Future of the Royal Air Force


The planning for the future of the Royal Air Force involves supporting ongoing British military operations,[1] the introduction of new aircraft types,[2] greater focus on network enabled capability and increasing interoperability with members of NATO.[1]

Combat Air

F-35 Lightning II

A quartet of Royal Air Force F-35Bs in flight.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is a family of single-seat, single-engine, fifth generation multirole fighters under development to perform ground attack, reconnaissance, and air defence missions with stealth capability. It was selected for the UK's Joint Combat Aircraft requirement in 2001 and is expected to enter service with the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force (RAF) from around 2020, having been selected initially to replace the Royal Navy's BAE Sea Harrier fighter, and latterly the existing Panavia Tornado GR.4 and Harrier GR.9 fleets (the latter already having been retired in late 2010), operating principally from the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.[3] It will be the main component of the RAF's manned strike capability, and marks the return of a carrier-borne strike capability for the Fleet Air Arm for the first time in nearly a decade.

The version initially selected was the Short Take Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant of the F-35, known as the F-35B. However, on 19 October 2010, David Cameron announced that the UK would change their order to the F-35C CATOBAR carrier variant for both the RAF and Navy. The F-35C variant features larger wings with folding wingtips and larger wing and tail control surfaces for improved low-speed control. This gives it a greater range and the ability to carry a larger and more diverse payload than the F-35B.[4]

In May 2012, it was announced that the government had reverted to the previous plan to operate the STOVL F-35B, due to rising estimated shipbuilding costs associated with the CATOBAR variant F-35C, and an earlier estimated in-service date for the F-35B.[5]

The delivery of the UK's first F-35B was made on 19 July 2012 at Fort Worth, Texas, for flight trials by the RAF and Royal Navy.[6]

In 2015, the government's Strategic Defence and Security Review stated that the Government planned to order 138 F-35s, with 24 of them to be available for carrier duties by 2023.[7][8]However, the 2021 defence white paper cut that number to only "more than 48" with the First Sea Lord stating that the objective would be to increase the order to 60 initially and then "maybe more up to around 80". It was hoped that 4 deployable squadrons (combined RAF and Royal Navy) might still be formed.[9] On 10 January 2019, initial operating capability for the UK's F-35B was announced.[10] The UK is committed to improving its F-35Bs to Block 4 standard, however, the actual number of improved jets is yet to be known.[11][12]

The F-35 Lightning units of the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm will be organised under a single administrative structure called the Lightning Force, which will form part of RAF Air Command.

Current and future units

Operational Conversion Units

Operational Evaluation Units


It was indicated in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review that the RAF would retain its Tranche 1 Typhoons and use them to stand up an additional two squadrons. It was also announced that the aircraft would remain in service until 2040, ten years longer than previously planned.[8] However, the 2021 defence white paper subsequently announced that the Tranche 1 Typhoons would instead be withdrawn from service by 2025.[15] For the Typhoons remaining in service, the Government also promised to invest further in Typhoon air-to-ground capabilities and in a new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, as well as completing integration of the Storm Shadow and Brimstone missiles with the Typhoon. 107 Tranche 2 and 3 Typhoons will be equipped via "Project Centurion", allowing them to launch Meteor missiles, Brimstone and Storm Shadow missiles.

RAF Typhoon

Frontline Units as of 2021

Operational Conversion Units

Operational Evaluation Units

Combat Air Strategy and Team Tempest

At the 2018 Farnborough Airshow, UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced Team Tempest, a joint program office consisting of government divisions alongside BAE Systems, Leonardo S.p.A., MBDA and Rolls-Royce would be developing a new design of fighter aircraft with GB£2 billion (US$2.6 billion) in funding, by 2025.[17] This will develop new technologies and means of production under the Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative (FCAS TI). It is likely to involve technology from Italy and Sweden using Gripen E, and is also likely to leverage on the UK's Typhoon experience.[18]



The first P-8 Poseidon delivered to the Royal Air Force.

One of the most anticipated announcements in the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 was the purchase of a maritime patrol aircraft to replace the capability lost after the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA.4 in 2010. The review announced that the UK planned to acquire nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft, which would be based at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland by 2025.[8] The aircraft will include an "overland surveillance capability", which could eventually replace the surveillance capability lost by the retirement of the Sentinel R1 in 2025. The RAF plans to operate its P-8s with U.S. weapons such as MK54 torpedoes and Harpoon anti-ship missiles initially, with a possible transition onto British weapons in the future.[19][20]

Current & Future Units


Boeing E-7 of the RAAF

In 2018, the RAF announced plans to upgrade its airborne early warning facility. Initially this was planned as an upgrade of the E-3D Sentry fleet, which would mirror the Sentry Block 40/45 upgrade undertaken by the USAF, and subsequently fitted to the Sentry fleet of the Armée de l'Air in France. However, owing to the significant cost of such a project, estimated at approximately £2 billion, it was thought that it would be more cost-effective to procure a new system instead.[21] Although there were calls for an open competition to select the new platform, most notably from a partnership between Airbus and Saab, which would feature the Swedish company's Erieye radar system combined with an Airbus aircraft, the Ministry of Defence was announced as being in talks with Boeing over procuring its E-7 Wedgetail aircraft.[22][23] To this end, in August 2018 the RAF began sending personnel to Australia to undergo training on the E-7, which was already in service with the RAAF.[24] The potential selection of the E-7 was seen as advantageous in part due to its level of commonality with the P-8 Poseidon, which the RAF had selected as its new maritime patrol aircraft, as well as enabling greater co-operation with the RAAF.[25] In October 2018, Gavin Williamson, announced that the Government had begun negotiations with Boeing, having determined that the E-7 "represents the best value for money option for the UK against need".[26] A deal was signed in March 2019 that will see the RAF procure five E-7 aircraft for approximately £1.5bn.[27] However, the 2021 defence white paper cut the total number of aircraft to only three.[28] These will be based at RAF Lossiemouth alongside the Boeing P-8 Poseidon, and are due to enter service in 2023. With the E-3 Sentry due to be withdrawn in 2021, this will leave a two-year capability gap that will see the United Kingdom rely on the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force until the E-7 is operational.[29]

Current & Future Units

Transport and air-to-air refuelling

C-17A Globemaster

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced on 21 July 2004 that they had elected to buy their four C-17s at the end of the lease,[31] even though the A400M appeared to be closer to production. The C-17 gives the RAF strategic capabilities that it would not wish to lose, for example a maximum payload of 169,500 pounds (76,900 kg) compared to the A400M's 82,000 pounds (37,000 kg).[32] The C-17's capabilities allow the RAF to use it as an airborne hospital for medical evacuation missions.[33]

Current units

Operational Conversion Units

Operational Evaluation Units


The first A400M on final approach, during its fourth flight on 15 January 2010.

22 Airbus A400M Atlas aircraft are being procured to replace the Lockheed Hercules C4/C5 (C-130J) aircraft which will be withdrawn from service by 2023.[3]

The A400M will increase the airlift capacity and range compared with the aircraft it was originally set to replace; the older versions of the Hercules and Transall. Cargo capacity is expected to double over existing aircraft, both in payload and volume, and range is increased substantially as well. The cargo box is 17.71 m long excluding ramp, 4.00 m wide, and 3.85 m high. The height is 4.00 m aft of the wing and the ramp is 5.40 m long. The Airbus A400M will operate in many configurations including cargo transport, troop transport, Medical evacuation, and electronic surveillance. The aircraft is intended for use on short, soft landing strips and for long-range, cargo transport flights.[34]

Current and future units

Operational Conversion Units

Operational Evaluation Units


RAF C130J-30s, based at RAF Brize Norton

The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 included a reprieve for some of the Hercules fleet, with the Government announcing "We will upgrade and extend the life of our C130J aircraft, allowing them to support a range of operations until 2030".[8] It had been reported that the British Army's senior leadership was unhappy with the retirement of the Hercules aircraft, due to uncertainty regarding the A400M's and C-17's effectiveness in some tactical roles.[35] The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review envisioned a fleet of 14 C130J aircraft.[8] On 24 July 2019, it was reported the UK would extend the out of service date of the RAF's Hercules to 2035 in order to allow from the A400M to be rolled out. Due to one C-130J-30 being damaged beyond repair in June 2018, the RAF planned to retain 13 C-130J-30s and one C-130J in its inventory, selling the remaining C-130Js.[36] Those plans were superceded in the 2021 defence review which indicated that all remaining C-130 aircraft would be withdrawn from service by 2023.

Current units

Operational Conversion Units

Operational Evaluation Units


RAF Voyager aircraft in 2016

Fourteen Voyager air-to-air refuelling aircraft are in service as of 2016.[37] One of these has been converted into an executive transport configuration for the use of the Royal Family and senior members of the government as required, whilst still maintaining a front line role with full air-to-air refuelling capabilities. [38][8]

Current Units


New Medium Helicopter

New Medium Helicopter (NMH) is a is the programme to procure a new medium-lift support helicopter to replace the RAF's Puma HC2 and three other helicopter types operated by the British Army. It is expected the new aircraft will enter service during the mid-2020s.[39]

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Protector RG1

The Protector programme (formerly known as Scavenger) will supply a next-generation medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV to replace the current General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper UAVs.[40]

In June 2011, BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation would collaborate on an aircraft called Telemos.[41][42] However, the project was effectively abandoned in 2012 after Dassault pursued a collaboration with EADS Cassidian and Alenia Aermacchi instead.[43]

In October 2015, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced the purchase of more than 20 Protector UAVs which would be delivered by the end of the decade.[44][45] This was confirmed in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. As of mid-2018, the in-service date had slipped to 2024.[16] The exact platform selected for Protector was not disclosed, but in February 2016, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems claimed that it would be a Certifiable Predator B.[46]The Ministry of Defence later confirmed that it would be an enhanced variant of Predator B, designed to be compatible with NATO airworthiness standards, and that it would also come with the extended wing and fuel tanks of the ER (Extended Range) version, giving an increased endurance of over 40 hours.[47] In April 2016, the Ministry of Defence confirmed it would seek to acquire the Certifiable Predator B through a Foreign Military Sales contract with the U.S. Department of Defense.[48][49] It was indicated that at least 16 UAVs would be purchased with a maximum of up to 26. [50]In July 2018, it was announced that this aircraft will be designated Protector RG Mk 1 in RAF service, and is to be delivered in 2024 when it will replace Reaper.[51] A contract was signed on 11 September 2019 to test the RPAS' limit and report on its performance.[52] In July 2020, the Ministry of Defence signed a contract for three Protector UAVs with an option on an additional thirteen aircraft.[53] The 2021 defence white paper indicated that the total number of UAVs ordered would in fact be limited to 16.[54] In July 2021, an order was placed for the 13 additional Protector UAVs.[55]

According to MBDA, the Royal Air Force intends to arm the aircraft with Brimstone missiles and Raytheon UK Paveway IV precision-guided bombs.[56][57]

Future Units

  • 31 Squadron (1st Protector RG1 Operational Squadron will reform at RAF Waddington)[58]
  • 13 Squadron (current MQ-9A Reaper Squadron, will convert to MQ-9B at RAF Waddington)
  • 39 Squadron (current MQ-9A Reaper Squadron at Creech AFB (NV, USA), will reform & convert to MQ-9B at RAF Waddington)

Operational Conversion Unit

Test & Evaluation Unit

Swarming Drones

On 11 February 2019, Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson announced that the UK will develop 'swarming drones' to defeat enemy air defences.[59] A IHS Janes report stated that the RAF will form a new squadron to specifically control these drones.[60]

Current Units

Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft programme

The RAF's Rapid Capabilities Office is aiming for a technology demonstrator, named "Mosquito", which three contracts placed with Blue Bear Systems Research Ltd, Boeing Defence UK Ltd, and Callen-Lenz (Team BLACKDAWN partnered with Bombardier Belfast and Northrop Grumman UK Ltd). This project is aiming for adding unnamed capabilities to future jet aircraft.[63]

Future Combat Air System (FCAS)

A model of BAE Taranis.

The Future Combat Air System (FCAS) aimed to deliver an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) by 2030.[64] FCAS will be built in co-operation with France, utilising technology from the BAE Taranis and Dassault nEUROn technology demonstrators.[64] Development of full-scale prototypes is expected to begin by 2017.[65] In the Royal Air Force, FCAS will be expected to operate alongside Typhoons and F-35 Lightning IIs.[66]

As a UCAV, FCAS will utilise stealth technology to reduce its radar cross-section (its radar signature is reportedly the size of a dragonfly).[67] It will feature a high degree of autonomy, enabling it to complete a large part of its missions without human control.[67] It will have a 16-metre (50 ft) wingspan and two internal weapon bays.[67]

According to Bernard Gray of the Ministry of Defence, technology from FCAS could also be incorporated onto a manned platform.[64] Other officials have also insisted that a manned option for FCAS has not been ruled out.[68] According to a House of Commons Defence Select Committee (DSC) report, a new "clean-sheet" manned fighter design has not been ruled out, nor has the option to buy further or upgrade existing aircraft.[69]

Space operations

The Secretary of State for Defence, Penny Mordaunt, announced at the Air & Space Power Conference on 17 July 2019 that a Team Artemis, a joint US-UK team will be formed to launch and research small military satellites and "launch a small satellite constellation within a year".[70] It was announced separately that No. 23 Squadron RAF would reform as Britain's first "space squadron responsible for day-to-day space command-and-control, including the flying of satellites".[71][72]

In November 2020, the Prime Minister announced the formation of RAF Space Command.

Future Units


The training provided to Royal Air Force aircrew is evolving, through a shift towards contractor-provided training, and increasing use of simulators to supplement flying time. The aircraft currently in use are approaching the end of their working lives. To fund new aircraft, the training system is being outsourced to the private sector, over a 25-year Private Finance Initiative valued at £6 billion. The consortium running the new UK Military Flying Training System is a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Babcock International, is known as Ascent Flight Training. The current generation training aircraft will be replaced over the next few years:

Training phase Current Replacement Base
Basic Gliding Training Grob Viking T.1 None identified RAF Syerston and various locations
Elementary Flying Training Grob Tutor T.1 Grob G 120TP RAF Cranwell, RAF Wittering
Basic Fast Jet Training Short Tucano T.1 Beechcraft T-6 Texan II RAF Linton-on-Ouse
Advanced Fast Jet Training BAE Hawk T.1/T.2 BAE Hawk T.2 RAF Valley
Multi-Engine Training Beechcraft King Air Embraer Phenom 100 RAF Cranwell
Basic Helicopter Flying Training Eurocopter Squirrel HT.1 Airbus Helicopters H135 RAF Shawbury
Advanced Helicopter Flying Training Bell Griffin HT.1 Airbus Helicopters H145 RAF Shawbury

In February 2021, the RAF's Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) signed an agreement with the aviation start-up company Aeralis to further develop the Aeralis Advanced Jet Trainer as a potential replacement for the RAF's Hawk training aircraft.[73]



  • In September 2016, an initial £2.5m batch order for the British-developed BriteCloud DRFM jammer was placed with Leonardo-Finmeccanica. If trials of the system prove successful, it could begin to be fitted to the Royal Air Force's fast-jet fleet by mid-2017.[76]

See also


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