Disband the Royal Air Force!
Reformers campaign against the world’s oldest air force
Could the campaign to eliminate independent air forces succeed with the world’s first independent air force? Some air-power critics associated with the Royal Navy are lobbying the U.K. government to disband the Royal Air Force.
“Air power as a joint concept cannot, and is not, best delivered from an independent service,” retired Royal Navy commanders Graham Edmonds and Paul Fisher wrote in Warships International Fleet Review.
This naval assault on an air force might surprise some Americans. With a few big exceptions, the U.S. military services have avoided open warfare with one another since the 1950s. Even retired officers hesitate before throwing rhetorical punches at their comrades in the other branches.
Compared to the U.S. armed forces, the U.K. military branches have sharp elbows. Mostly, this results from differences in how the American and British governments approach military appropriation.
In the U.S., the services have developed independent bases of support in Congress, the executive and the defense industry, helping them to resist cuts to weapons programs and force structure. Over time, the U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy—which includes the Marines—have settled into a roughly even split of the overall defense budget.
In the U.K., budgeting plays out very differently. Each of the services has parliamentary bases of support, but the lack of a divide between the legislative and executive makes the situation more fluid. The British military branches also have a lower funding floor, which leads to brutal knife fights over funding and missions.
The history of bitterness between the Royal Navy and the RAF extends all the way back to April 1, 1918, when the British government folded the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps into a new service. This decision detached aviation from control of the navy … and inspired decades of grievance.
During the interwar period, the Royal Navy fought to wrest carrier aviation away from the RAF, which had little use for carrier aircraft and harbored a deep hostility toward the senior service. Although the U.K. built and operated aircraft carriers before either Japan or the United States, by the late 1930s it badly trailed both in terms of aircraft quality.
The RAF practically starved Coastal Command of planes and crews during the early stages of the Battle of the Atlantic, preferring to concentrate on the bombing offensive against Germany.
Even the existing interpretation of the Battle of Britain remains up for grabs. It’s accepted wisdom that brave RAF fighter pilots defeated Germany’s Luftwaffe during the 1940 air battles over British cities. But several years ago, historian Anthony Cummings argued that the Royal Navy, rather than the RAF, bore primary responsibility for saving Great Britain during the Luftwaffe’s Blitz.
Acrimony continued into the post-war era. In the 1960s, the RAF led the charge against CVA-01, a proposal that would have left the navy with a pair of large, American-style supercarriers. In order to protect its strike and electronic aircraft, the RAF argued—to a sympathetic Labor government—that the carriers would be of little use in a major war with the Soviets.
The carriers’ cancellation effectively gutted Royal Navy aviation, leaving the navy with only a few old flattops, which the Invincible-class “Harrier carriers” eventually replaced. The 1980s-vintage Invicibles could carry only vertical-landing Harrier jump jets.
In 2000, Her Majesty’s government created Joint Force Harrier, which combined both navy and air force Harriers. The Royal Navy depended on the Harriers for its fleet air defense and strike needs, but the RAF had never displayed any great enthusiasm for the aircraft.
As defense austerity hit the United Kingdom in 2010, the RAF offered to sacrifice Joint Force Harrier in lieu of other priorities, an offer that the Tory government jumped at. With no Harriers to fill their decks, the Royal Navy’s remaining Invincibles became de facto helicopter carriers.
Repeated RAF blows against the Royal Navy has provoked a powerful backlash. The idea of eliminating the RAF doesn’t seem to be as shocking to British audiences as the proposal to eliminate the U.S. Air Force has been to Americans.
Lester May, a retired Royal Navy lieutenant commander, helps lead the anti-RAF effort. May coordinates a dedicated mailing list that keeps proponents of RAF abolition aware of the latest letters, op-eds and information on the state of British military aviation.
He keeps in touch with a number of retired senior leaders from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, conducts independent analyses of RAF ops and helps spearhead the media and political campaign against the air force.
To be sure, just because the campaign against air force independence has gotten farther in the U.K. than in the U.S. doesn’t mean that the RAF is in significant danger. In truth, the campaign hasn’t produced much more than newspaper op-eds and articles in sympathetic magazines.
And indeed, the primary purpose of this campaign seems less to eliminate the RAF per se than to make the case for a redistribution of resources that favors the Royal Navy.
Still, even the eminent Richard Overy, one of the finest historians of World War II air power, felt compelled to chime in on the debate, offering an op-ed in The Times arguing that the RAF represented the U.K.’s only really source of military innovation.
Overy’s article resulted in a robust—and sometimes nasty—debate in the Times’ letter section, suggesting that RAF partisans consider the idea of abolition dangerous enough that they feel compelled to fight back.
The real story may be that pressures of technology and austerity are forcing military thinkers to reconsider the traditional structures through which nations conceive and use military force. Plenty of inter-services debates have become old, tired and boring. But then, the ways in which we organize our armed forces are also old and tired.
If we’re openly debating grounding the two most distinguished air forces in history, other countries might pause and reconsider the way they’ve decided to organize their militaries. Especially as drones come to perform many of the tasks normally associated with an air force, the idea of an independent air-power branch may become steadily less appealing.