A review of the RAF in its 75th anniversary year, by Paul Jackson.
OVERSHADOWED by the RAF’s 75th anniversary celebrations on April 1, is the 25th birthday of Strike Command on April 30 and the 50th anniversary of the Ruhr dams raid on May 16-17. For the RAF, it seems that great events proceed in 25-year cycles — and that is most certainly true today, as the service comes to grips with a further series of structural changes. Sadly for the aviation enthusiast, these are associated with cuts in the strength of the RAF on par with the years following the infamous 1957 Defence White Paper. Happily for the rest of mankind, the reductions are the reward for NATO having stood firm against the Warsaw Pact until its threat disappeared in the momentous upheavals of the previous four years.
Ironically, the RAF completed a building-up programme of combat squadrons in 1990, only to put the process into reverse with the Options for Change defence review. By 1995, it will have cut its manpower from 91,000 to 75,000; lost 14 operational squadrons (including half of those in Germany) and four RAF Regiment squadrons; and closed 19 UK and three German bases. Fighter strength has been reduced by 33%; ground attack aircraft by 38%; and maritime patrol aircraft by 25%.
Recent changes have penetrated as far as the second level of RAF organisation. Of the three former equal-status commands, Strike Command and Support Command remain, but RAF Germany disappeared on April 1 to become 2 Group, now subordinate to Strike Command. A further change, on November 1 lost, was the splitting-away of 1 Group’s tankers and transports to form 38 Group. Strike now comprises five groups and several direct-reporting units, including four geographical and three dedicated to research.
As an over-simplification, anything not in Strike Command is in Support Command. Due for re-organisation on April 1, 1994, this currently is divided into three areas, each under an Air Marshal: Training Units, Maintenance Units and Directly-Administered Units. There are no groups. The many duties of the command are illustrated by some if its components:
RAF Support Command, April 1, 1993
Central Flying School
Flying Training Schools
University Air Squadrons
Air Experience Flights
Air Cadets’ Central Gliding School
Volunteer Gliding Schools
Schools of Technical Training
Elements not in either of the two commands include the RAF Regiment, which is responsible for aspects such as airfield defence with AAA and Rapier SAMs. Its squadrons are attached to the appropriate groups.
Eight squadrons with a total establishment of 78 Tornado GR.1s and 27 Buccaneer S.2Bs form the strike/attack component of today’s RAF. At Bruggen, Germany, IX, 14, 17 and 31 Sqns remain from eight such units until recently based on the continent, their armoury including WEI 77 nuclear bombs, JP233 airfield-denial weapons and laser-guided bombs. IX was officially declared combat-ready with the ALARM anti-radar missile on January 1, even though the weapon was successfully used in the Gulf War two years earlier. Despite a late 1980s upgrade, the Buccaneer is to be phased-out from 12 and 208 Sqns over the next year, its Sea Eagle anti-ship missiles handed over to the two UK-based Tornado squadrons, currently 27 and 617 at Marham.
These two will begin moving to Lossiemouth on January 1,1994 and are to convert to maritime roles, their aircraft adopting the designation GR.1B and often carrying SFC 28-300 ‘buddy’ refuelling pods. Re-numbering will result in the Lossiemouth wing comprising 12 and 617 Sqns. Departure of the Buccaneer will also remove the raison d’etre of the last Hunters in RAF squadron service — the six based at Lossie for Buccaneer pilot training being due for withdrawal.
The Tornado Mid-Life Update (MLU) has been delayed, but is now expected to begin in 1996. To this end, the first of three trials aircraft, XZ631, will fly in mid-1993. Designated GR.4, the MLU aircraft will receive terrain-referenced navigation, an improved electronic warfare suite, a new HUD and other changes. However, a stand-off replacement for the WEI 77 is as far away as ever and is unlikely to materialise before 2005.
Five offensive support squadrons operate a total of 36 Harriers and 30 Jaguars. As a result of the Gulf War, the weaponry of these units has undergone a change since Jaguars began augmenting their low-level weaponry (BL755 cluster bombs and retarded 1,000lb/450kg bombs) with ordnance to be released at medium altitude. The CRV-7 rocket and CBU-87 bomb were used by Jaguars against Iraq in 1991 and issued to Harriers earlier this year. All three Harrier units — 1 Sqn at Wittering and German-based 3 and IV (which moved from Gutersloh to Loarbruch last November) — have now received the night-capable GR.7 from either new production (complete since May 1992) or conversion of GR.5s.
In preparation for their replacement — in April — of the Jaguar detachment watching over northern Iraq from Incirlik, Turkey, Harriers have gained reconnaissance pods during recent weeks. The units will take turns to provide the Incirlik detachment for two months at a time. First to be fully night-qualified is No 1, which worked-up during the winter months. As a whole, the Harrier force is placing less emphasis on short-range operations from dispersed sites and training more for medium-distance interdiction against battlefield targets.
Strike Command’s five reconnaissance squadrons have a broad variety of equipment. The venerable Canberra PR.9 serves at Wyton, where the former 1 PRU benefited from the recently-adopted policy of allocating Reserve Sqn numbers to OCUs and other units and is now known as 39 (1 PRU) Sqn. Wyton will close next year and transfer the remaining five Canberras to Waddington. In an operational role are II and 13 Sqns with a total of 26 Tornado GR.1As recording their imagery totally on video tape, and 41 Sqn flying 14 Jaguar GR.1As with more traditional ‘wet film’ recce pods. Like its sister attack squadrons at Coltishall, 41 is assigned to rapid reinforcement abroad on NATO or UK tasks, but has spent the last two years providing detachments to Incirlik. Tornado recce assets will concentrate at Marham when 13 moves-in from Honington in June. Finally, 51 Sqn’s three Nimrod R.1s at Wyton are used for gathering electronic intelligence — this year being the first that the MoD has admitted that they are not used for ‘calibration’.
Remaining Nimrods of the MR.2 persuasion have been concentrated at Kinloss since last September, although St Mawgan remains a base for detachments. Three squadrons now operational in the maritime reconnaissance role (120, 201 and 206) share a pool of 26 aircraft. Russia’s less offensive stance of late has left the Nimrods with very few of their former surface and sub-surface ‘customers’.
Despite reports of several threatened disbandments, the air defence force is expected to suffer the disappearance of, at most, one squadron in the coming months from 5, 11, 23, 25, 29, 43 and 111. Reliant entirely on the Tornado F.3 since the last Phantoms were retired (apart from for ceremonial purposes) in October, the seven home-based squadrons are building their unit establishments from 13 to 18 aircraft, but that may be changed yet again. Delivery is imminent of the lost RAF Tornado F.3 (ZH559, one of eight originally laid-down for Oman).
The Stage 1 improvement of the Tornado F.3 force has now been retrofitted, bringing the fleet to a minimally-acceptable standard with particular reference to the previously unsatisfactory radar. Stage 2, upgrading radar from ‘AA’ to ‘AB’ standard, was originally slated for about now, but has receded into the future. However, the aircraft are soon to get the definitive defensive aids package of Vinten VICON 78 under-fuselage Bare dispensers and Bofors BOL304 chaff dispensers in the rear of the Sidewinder rails.
Long-delayed incorporation of the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS) will begin shortly, starting with aircraft between ZG751 and ZH559. This will foreshadow another general swap-round of Tornados as the JTIDS aircraft will initially be based at Coningsby before going to other units.
JTIDS is being tested in Sentry AEW.l ZH107 prior to incorporation in all seven aircraft of Waddington’s 8 Sqn. Declared to NATO as operational on Jury 1, 1992, the squadron has already seen operational service monitoring the skies of former Yugoslavia.
The Sentry is the only aircraft now in service which will probably still be in the RAF when it celebrates its centenary. The Tornado F.3 remains unsuited to the post-Warsaw Pact defence scene and so initial Eurofighter 2000s will go to 11 Group, instead of first replacing the Jaguar offensive support force. Service-entry for the Eurofighter has been put back another two years (to 2000) by Germany’s financial problems, but last year’s real threat of the programme collapsing after a German withdrawal appears to have teen overcome.
Ground-based air defence provided by the RAF Regiment is also contracting. Two of the four Germany-based squadrons of Rapier SAMs remain at Loarbruch (26) and Bruggen (37), the others having disbanded when Gutersloh and Wildenrath were closed. Impending closure of West Raynham and the departure of USAF units from England will result in no less than four Rapier squadrons being based at Honington by early 1994: 16, 19, 20 and 66 — all except the first (a training unit) operating equipment belonging to the USA. Leeming (15), Leuchors (27) and Lossiemouth (48) are also defended by Rapier, but the ex-Argentine Oerlikon 35mm radar-directed AM of 2729 and 2890 Sqns RAuxAF Regiment are shortly to be withdrawn. They might be replaced by Rapier — the first to be assigned to the Auxiliaries. Meanwhile, 48 Sqn is preparing to be the first to receive Rapier Field Standard C in 1994. The system, marketed abroad as Rapier 2000, has several changes including a new launcher with eight missiles instead of the current B-Standard’s four.
Tankers & transports
Final links with the first UK nuclear deterrent force will be severed in October when 55 Sqn disbands at Marham. Built to a 1946 specification, the unit’s Victors retired from bombing duties in 1969 and are now used only as tankers. The eight remaining aircraft are being supplanted by further conversions of VC10s: five K.4s due to emerge from BAe at Filton shortly and the 13 transports of 10 Sqn, of which the first flew after tanker modifications at Hum on June 11, 1992. Neither has additional fuselage fuel tanks. The K.4s will join 101 Sqn’s five K.2s and four K.3s at Brize Norton, from where it is reported that all VC10s will soon go grey overall.
Also at Brize, 216 Sqn’s Tristars have relinquished most of their tanker commitment and are engaged largely on freight and passenger carrying. The squadron’s eighth aircraft — one of the three passenger-only C.2s — still has not been converted for RAF use. The remaining 13 transport units have a total establishment of 49 Hercules (of 61 remaining), the previously-mentioned 13 VC10 C.l(K)s, 23 Chinooks, 33 Pumas, 26 Wessex, five Gazelles, 12 BAe 125s, eight Andovers and three BAe 146s. Following the 125s, the Andovers have just begun adopting low-viz grey.
Having just moved from Gutersloh to Loarbrucn, 2 Group’s helicopter squadron (18) now has a diminished strength of five Pumas and five Chinooks, the remaining Pumas from here having permitted transfer of 230 Sqn to Aldergrove, which in turn allowed 60 Sqn to form with Wessex at Benson last June. Home-based 7 Sqn, the other operational Chinook user, is anticipating first arrivals in the UK of HC.2 versions of the helicopter following their conversion by Boeing between now and 1995. The first was due at Boscombe Down in March and, in all, 33 are being upgraded to approximate CH-47D standard, out retaining the RAF’s most comprehensive self-defence and night vision systems. Also at Odiham, 33 Sqn flies Pumas; whilst 72 at Aldergrove operates more Wessex.
Lyneham’s 24, 30, 47 and 70 Sqns are receiving Loral ALQ-157 infra-red jammers to protect their Hercules from some missile threats, but the promised ALR-66 radar warning receivers seem not yet to have arrived. Early steps are being taken to select a Hercules replacement which, like the Nimrod follow-on, could conceivably come from the former USSR if spares supply can be absolutely guaranteed. A year ago, 32 Sqn, the main VIP communications unit, added three ex-calibration Andover E.3As to its strength, which now also includes four straight-fuselage CC.2s, a dozen 125s and four Gozelles. The sole Islander CC.2 based at Northolt is attached to the Station Flight, having recently been augmented by a former trials Islander. Finally, The Queen’s Flight operates three 146s and two Wessex, the latter well overdue for replacement.
Wessex are to be withdrawn from the SAR role as deliveries begin of six extra Sea Kings, the run-down of 22 Sqn’s four flights actually having begun on April 1 when the Leuchars detachment stood-down. Moves in the Sea King force are initially restricted to the training flight transferring from RNAS Culdrose to RAF St Mawgan on April 1. However, by mid-1996, the four Wessex flights (11 aircraft) and five Sea King flights (15 aircraft) will have been reduced to six with 15 Sea King HAR.3s and six HAR.3As. The Mk 3A adds FUR and GPS to a revised avionics suite, but a little-noticed change effected in 1992-93 has been the issue of night vision goggles to 202 Sqn’s Sea King crews — a capability shortly to be gained by 22.
Three further squadrons lead a tenuous existence following the announcement of plans to privatise their functions. No 115 Sqn is now down to four navaids-checkinq Andover E.3s, the role of which is due to be allocated later this year to a civilian contractor which will have the option of operating the aircraft or providing its own. The Andovers have a wartime role of airborne radio relay. No 360 Sqn’s Canberra T. 17s, used to test friendly radar operators in an electronic jamming environment, are replaced by civilian aircraft in October 1994. At the same time, 100 Sqn’s Hawks may have their target-towing role usurped by contracted aircraft, but in the more immediate future the unit will move to Finningley by August.
Abroad, 1435 Flight on the Falkland Islands has recently been reinvigorated with four Tornado F.3s, but 1417 Flight in Belize is now the last operator of Harrier GR.3s. The Falklands also have a Hercules tanker and maritime surveillance flight (1312) and a combined Chinook/Sea King sqn (78). Wessex operate in Hong Kong (28 Sqn) and Cyprus (84 Sqn) whilst the Belize Puma helicopter support unit is 1563 Flight.
Flying training is in the throes of a profound modernisation involving imminent departure of the last Jet Provost, privatisation of elementary pilot training and compression of advanced and weapons training into a shorter course at a single unit. On July 8, a civilian-operated Joint Elementary FTS will be formed at Topcliffe to combine the EFTS (previously at Swinderby with Chipmunks) and the RAF-operated Royal Navy EFTS flying Bulldogs at Topcliffe. Hunting Aircraft has been selected to operate the JEFTS and began building up the unit on April 1. New equipment will comprise up to 20 civilian-registered Slingsby Fireflies, which will provide 54 hours of instruction for RAF trainees and 62 hours for future RN helicopter pilots.
Nos 1 and 3 FTSs are training all their new students on the Tucano, the last trainee having gone solo on the JP late last year. The syllabus is 146 hours as a follow-on to the Firefly course (or 130 for those with University Air Squadron experience) after which, students transfer to the Hawk. Nos 4 and 7 FTSs have just begun conducting identical ‘mirror image’ courses in which pilots undertake 65 hours of advanced flying and 35 hours of weapons and tactics work. This compares with 75 plus 54 hours under the old FTS/TWU system which disappeared in August when 2 TWU disbanded. The new training scheme has provoked controversy because students have less airborne time and the weapons element of the course has to be conducted on daily detachments away from base so that advanced personnel do not conflict with less experienced circuit-bashers.
The change has been used as a reason for dispensing with some of the old Reserve (or Shadow) squadrons and replacing them with recently-disbanded fighter units. As a result, the Howk world has recently been awash with new colours — additionally because of high-conspicuity’ trials involving all-block aircraft. The same has happened at Finningley, where the Jetstream-equipped Multi-Engine Training Sqn of 6 FTS has become 45 (Reserve) Sqn. The Jetstream course is 50 hours after 140 (or 123) on Tucanos.
In the past year, 6 FTS has acquired Hawks and Tucanos to replace its Jet Provosts and partner Dominies in the navigator training role. Eleven of the Dominies are being refurbished with new consoles for students and instructors, plus Thorn-EMI SuperSearcher radar, replacing the original Ekco El90. A few Bulldogs are used for the basic stages of navigator training.
Future helicopter pilots fly 63 h (or 49’/2) Tucano hours before reporting to Shawbury’s 2 FTS to train on Gazelles (88 hours) followed by Wessex (38 hours), those destined for the SAR world then go to the SAR Training Unit at Volley for 12 more Wessex hours, followed by a final four at Shawbury. Watching over flying standards throughout the RAF and providing instructors for a broad spectrum of aircraft types, the Central Flying School has its HQ at Scampton and detachments elsewhere. The Red Arrows continue to operate their Hawks from Scampton.
Numbered OCUs are now an endangered species, the move since 1992 being to give greater prominence to Reserve status and delete the numbers between 226 and 241. This will be completed in January 1994 when 240 OCU becomes 27 Sqn (Chinook and Puma) and 241 OCU becomes 55 Sqn (VC10). Currently, 240 OCU is without a permanent Chinook allocation as the result of many aircraft being on Boeing’s HC.2 conversion line.
Reserve squadrons currently performing an OCU role are XV (Tornado GR. 1), 16 (Jaguar), 20 (Harrier), 42 (Nimrod), 56 (Tornado F.3) and 57 (Hercules). Wyton’s 231 OCU disbanded on December 15, 1990: was reborn as the Canberra Standardisation & Training Flight in 1991; and then re-adopted its original title. It finally disappeared at the end of April, ending a record-breaking 41-year association with the some type of aircraft. Tornado GR.1 crews receive the first part of their training with the TTTE at Cottesmore, where Italian and German aircraft are also resident. The remainder of their training, which concentrates on weapons and tactics, is with XV Sqn, which moves from Honington to Lossiemouth this summer.
University Air Squadrons operate from 16 locations, each having between four and 10 Bulldogs from an allocation of 82. For the Air Cadets (Air Training Corps and Combined Cadet Force) 12 Air Experience Flights have between three and six Chipmunks each (total 51) and a 13th borrows Bulldogs. Gliding for ATC/CCF coders is controlled by the Air Cadets Central Gliding School and undertaken at 25 Volunteer Gliding Schools flying winch-launched Vikings or self-powered Vigilants. Membership of these voluntary organisations is open to young persons aged between 13 and 20.
This year’s celebrations will temporarily divert attention from the searching questions now being asked about the RAF’s role in the years to come. The risk has gone of it being thrown into an all-or-nothing conflict with the Warsaw Pact, but prospects are now greater for smaller-scale involvement in nasty, little wars both far and near. Having trained totally for low-level operations in Europe and developed weapons specifically for that task, the service was rudely reminded by Iraq that in certain circumstances low-down can be the most dangerous place of all. That fad will be seized upon by the anti-low-flying lobby, yet nobody knows what will be the game-plan tor the next small conflict, so proficiency in all areas will be demanded from training.
Cost savings at flying schools are resulting in aircrew arriving at their first squadrons with less airborne experience, so front-line squadrons will have to dilute their activities with more continuation training — frustrating the experienced crews. When the accountants begin looking at the extra manpower required by operations from hardened shelters, pressure will mount for a return to the traditional flight-line and, perhaps, even the anonymity of the centralised servicing adopted by V-Bomber stations in the 1960s. And, once the last Russian units leave eastern Germany next year, it will not be surprising if Berlin gives the RAF and USAF notice to quit as well. Further hard decisions are ahead, for the RAF will have to be increasingly versatile with decreasing resources in its fourth quarter-century.