasion of Britain to avoid being bombed to the bottom of the English Channel. 

But the RAF’s few-thousand pilots triumphed, leading Churchill famously to say that ‘never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many, to so few.’

An RAF plane flew at less than 100 feet to take this reconnaissance photo of the Knapsack power station in the German industrial heartlands. Destroying German means of production was a key war aim of the RAF

An RAF plane flew at less than 100 feet to take this reconnaissance photo of the Knapsack power station in the German industrial heartlands. Destroying German means of production was a key war aim of the RAF

An RAF plane flew at less than 100 feet to take this reconnaissance photo of the Knapsack power station in the German industrial heartlands. Destroying German means of production was a key war aim of the RAF

Aerial photograph of an RAF attack on German warships docked at Brest, France

Aerial photograph of an RAF attack on German warships docked at Brest, France

Aerial photograph of an RAF attack on German warships docked at Brest, France

Later in the war Bomber Command mounted increasingly large-scale raids, often involving more than 1,000 aircraft at a time, to decimate German centres of manufacturing and production.

They also carried out firebombing raids on German cities including Dresden, result in the loss of tens of thousands of civilian lives.

At its peak during World War II, there were over one million RAF servicemen.

Following the demobilization after World War II, the RAF has steadily declined in numbers and the RAF changed with the development of jet fighters and nuclear weapons.

Between 1958 and 1968 the RAF’s bomber squadron took sole responsibility for carrying the UK’s nuclear deterrent, before it was passed to the Navy’s Polaris submarines (the forerunner of Trident).

The primary role of the RAF in the Cold War years was the defence of Western Europe against potential attack by the USSR with many squadrons based in West Germany.

In 1985 the RAF still had around 90,000 personnel, down from 150,000 in the 1950s. 

Final Flight for the Harrier Jump Jet, RAF Cottesmore, Rutland, December 2010

Final Flight for the Harrier Jump Jet, RAF Cottesmore, Rutland, December 2010

Final Flight for the Harrier Jump Jet, RAF Cottesmore, Rutland, December 2010

Both the RAF and the Royal Navy were augmented through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s by the iconic British-made Harrier jump jet, which was capable of vertical take-off and landing.

The 1982 Falklands conflict was fought mainly by the Navy (and the planes of the Fleet Air Arm) and Army; the south Atlantic battlefields being out of reach of friendly airbases.

But during the first Gulf War, more than 100 RAF aircraft joined the coalition which pushed Saddam Hussein back out of Kuwait, using new precision-guided missiles, and RAF jets patrolled the internationally-enforced no fly zones for years afterwards.

RAF planes also enforced no-fly zones over Bosnia during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, and RAF Harriers and Tornados joined the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.

British United Nations Peace Keeping forces in Bosnia in the 1990s. Pictured: RAF Tornados and pilots at Gioia del Colle base, near Bari, Italy, waiting to be deployed

British United Nations Peace Keeping forces in Bosnia in the 1990s. Pictured: RAF Tornados and pilots at Gioia del Colle base, near Bari, Italy, waiting to be deployed

British United Nations Peace Keeping forces in Bosnia in the 1990s. Pictured: RAF Tornados and pilots at Gioia del Colle base, near Bari, Italy, waiting to be deployed

An RAF Tornado in Cyprus in April 2018, when the UK, US and France launched strikes in Syria to punish President Assad for an apparent chemical attack against civilians

An RAF Tornado in Cyprus in April 2018, when the UK, US and France launched strikes in Syria to punish President Assad for an apparent chemical attack against civilians

An RAF Tornado in Cyprus in April 2018, when the UK, US and France launched strikes in Syria to punish President Assad for an apparent chemical attack against civilians

By the late 1990s the RAF had halved in size again, down to around 50,000 personnel.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq saw saw a large RAF deployment to the Gulf, including RAF strike aircraft, and in the aftermath of the invasion RAF helicopters were based at Basra in the British-controlled south of the country.

Most recently, RAF Tornados, Typhoons, and in the last two weeks F-35B Lightning jets have been deployed to the middle east in the fight against ISIS.

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