The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), formed March 1921, is the aerial warfare branch of the Australian Defence Force. It directly continues the traditions of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC), formed on 22 October 1912.[2] The RAAF provides support across a spectrum of operations such as air superiority, precision strikes, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, air mobility, and humanitarian support.

The RAAF has taken part in many of the 20th century's major conflicts. During the Second World War a number of RAAF bomber, fighter, reconnaissance and other squadrons served initially in Britain, and with the Desert Air Force located in North Africa and the Mediterranean, while the majority were later primarily deployed in the South West Pacific Area. Thousands of Australians also served with other Commonwealth air forces in Europe.[3] By the time the war ended, a total of 216,900 men and women served in the RAAF, of whom 10,562 were killed in action.[4]

Later the RAAF served in the Berlin Airlift, Korean War, Malayan Emergency, Indonesia–Malaysia Confrontation and Vietnam War. More recently, the RAAF has participated in operations in East Timor, the Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan, and the military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The RAAF has 259 aircraft, of which 110 are combat aircraft.


A Royal Australian Air Force B-737 taxies at Sydney Airport

Formation, 1912

The RAAF traces its history back to the Imperial Conference held in London in 1911, where it was decided aviation should be developed within the armed forces of the British Empire. Australia implemented this decision, the first dominion to do so, by approving the establishment of the "Australian Aviation Corps". This initially consisted of the Central Flying School at Point Cook, Victoria, opening on 22 October 1912.[5] By 1914 the corps was known as the "Australian Flying Corps".[6]

First World War

Soon after the outbreak of war in 1914, the Australian Flying Corps sent aircraft to assist in capturing German colonies in what is now north-east New Guinea. However, these colonies surrendered quickly, before the planes were even unpacked. The first operational flights did not occur until 27 May 1915, when the Mesopotamian Half Flight was called upon to assist the Indian Army in protecting British oil interests in what is now Iraq.[7]

The corps later saw action in Egypt, Palestine and on the Western Front throughout the remainder of the First World War. By the end of the war, four squadrons—Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4—had seen operational service, while another four training squadrons—Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 8—had also been established. A total of 460 officers and 2,234 other ranks served in the AFC, whilst another 200 men served as aircrew in the British flying services.[8] Casualties included 175 dead, 111 wounded, 6 gassed and 40 captured.[9]

Inter-war period

The Australian Flying Corps remained part of the Australian Army until 1919, when it was disbanded along with the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Although the Central Flying School continued to operate at Point Cook, military flying virtually ceased until 1920, when the Australian Air Corps (AAC) was formed. The Australian Air Force was formed on 31 March 1921. King George V approved the prefix "Royal" in June 1921 and became effective on 31 August 1921. The RAAF then became the second Royal air arm to be formed in the British Commonwealth, following the British Royal Air Force.[10] When formed the RAAF had more aircraft than personnel, with 21 officers and 128 other ranks and 153 aircraft.[11]

Second World War

Europe and the Mediterranean

In September 1939, the Australian Air Board directly controlled the Air Force via RAAF Station Laverton, RAAF Station Richmond, RAAF Station Pearce, No. 1 Flying Training School RAAF at Point Cook, RAAF Station Rathmines and five smaller units.[12]

In 1939, just after the outbreak of the Second World War, Australia joined the Empire Air Training Scheme, under which flight crews received basic training in Australia before travelling to Canada for advanced training. A total of 17 RAAF bomber, fighter, reconnaissance and other squadrons served initially in Britain and with the Desert Air Force located in North Africa and the Mediterranean. Thousands of Australians also served with other Commonwealth air forces in Europe during the Second World War.[3] About nine percent of the personnel who served under British RAF commands in Europe and the Mediterranean were RAAF personnel.[13]

With British manufacturing targeted by the German Luftwaffe, in 1941 the Australian government created the Department of Aircraft Production (DAP; later known as the Government Aircraft Factories) to supply Commonwealth air forces,[14] and the RAAF was eventually provided with large numbers of locally built versions of British designs such as the DAP Beaufort torpedo bomber, Beaufighters and Mosquitos, as well as other types such as Wirraways, Boomerangs, and Mustangs.[3]

In the European theatre of the war, RAAF personnel were especially notable in RAF Bomber Command: although they represented just two percent of all Australian enlistments during the war, they accounted for almost twenty percent of those killed in action. This statistic is further illustrated by the fact that No. 460 Squadron RAAF, mostly flying Avro Lancasters, had an official establishment of about 200 aircrew and yet had 1,018 combat deaths. The squadron was therefore effectively wiped out five times over.[15] Total RAAF casualties in Europe were 5,488 killed or missing.[3]

Curtiss Kittyhawk Mk IA of 75th Squadron RAAF, which F/O Geoff Atherton flew over New Guinea in August 1942.

Pacific War

The Brewster F2A Buffalo participated in air campaigns over Malayan, Singapore and Dutch East Indies

The beginning of the Pacific War—and the rapid advance of Japanese forces—threatened the Australian mainland for the first time in its history. The RAAF was quite unprepared for the emergency, and initially had negligible forces available for service in the Pacific. In 1941 and early 1942, many RAAF airmen, including Nos. 1, 8, 21 and 453 Squadrons, saw action with the RAF Far East Command in the Malayan, Singapore and Dutch East Indies campaigns. Equipped with aircraft such as the Brewster Buffalo, and Lockheed Hudsons, the Australian squadrons suffered heavily against Japanese Zeros.[16]

During the fighting for Rabaul in early 1942, No. 24 Squadron RAAF fought a brief, but ultimately futile defence as the Japanese advanced south towards Australia.[17] The devastating air raids on Darwin on 19 February 1942 increased concerns about the direct threat facing Australia. In response, some RAAF squadrons were transferred from the northern hemisphere—although a substantial number remained there until the end of the war. Shortages of fighter and ground attack planes led to the acquisition of US-built Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawks and the rapid design and manufacture of the first Australian fighter, the CAC Boomerang. RAAF Kittyhawks came to play a crucial role in the New Guinea and Solomon Islands campaigns, especially in operations like the Battle of Milne Bay. As a response to a possible Japanese chemical warfare threat the RAAF imported hundreds of thousands of chemical weapons into Australia.[18]

RAAF volunteers from Brisbane leaving for training

In the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, imported Bristol Beaufighters proved to be highly effective ground attack and maritime strike aircraft. Beaufighters were later made locally by the DAP from 1944.[19] Although it was much bigger than Japanese fighters, the Beaufighter had the speed to outrun them.[20] The RAAF operated a number of Consolidated PBY Catalina as long range bombers and scouts. The RAAF's heavy bomber force was predominantly made up of 287 B-24 Liberators, equipping seven squadrons, which could bomb Japanese targets as far away as Borneo and the Philippines from airfields in Australia and New Guinea.[21] By late 1945, the RAAF had received or ordered about 500 P-51 Mustangs, for fighter/ground attack purposes. The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation initially assembled US-made Mustangs, but later manufactured most of those used.[22]

By mid-1945, the RAAF's main operational formation in the Pacific, the First Tactical Air Force (1st TAF), consisted of over 21,000 personnel, while the RAAF as a whole consisted of about 50 squadrons and 6,000 aircraft, of which over 3,000 were operational.[23] The 1st TAF's final campaigns were fought in support of Australian ground forces in Borneo,[24] but had the war continued some of its personnel and equipment would likely have been allocated to the invasion of the Japanese mainland, along with some of the RAAF bomber squadrons in Europe, which were to be grouped together with British and Canadian squadrons as part of the proposed Tiger Force. However, the war was brought to a sudden end by the US nuclear attacks on Japan.[25] The RAAF's casualties in the Pacific were around 2,000 killed, wounded or captured.[24]

By the time the war ended, a total of 216,900 men and women served in the RAAF, of whom 10,562 were killed in action; a total of 76 squadrons were formed.[4] With over 152,000 personnel operating nearly 6,000 aircraft it was the world's fourth largest air force.[26]

Service since 1945

During the Berlin Airlift, in 1948–49, the RAAF Squadron Berlin Air Lift aided the international effort to fly in supplies to the stricken city; two RAF Avro York aircraft were also crewed by RAAF personnel. Although a small part of the operation, the RAAF contribution was significant, flying 2,062 sorties and carrying 7,030 tons of freight and 6,964 passengers.[27]

In the Korean War, from 1950–53, North American Mustangs from No. 77 Squadron RAAF, stationed in Japan with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force, were among the first United Nations aircraft to be deployed, in ground support, combat air patrol, and escort missions. When the UN planes were confronted by North Korean Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 jet fighters, 77 Sqn acquired Gloster Meteors, however the MiGs remained superior and the Meteors were relegated to ground support missions as the North Koreans gained experience. The air force also operated transport aircraft during the conflict. No. 77 Squadron flew 18,872 sorties, claiming the destruction of 3,700 buildings, 1,408 vehicles, 16 bridges, 98 railway carriages and an unknown number of enemy personnel. Three MiG-15s were confirmed destroyed, and two others probably destroyed. RAAF casualties included 41 killed and seven captured; 66 aircraft – 22 Mustangs and 44 Meteors – were lost.[28]

Two RAAF Mirage III fighters in 1980

In July 1952, No. 78 Wing RAAF was deployed to Malta in the Mediterranean where it formed part of a British force which sought to counter the Soviet Union's influence in the Middle East as part of Australia's Cold War commitments. Consisting of No. 75 and 76 Squadrons equipped with de Havilland Vampire jet fighters, the wing provided an air garrison for the island for the next two and half years, returning to Australia in late 1954.[29]

In 1953, a Royal Air Force officer, Air Marshal Sir Donald Hardman, was brought out to Australia to become Chief of the Air Staff.[30] He reorganised the RAAF into three commands: Home Command, Maintenance Command, and Training Command. Five years later, Home Command was renamed Operational Command, and Training Command and Maintenance Command were amalgamated to form Support Command.[31]

In the Malayan Emergency, from 1950–60, six Avro Lincolns from No. 1 Squadron RAAF and a flight of Douglas Dakotas from No. 38 Squadron RAAF took part in operations against the communist guerrillas (labelled as "Communist Terrorists" by the British authorities) as part of the RAF Far East Air Force. The Dakotas were used on cargo runs, in troop movement and in paratroop and leaflet drops within Malaya. The Lincolns, operating from bases in Singapore and from Kuala Lumpur, formed the backbone of the air war against the CTs, conducting bombing missions against their jungle bases. Although results were often difficult to assess, they allowed the government to harass CT forces, attack their base camps when identified and keep them on the move. Later, in 1958, Canberra bombers from No. 2 Squadron RAAF were deployed to Malaya and took part in bombing missions against the CTs.[32]

An RAAF F/A-18 with a USAF KC-135 Stratotanker, two F-15Es, an F-117, two F-16s and a RAF Tornado over Iraq

During the Vietnam War, from 1964–72, the RAAF contributed Caribou STOL transport aircraft as part of the RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam, later redesignated No. 35 Squadron RAAF, UH-1 Iroquois helicopters from No. 9 Squadron RAAF, and English Electric Canberra bombers from No. 2 Squadron RAAF. The Canberras flew 11,963 bombing sorties, and two aircraft were lost. One went missing during a bombing raid. The wreckage of the aircraft was recovered in April 2009, and the remains of Flying Officer Michael Herbert and Pilot Officer Robert Carver were found in late July 2009. The other was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, although both crew were rescued. They dropped 76,389 bombs and were credited with 786 enemy personnel confirmed killed and a further 3,390 estimated killed, 8,637 structures, 15,568 bunkers, 1,267 sampans and 74 bridges destroyed.[33] RAAF transport aircraft also supported anti-communist ground forces. The UH-1 helicopters were used in many roles including medical evacuation and close air support. RAAF casualties in Vietnam included six killed in action, eight non-battle fatalities, 30 wounded in action and 30 injured.[34] A small number of RAAF pilots also served in United States Air Force units, flying F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers or serving as forward air controllers.[35]

A Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18F Super Hornet at the 2013 Avalon Airshow

Military airlifts were conducted for a number of purposes in the intervening decades, such as the peacekeeping operations in East Timor from 1999. Australia's combat aircraft were not used again in combat until the Iraq War in 2003, when 14 F/A-18s from No. 75 Squadron RAAF operated in the escort and ground attack roles, flying a total of 350 sorties and dropping 122 laser-guided bombs.[36] A detachment of AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft were deployed in the Middle East between 2003 and 2012. These aircraft conducted maritime surveillance patrols over the Persian Gulf and North Arabian Sea in support of Coalition warships and boarding parties, as well as conducting extensive overland flights of Iraq and Afghanistan on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, and supporting counter-piracy operations in Somalia.[37] From 2007 to 2009, a detachment of No. 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit RAAF was on active service at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan.[38] Approximately 75 personnel deployed with the AN/TPS-77 radar assigned the responsibility to co-ordinate coalition air operations.[39] A detachment of IAI Heron unmanned aerial vehicles has been deployed in Afghanistan since January 2010.[40]

In late September 2014, an Air Task Group consisting of up to eight F/A-18F Super Hornets, a KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport, a E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning & Control aircraft and 400 personnel was deployed to Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates as part of the coalition to combat Islamic State forces in Iraq.[41] Operations began on 1 October.[42] A number of C-17 and C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft based in the Middle East have also been used to conduct airdrops of humanitarian aid and to airlift arms and munitions since August.[43][44][45][46]

In June 2017 two RAAF AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft were deployed to the southern Philippines in response to the Marawi crisis.[47][48][49]

Ranks and uniform

A leading aircraftwoman from No. 75 Squadron wearing Auscam DPCU, 2008

The rank structure of the nascent RAAF was established within the context of the desire to ensure that the service remained separate from both the Army and Navy.[50] While the service's predecessor formations, the AFC and the AAC, had used the Army's rank structure, in November 1920, just prior to the RAAF's foundation, it was decided by the Air Board that the RAAF would adopt the rank structure that had been implemented in the RAF the previous year.[51] As a result, the RAAF's rank structure came to be: Aircraftsman, Leading Aircraftsman, Corporal, Sergeant, Flight Sergeant, Warrant Officer, Officer Cadet, Pilot Officer, Flying Officer. Flight Lieutenant, Squadron Leader, Wing Commander, Group Captain, Air Commodore, Air Vice Marshal, Air Marshal, Air Chief Marshal, Marshal of the RAAF.[52]

In 1922, the colour of the RAAF winter uniform was determined by Williams on a visit to the Geelong Wool Mill. He asked for one dye dip fewer than the RAN blue (three indigo dips rather than four). There was a change to a lighter blue when an all-seasons uniform was introduced in the 1970s. The original colour and style were re-adopted around 2005.[53][54] Slip-on rank epaulettes, known as "Soft Rank Insignia" (SRI), displaying the word "AUSTRALIA" are worn on the shoulders of the service dress uniform.[52] When not in the service dress or "ceremonial" uniform, RAAF personnel wear the Auscam DPCU as a working dress. Commencing in mid-2014 DPCU began to be replaced, only in the non-deployed environment, with the General Purpose Uniform (GPU) which is a blue version of the Australian Multicam Pattern.[55]


Originally, the air force used the existing red, white and blue roundel of the Royal Air Force. However, during the Second World War the inner red circle, which was visually similar to the Japanese Hinomaru, was removed after a No. 11 Squadron Catalina was mistaken for a Japanese aircraft by a US Navy Wildcat in the Pacific Theatre.[56]

After the war, a range of options for the RAAF roundel were proposed, including the Southern Cross, a boomerang, a sprig of wattle, and the red kangaroo. On 2 July 1956, the current version of the roundel was formally adopted. This consists of a white inner circle with a red kangaroo surrounded by a royal blue circle. The kangaroo faces left, except when used on aircraft or vehicles, when the kangaroo should always face in the direction of travel.[56] Low visibility versions of the roundel exist, with the white omitted and the red and blue replaced with light or dark grey.[57]


The RAAF badge was accepted by the Chester Herald in 1939. The badge is composed of the imperial crown mounted on a circle featuring the words Royal Australian Air Force, beneath which scroll work displays the Latin motto Per Ardua Ad Astra, which it shares with the Royal Air Force. Surmounting the badge is a wedge-tailed eagle. Per Ardua Ad Astra is attributed with the meaning "Through Adversity to the Stars" and is from Sir Henry Rider Haggard's novel The People of the Mist.[58]

Current strength


As of 2014, the RAAF had 13,991 permanent full-time personnel and 4,316 part-time active reserve personnel.[1]


Current inventory

A F-35 taking off during the Australian International Airshow
A RAAF C-130J departing Point Cook
A C-17A Globemaster III
A 79 Sqn BAe Hawk on approach
Aircraft Origin Type Variant In service Notes
Combat Aircraft
Boeing F/A-18 United States multirole F/A-18A/B 54 / 16[59] some B variants task with training
Boeing F/A-18E/F United States multirole F/A-18F 24[59]
F-35 Lightning II United States multirole F-35A 2[60] 98 on order[59]
Boeing 737 AEW&C United States AEW&C E-7A 6[61]
Electronic Warfare
Boeing EA-18G United States radar jamming 12[59]
Maritime Patrol
Boeing P-8 United States ASW / patrol 11 7 on order[59]
AP-3C Orion United States maritime patrol 15[59]
Airbus A330 MRTT France refueling / transport KC-30A 6 1 on order[59]
Boeing 737 United States VIP 2[62]
Boeing C-17 United States strategic airlifter 8[59]
C-27J Spartan Italy utility transport 7 3 on order[59]
Super King Air United States utility / transport 350 8[59]
Challenger CL-600 Canada VIP 604 3[63]
C-130J Super Hercules United States tactical airlifter C-130J-30 12[59]
Sikorsky S-76 United States SAR / utility 6[59] contracted with CHC Helicopter[64]
Trainer Aircraft
BAE Hawk United Kingdom primary trainer Hawk 127 33[59]
Pilatus PC-9 Switzerland trainer PC-9/A 59[59] produced under license by de Havilland Australia.[65]
Pilatus PC-21 Switzerland trainer 10 39 on order[59]
Super King Air United States multi-engine trainer 350 8 4 on order[59]


Paveway II laser guided bomb
AIM 9L Sidewinder
Mark 84 general purpose bomb
Name Origin Type Notes
Air-to-air missile
ASRAAM United Kingdom IR guided missile 200 units[66]
AIM-120 AMRAAM United States beyond-visual-range missile 360 units[66]
AIM-9 Sidewinder United States 1297 units of which 47 were AIM-9X[66]
Air-to-surface missile
AGM-154 United States joint standoff weapon 50 units[66]
AGM-158 United States 260 units[66]
General-purpose bomb
JDAM United States precision guided munition 100 units[66]
GBU-15 United States precision guided munition 100 units[66]
GBU-10 Paveway II United States laser-guided bomb 100 units[66]
Anti-ship missile
Mark 46 torpedo United States anti-sub weapon 250[66]
AGM-84 Harpoon United States 305[66]

Flying squadrons

Non-flying squadrons


Force Element Groups

Current force element groups



Roulette aircraft in formation

The Roulettes are the RAAF's formation aerobatic display team. They perform around Australia and South-east Asia, and are part of the RAAF Central Flying School (CFS) at RAAF Base East Sale, Victoria.[67] The Roulettes use the Pilatus PC-9 and formations for shows are done in a group of six aircraft. The pilots learn many formations including loops, rolls, corkscrews, and ripple roles. Most of the performances are done at the low altitude of 500 feet (150 metres).[68]

Future procurement

The first Australian F-35A takes off from Luke AFB on a test sortie in 2015

This list includes aircraft on order or a requirement which has been identified:

  • Up to 100 Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II (CTOL variant)—are scheduled to be delivered from 2020. In a first stage not fewer than 72 aircraft will be acquired to equip three operational squadrons. The remaining aircraft will be acquired in conjunction with the withdrawal of the F/A-18F Super Hornets after 2020 to ensure no gap in Australia's overall air combat capability occurs. On 25 November 2009, Australia committed to placing a first order for 14 aircraft at a cost of A$3.2 billion with deliveries to begin in 2014.[69][70] In May 2012, the decision to purchase 12 F-35s from the initial 14 order was deferred until 2014 as part of wider ADF procurement deferments to balance the Federal Government budget.[71] On 23 April 2014, Australia confirmed the purchase of 58 F-35A Lightning II fighters in addition to the 14 already ordered. Up to a further 28 more aircraft may be acquired.[72][73] The first two Australian F-35A Lightning II fighters were rolled out in July 2014, and began flying training flights with the USAF 61st Fighter Squadron in December 2014.[74][75]
  • Eight Boeing P-8 Poseidon to replace the Lockheed AP-3C Orions.[76] A further seven to be purchased and brought into service by the late 2020s, bringing the total number of aircraft to fifteen.[77]
  • Seven MQ-4C unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to expand the surveillance of Australia's maritime approaches.[77][78]
  • Ten C-27J Tactical transports to be delivered from 2015.[79]
  • Forty-nine Pilatus PC-21 training aircraft under Project AIR 5428.[80]
  • Two more KC-30As, one in full VIP configuration.[81] The Australian Government is also looking at a further two to support the incoming P-8A fleet, which would bring the total number of aircraft to nine.[77]
  • The RAAF has shown interest in acquiring armed unmanned drones. Air Marshal Geoff Brown stated that "it is certainly something we have put forward" and that the Reaper was one of the force's highest priorities. As of February 2015 six ADF personnel are currently training on the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper in two USAF bases.[82] The RAAF is willing to spend A$300 million on the platform and is believed to be preparing to purchase eight drones and two ground stations.[83][84] In March 2017, it was reported that the acquisition program had been singled down to two UAV platforms: the MQ-9 Reaper and the IAI Heron.[85] In September 2017, IAI accused the Australian government of giving preferential treatment to General Atomics.[86]
  • A$4–5 billion project to replace the RAAFs 33 Hawk lead-in fighter trainers announced in the 2016 Defence White Paper. The project has a timeframe of 2022 to 2033.[87]

See also


Memorials and Museums:


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  • Eather, Steve (1996). Odd Jobs: RAAF Operations in Japan, the Berlin Airlift, Korea, Malaya and Malta, 1946–1960. RAAF Williams, Victoria: RAAF Museum. ISBN 0-642-23482-5. 
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Further reading

  • Ashworth, Norman (1999). How Not To Run An Air Force! The Higher Command of the Royal Australian Air Force During the Second World War. Australia: Royal Australian Air Force Air Power Development Centre. ISBN 0-642-26550-X. 
  • McPhedran, Ian (2011). Air Force: Inside the New era of Australian Air Power. Australia: Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7322-9025-2. 
  • Royal Australian Air Force (September 2013). The Air Power Manual - 6th Edition. Canberra: Department of Defence, Air Power Development Centre. ISBN 978-1-9208-0090-1. reprinted with corrections May 2014 .

External links

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