Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the Royal Holloway, University of London & RAF Museum's online course, From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: We’re standing in front of a Neptune in Dutch livery. But this is one of the aircraft that the RAF operated on loan in the 1950s to cover the vast areas it’s responsible for in terms of the North Sea and the North Atlantic. And with the First and Second World War, Britain had to fend off a submarine threat. It was certainly in the Cold War, both in terms of hunter/killer submarines and Soviet submarines containing strategic nuclear missiles, the RAF played an absolutely critical role trying to defend NATO territories. So, Ross, in terms of the way that role evolved, how critical was it, firstly to the RAF’s role, but also to NATO more generally?

Skip to 1 minute and 1 second ROSS MAHONEY: It’s a vastly important role, both for the RAF, but for Britain more generally. I think we have to remember that Britain is a maritime nation. Britain survives on its ability to trade with the world. Before the Second World, of course a lot of that is with the Empire. Post Second World War, it’s with the world more broadly. And RAF coastal command, and then laterally the elements of coastal command that become part strike command, play a vital role in two interrelated areas. One is the defence of the sea lines of communication that Britain has.

Skip to 1 minute and 35 seconds Churchill recollects that during the Second World War, the only thing that kept him awake was the submarine threat, and then also the ability to defend Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrant from 1968 onwards, so defending and detecting Soviet hunter/killer submarines. And so it’s a really important role that the RAF undertake. In 1955, the RAF is operating nine Shackleton squadrons, full squadrons of Neptunes– which the aircraft were in loan from America, and so forth– seaplane squadrons there as well. And even with the decline in numbers of squadrons, when the Nirmrod comes into service, it’s still a fairly significant number of aircraft, with aircraft not only based in the UK, but also RAF Luqa and Malta.

Skip to 2 minutes and 15 seconds So it’s playing a vital role in defending Britain’s interests. And it’s not just limited to the maritime patrol aircraft. You have Martyr, the Victor, and the Vulcan are both used in maritime patrol reconnaissance roles in the ’70s and early ’80s. In the late 1960s, when the RAF take on the Buccaneer, we return to maritime strike capability, which has gone away at the end of the Second World War with the withdraw of the Beaufighter. And so the ability to actually attack the Soviet Navy comes back on.

Skip to 2 minutes and 46 seconds Also linked to that, aircraft, fighter defence aircraft, that are on quick reaction, the ability to respond and conduct fighter swoops against incoming Soviet bear aircraft that were maritime patrol roles as well, that is really important. And it’s something that continues up to this day. The RAF is responsible for defending Britain’s maritime interests.

Skip to 3 minutes and 9 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: OK. Now, we’ve got the Neptune behind us. Now, the RAF moves from the Neptune to the Shackleton, and then eventually the Nimrod. And the Nimrod represents quite a sea change, because it’s the world’s first jet powered maritime surveillance aircraft based on the Comet. How much of an advantage did the RAF have having the Nimrod? And how capable of an aircraft was it?

Skip to 3 minutes and 36 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: In most respects it’s a quantum leap in capability. The jet engines means it can get to station quicker, faster. And it’s actually quite a fuel efficient aircraft. It’s able to maintain its patrol for long periods of time. It’s also capable in terms of the weapons it carries, the variety of depth charges, and torpedoes, and even the American B-57 nuclear depth charge. So it’s actually carrying nuclear weapons as well in its ability to defend. And in the aftermath of the Falkland’s war, the aircraft is upgraded to the Mark II to version, the introduction of weapons, such as the Harpoon, … and various torpedoes.

Skip to 4 minutes and 10 seconds It’s a very capable aircraft that stays in service up until 2010 and is a world leader in the area of maritime patrol aircraft.

Skip to 4 minutes and 22 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now you mentioned that this aircraft was still operating 2010, 2011, but ultimately, was decommissioned at that time. And there’s no comparable replacement aircraft to take its place. Now, we’ve talked a little bit as we’ve gone through the course about how the RAF kept aircraft in operation longer than was intended because its replacement had been delayed or cancelled. Given our global role, and given the our importance to this country of shipping lanes, was it mistake to take the Nimrod out of service at the beginning of this decade?

Skip to 5 minutes and 1 second ROSS MAHONEY: The Strategic Defensive Security Review of 2010. In my personal opinion, makes in a very interesting decision to withdraw the Nimrod fleet, but also to cancel it’s replacement, the Nimrod MRA-4. Now, there were economic reasons for that. It had gone over budget quite significantly. But at the end of the day, Britain is a maritime nation. It requires this capability to defend that. It’s provided a capability gap within the RAF, and within the British military, and more generally in my opinion. And given where we are today, in the 20th of November, we’re about to see the results of the Defensive Security Review of 2015.

Skip to 5 minutes and 46 seconds So it will be very interesting, that by the time our students are doing this course to see what the decision is being made about– are we going to buy a new maritime patrol aircraft? Or, how is the military seeking to solve that conundrum? Because of the past couple of years, we’ve used various means to fill the capability gap. And the RAF has not lost the skill set. Crews have gone off to be trained with the Americans, the Australians, and so forth in order to keep the skill set there in the assumption that we’re going to replace it.

Skip to 6 minutes and 17 seconds So it will be quite interesting to see what happens in the next couple of days, but also to see what our students reflect and depending on what that decision is very shortly.

Skip to 6 minutes and 27 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: OK. Thank you, Ross. What we’ll do is the next step for this particular free online course, we’ll get your to do some research and actually comment on that decision, which we’ll write up at the appropriate time. But I think the key thing is, during the Cold War, Britain was at the absolute forefront when it came to maritime surveillance. And we changed circumstances in the second decade of the 21st Century. I think we might all be a little bit uncomfortable we don’t have that capability immediately at hand.

Maritime Surveillance

The 2015 Strategic Defence Review

We are going to ask you to do something a little different for this video step. Towards the end of the sequence Ross and I discuss the decision of the 2010-15 coalition government to decommission the then current Nimrod maritime patrol fleet and scrap its replacement version. We were filming in November 2015, just before the 2015 Strategic Defence Review was published.

We would like you to do some research (suggested reading is listed below) and share your findings and comments on the subject of a Nimrod replacement.

Your question is:

“What did the 2015 Strategic Defence Review recommend with regards a Nimrod replacement in the maritime reconnaissance and patrol role? Do you think it was the correct decision and why?”

Suggested reading

In the video itself we consider the following statements and questions:

  1. As an island nation and NATO member, maritime surveillance during the Cold War must have been a critical role performed by the RAF.
  2. The Nimrod replaced the Shackleton. How effective an aircraft was the Nimrod in its maritime patrol role?
  3. Since 2011 Britain has had no dedicated maritime patrol aircraft - was the decommissioning of the Nimrod without a replacement a mistake?

A maritime nation

The importance of Britain as a maritime nation has been a consistent theme throughout this week. As nuclear missiles could now be launched from submarines, this incurred a new dimension by which Britain was threatened, and so advanced aircraft were required to monitor Britain’s surroundings. Also, once Britain’s nuclear deterrent was transferred to the Royal Navy; aircraft were needed to protect our own submarines. Through the need for maritime surveillance, came a very close working relationship between the Royal Navy and Air Force, and it was their ability to respond in unison that proved to be the greatest advantage.

In regards of the weaponry such aircraft carried, to deal with a potential submarine threat, the most common was the depth charge, which like a conventional bomb would be dropped by an aircraft, but through the water close to a submarine. A nuclear depth charge had the added nuclear warhead attached, also known as a ‘nuclear depth bomb’. The yield of these weapons ranged from 5 to 20 kilotons.

The Nimrod was decommissioned in 2010, and nothing has since replaced it. This has caused broad discussions as to Britain’s vulnerability as a maritime nation. The National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, 2015 is a very long read if you were to look at the whole 96 page document, but small sections could prove very interesting, here are a few key extracts:

  • P.7. ‘We will buy nine new Maritime Patrol Aircraft, based in Scotland, to protect our nuclear deterrent, hunt down hostile submarines and enhance our maritime search and rescue’

  • p.24. ‘The Royal Air Force protects our airspace and is ready at all times to intercept rogue aircraft. The Royal Navy protects our waters, and deters terrorist and criminal activity. Our NATO Allies provide us with early warning of approaching ships and aircraft, or deal with them before they reach our territory or airspace, as we do for our Allies’

  • P.34. ‘The UK’s independent nuclear deterrent will remain essential to our security today, and for as long as the global security situation demands’… ‘We are committed to maintaining the minimum amount of destructive power needed to deter any aggressor. This requires us to ensure that our deterrent is not vulnerable to pre-emptive action by potential adversaries.’


Lockheed P-2 Neptune

  • Maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft.
  • Loaned from the United States throughout the 1950s.
  • We explored in an earlier step the move to the Shackleton and later the Nimrod aircraft.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

Royal Holloway, University of London