Biography of Air Chief Marshal

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Air Chief Marshal Richard Johns Biography

Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns in RAF No 1 Dress uniform. Air Chief Marshal ( Air Chf Mshl or ACM ) is a senior air officer rank which originated in and continues to be used by the Royal Air Force (RAF).

The rank is also used by the air forces of many countries which have historical British influence and it is sometimes used as the English translation of an equivalent rank in countries which have a non-English air force-specific rank structure.

Officers in the rank of Air Chief Marshal typically hold very senior appointments such as the air force or armed forces commander in those nations which have significant military capability. An Air Chief Marshal may be described generically as an “Air Marshal”.


Air Chief Marshal is a 4 star rank ( where relevant ) and has a NATO ranking code of OF-9. An Air Chief Marshal is equivalent to a “full” Admiral or a “full” General in the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere.

The rank of Air Chief Marshal is immediately senior to the rank of Air Marshal but subordinate to Marshal of the Royal Air Force ( or other national equivalent – see Marshal of the Air Force ).

Although no RAF officer has been promoted to Marshal of the Royal Air Force since the British defence cuts of the 1990s, British Air Chief Marshals are not the most senior officers in the RAF as several officers continue to retain the RAF’s highest rank.
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These officers are still to be found on the RAF’s active list even though they have for all practical purposes retired. A similar situation also exists in the Indian Air Force as the honorary promotion of Arjan Singh to Marshal of the Indian Air Force in 2002 resulted in Indian Air Chief Marshals no longer being the most senior IAF officers.


Prior to the adoption of RAF-specific rank titles in 1919, it was suggested that the RAF might use the Royal Navy’s officer ranks, with the word “Air” inserted before the naval rank title.

For example, the rank that later became Air Chief Marshal would have been Air Admiral. The Admiralty objected to any use of their rank titles, including this modified form, and so an alternative proposal was put forward : Air Officer ranks would be based on the term “Ardian”, which was derived from a combination of the Gaelic words for “chief” (ard) and “bird” (eun), with the unmodified word “Ardian” being used specifically for the equivalent to full Admiral and General.

However, Air Chief Marshal was preferred and was adopted on 1 August 1919. The rank was first used on 1 April 1922 with the promotion of Sir Hugh Trenchard. With Trenchard’s promotion to Marshal of the RAF on 1 January 1927, no officer held the rank until Sir John Salmond was promoted on 1 January 1929. It has been used continuously ever since.

Royal Air Force Usage

In the RAF, the rank of Air Chief Marshal is held by the current Chief of the Air Staff ( currently Sir Stephen Dalton ) and the Commander-in-Chief of Air Command ( currently Sir Simon Bryant ). Additionally, RAF officers serving in British 4 star rotational posts hold the rank ( at present the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, actively holds the rank until he retires from the RAF ).

Throughout the history of the RAF, in excess of 130 RAF officers have held the rank and it has also been awarded in an honorary capacity to senior members of the British Royal Family and allied foreign monarchs.

The rank insignia consists of three narrow light blue bands (each on a slightly wider black band) over a light blue band on a broad black band. This is worn on the lower sleeves of the service dress jacket or on the shoulders of the flying suit or working uniform.

The command flag for an RAF Air Chief Marshal is defined by the two broad red bands running through the centre of the flag. The vehicle star plate for an RAF Air Chief Marshal depicts four white stars ( Air Chief Marshal is a four star rank ) on an air force blue background.

Other Air Forces

English-Speaking Countries

The rank of Air Chief Marshal is also used in the air forces of many countries which have English as an official language and were under British influence around the time their air force was founded. This includes many the air forces of many Commonwealth countries.

Officers have served in the rank of Air Chief Marshal in the Indian Air Force, Nigerian Air Force, Pakistan Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force, Sri Lanka Air Force and the Air Force of Zimbabwe. It is also maintained as a rank in the Bangladesh Air Force, Ghana Air Force and Royal New Zealand Air Force but not all of these air forces have ever actually used it.

Indian Air Force

The first Indian Air Force officer to hold the rank of air chief marshal was Arjan Singh who was promoted in the second half of the 1960s while he served as Chief of Air Staff. Since that time all Indian air chiefs have held the rank. From the 1960s to 2010, 17 Indian chiefs of the air staff have held the rank.
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Nigerian Air Force

In Nigeria, only the Chief of the Defence Staff holds 4 star rank. The first Nigerian Air Force officer to attain the rank of Air Chief Marshal was Paul Dike upon his appointment as the Nigerian Chief of Defence Staff in 2008. The Nigerian Chief of Air Staff is normally a 3-star Air Marshal.

Pakistan Air Force

In March 1976, as part of a Pakistani Defence Ministry reorganization, the post of Chief of Air Staff, the head of the Pakistan Air Force, was upgraded from air marshal to air chief marshal rank. An air chief marshal is a four star rank air officer, and is considered an air force general in Pakistan.

Zulfiqar Ali Khan was the first to hold the rank and in total from 1976 to 2010 there have been 11 Pakistani air chiefs who have held air chief marshal rank. To date all Pakistani air chief marshals have been members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.

However, only Air Chief Marshal Farooq Feroze Khan has served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, the supreme commandant of Pakistan Armed Forces. Originally, a Pakistani air chief marshal’s rank insignia was essentially the same as the RAF insignia.

In 2006 the Pakistan Air Force changed the rank insignia for its officers, abandoning the ring insignia in favour of a Turkish Army-style featuring four stars and a crossed swords and laurel device.

Royal Australian Air Force

An Australian Air Chief Marshal’s rank insignia.

In Australia, this rank is only used when the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF) is an Air Force officer. When this is not the case, the senior ranking Air Force officer is the Chief of Air Force, holding the rank of Air Marshal.

With the establishment of the Australian Air Board on 9 November 1920, Australian Air Corps officers dropped their army ranks in favour of those based on the Royal Air Force. However, it was not until 1965 when Sir Frederick Scherger became Chairman of the Australian Chiefs of Staff Committee, and was promoted to Air Chief Marshal that an RAAF officer attained the rank.

Throughout the history of the RAAF, only three of its officers have held the rank. Apart from Scherger, they are Sir Neville McNamara ( in 1982 ) and Angus Houston ( promoted 2005 ), the current Chief of the Australian Defence Force.

Royal Canadian Air Force

The Royal Canadian Air Force used this rank until the 1968 unification of the Canadian Forces, when Army-type rank titles after the American pattern were adopted and an Air Chief Marshal became a General.

Throughout the history of the Royal Canadian Air Force, only two officers held this rank: Lloyd Samuel Breadner and Frank Robert Miller. In official French Canadian usage, the rank title was maréchal en chef de l’air.

Use in non-English-Speaking Countries

A Hellenic Air Force air chief marshal’s rank insignia.

The rank of Air Chief Marshal is also sometimes used as the English translation of an equivalent rank in countries which have a non-English air force-specific rank structure.

In such situations, it is sometimes the case that the non-English rank might also be translated as “general”. Nonetheless, it is commonly found in English translations relating to officers in the following air forces :

  • Egyptian Air Force
  • Hellenic Air Force ( Greek: Πτέραρχος, translit. Pterarchos )
  • Indonesian Air Force ( Indonesian: Marsekal – literally just “Marshal” )
  • Royal Thai Air Force (  Thai: Phon Akat Ek  )

Royal Thai Air Force

Rank insignia of a Royal Thai Air Force air chief marshal.

The officer appointed to command the Royal Thai Air Force has been promoted to the rank of air chief marshal since c. 1950. From 1950 to 2010 there have been 18 Royal Thai Air Force commanders who have held the rank. The present commander is Air Chief Marshal Itthaporn Subhawong who is supported by the Deputy Commander-in-Chief ( currently Air Chief Marshal Kanaphan Sanguansat ) and the Assistant Commander-in-Chief (currently Air Chief Marshal M.L. Suthirat Kasemsan ).

In the event that an air force officer is appointed to the position of Chief of Defence Forces ( formerly Supreme Commander ), then he has always held the rank of air chief marshal. The last air chief marshal to be appointed Supreme Commander was Air Chief Marshal Voranat Aphichari who retired in 1994.

Notable Air Chief  Marshals :

  • Hugh Dowding, commander of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain.
  • Lloyd Samuel Breadner, the first Canadian to hold the rank.
  • Sir Jock Stirrup, the former British Chief of the Defence Staff.

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