The official start of commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain yesterday was an occasion of poignancy and pride with the Prime Minister meeting the pilots who saved Britain in her darkest hour. But even as the celebrations got under way the RAF faces a struggle for survival in the face of savage military cuts.
As the Strategic Defence and Security Review plans to implement massive economies demanded by the Government, and the fierce competition for dwindling resources heats up, there are calls for the RAF to be disbanded and its role subsumed by the Army and the Navy.
The Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, has said that the RAF will continue as a service and defence analysts point out that Air Force personnel and warplanes are playing a key role in the Afghan conflict.
But there is also a feeling in defence circles that the service should be in the front line when the axe starts to fall, as savings of 20 per cent are demanded from the MoD's £38bn budget over the next four years. The Army and the Navy, while also fighting each other for resources, both say that the UK does not need so many highly expensive fast jets now that Soviet and Warsaw Pact air power is no longer a threat.
Some within the Army and Navy claim that the RAF has been living on past glories for too long. "They have been dining out on the Battle of Britain for 70 years now and it's time to move on," said one officer.
The Army also claims that the counter-insurgency mission being undertaken in Afghanistan, with soldiers fighting lightly armed enemies, represents the shape of wars to come, and that there is no need to spend millions of pounds on state-of-the-art warplanes.
The RAF has already endured the biggest staffing cuts of the three services in recent times, with its forces now standing at 40,000 – less than half the strength at the end of the Cold War. The numbers of its warplanes have also fallen drastically, as its role has changed. (It is, for example, no longer needed to deliver nuclear bombs or expected to take part in air-to-air combat.)
At the same time, the RAF also has new commitments, including the air defence of the UK since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and continuous deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq and before that the Balkans.
But former senior officers from rival services are now insisting that the role the RAF used to play in the past no longer exists, and that there is thus no need to have a separate Air Force. Major General Julian Thompson, who used to lead the Royal Marines, maintained: "There is no reason why the RAF cannot merge with the other two services, with the [Navy's] Fleet Air Arm taking over maritime duties and the Army Air Corps providing other operational roles. The fact is that the only enemy aircraft shot down since the end of the Second World War has been by the Fleet Arm and not the RAF. There will be huge savings in headquarters and you can have three services for the price of two.
"We are not advocating that all RAF personnel should be sacked. There is no reason for example why a senior RAF officer should not one day run the Army or the Navy."
Commodore Steven Jermy, of the Fleet Air Arm, who had also served with the RAF, said: "I would certainly like to see the maritime role being done by the Navy. We know how to fly out of aircraft carriers; the RAF do not. I do not think what is being provided on aircraft carriers now is satisfactory. We must also recognise that the RAF does not deploy abroad on its own unlike the Navy and the Army, so in that sense it is not an independent force."
Other senior defence figures disagreed. General Sir Mike Jackson, the former head of the Army, said: "There are some roles which only the RAF can undertake and the three services operate in very different environments. I have given it some thought and I don't think the case for a merger is made.
"On the other hand, far too much had been spent on fast jets when with the end of the Cold War the focus should have been on things like air surveillance, intelligence and airlift including rotary wings [helicopters]. These things need to be looked at."
Supporters of the RAF say that critics ignore what aircraft can provide by their very presence. According to estimates provided by the US military, the current Nato troop strength in Afghanistan of around 100,000 – of which the UK provides 10,000 – would have had to be raised to 400,000 to attempt to carry out operations without air power.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, the chief of the RAF, has already indicated that he is prepared to reduce to just two types of fast jets coming on stream, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. According to defence sources the Tornado GR4 may be withdrawn from service by 2020, five years earlier than envisaged and the Harrier GR9 also withdrawn earlier than the planned date of 2018.
Air Chief Marshal Dalton said in a recent speech: "We need to continue to challenge the perception that air power is expensive. In fact it's highly cost effective in relation to some other levers of power... In some circumstances it offers the option to influence behaviours and events without the commitment to major land forces."
Air Marshal Sir John Walker, the former head of Defence Intelligence, said: "The reason the RAF became a separate entity in the first place was because it was found to be strategically necessary to have a separate service. Talk of merger is just an attempt to turn the clock back and it is something which will not work.
"The Canadians tried at one stage to have just one service and then you had situations like an Air Force man who was put on charge of the Atlantic fleet who suffered from chronic sea-sickness. It was an experiment which did not work, and it is a lesson we need to heed. The SDSR should be looking at defence procurement, which is a mess, rather than start experimenting with the RAF."
Remembering 'the few'
Tomorrow, over 1,000 veterans, senior military figures and dignitaries will gather in London to pay tribute to the sacrifice made by RAF pilots defending the skies against a Nazi onslaught during the Battle of Britain. To mark the 70th anniversary of the turning-point in one of the Second World War's decisive battles, a statue will be unveiled in Waterloo Place of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, who is widely credited with masterminding the victory, in which 510 RAF pilots died.
The UK's armed forces
Equipment: 12 Submarines; 2 Aircraft carriers; 6 Destroyers; 17 Frigates; 7 Main amphibious; 23 Patrol; 18 Auxiliary; 13 Sea Harrier and 119 Helicopters
Equipment: 386 Main battle tanks; 3,768 Other armoured vehicles; 877 Artillery and 299 Helicopters
Royal Air Force
Equipment: 287 Combat capable aircraft (137 Tornado, 58 Eurofighter, 34 Reconnaissance aircraft); 131 Helicopters (40 Chinooks, 28 Merlin and 34 Puma)