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: Now, if we want to start thinking about, if you like, a post Skybolt RAF– we’re standing in front of the TSR-2, Tactical Strike and Reconnaissance 2. Now when was this aircraft actually originally designed to be put into production? So, we know it gets to about 1965, but when did it start off its process?

Skip to 0 minutes and 29 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: The design is late ’50s. Short period. It is, of course, the TSR-2 is either one of the most iconic aircraft in British aviation industry history, or one of the most infamous. Depends on your perspective. It’s designed, initially, as a replacement for the Canberra. That’s its original design. The RAF enters the late ’50s, 1960s, despite what comes out of the Sandys defence review of 1957, recognises that there is a need for manned aircraft. There is need for manned aircraft that will replace the Canberra. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Sir Sydney Camm, there are four things you need for an aircraft design– span, length and height and politics. TSR-2 does well on the first three, fails on the fourth.

Skip to 1 minute and 19 seconds It is the victim, again depending on your viewpoint, of changing defence requirements, escalating costs, and Britain’s financial situation. The costs for the TSR-2 spiral out of control. And eventually the RAF, in conjunction with the Wilson Government, and so forth, take the decision to cancel the aircraft. And unfortunately, it’s been left in history that the RAF had this fantastic aircraft. And you only have to look around this hall, here at the museum at RAF Cosford to see that, actually, some of the aircraft the British were designing in the 1950s, were world beaters. The RAF– the British aviation industry was at the cutting edge. But the problem was cost, at the end of the day.

Skip to 2 minutes and 10 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: The cancellation of TSR-2 in 1965, is something that was met with much regret. Even 50 years on, we still talk about it in those terms. But, from 1965, how much more development would have had to go into the aircraft to actually make it operational?

Skip to 2 minutes and 29 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: Well, the key problem was the changing requirements. As I said, it originally had been designed to replace the Canberra. But there’s then this idea that it will also help replace the V Force, eventually. As I think there’s a recognition that the strategic role is changing. So, we still need an interdictor that this aircraft is designed to attack behind the battlefield, as an interdiction role. So, it still would have required quite a bit of development, a lot more cost going into it. And ultimately, as with any aircraft, there’s a maturation period. And it would’ve still taken, in my opinion, quite a while for the aircraft to reach its full potential. When it’s cancelled, there are the alternatives.

Skip to 3 minutes and 15 seconds The RAF initially looked at ordering the F-111 or the 111-K. And also, it’s working on a project, or begins work on a project with the Anglo-French Variable Geometry aircraft, which was eventually cancelled.

Skip to 3 minutes and 29 seconds The F-111 order is eventually cancelled in itself. The RAF eventually end up with the F-4 Phantom, and also, ironically, the Blackburn Buccaneer. In the debates behind a lot of this, there’s also a debate over Navy carriers. And there is this ongoing debate– the navy avoided the Blackburn Buccaneer and have tried to offer it to the RAF in the early ’60s. The RAF said, no, they want the TSR-2. Eventually, we end up with the Buccaneer. Not all is lost, though. Some of what comes from the experience gained from the TSR-2, ends up in the Tornado. Indeed, ironically, the Tornado, when it starts development, is known as the multirole combat aircraft. Its other acronym is, Must Replace Canberra Again.

Skip to 4 minutes and 16 seconds We get to that point– and the experience is not lost, there is a link between TSR-2 and Tornado.

Skip to 4 minutes and 23 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: It’s interesting the process we go through. You mentioned the Phantom, and also the Buccaneer. And the RAF ends up inheriting the Royal Navy Buccaneers when the– if you like– the fixed winged fleet is retired in conventional aircraft.

Skip to 4 minutes and 37 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, so eventually once the Naval fleet carriers are decommisioned we do inherit more naval aircraft, Phantoms and Buccaneers. We do order some new Buccaneers as well. And they’re used in very similar roles to what this would have been used in.

Skip to 4 minutes and 52 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: So, we go through a progression from the cutting edge of aircraft technology, to a very advanced aircraft in the Aardvark. Eventually, plump for the Phantom– which is what, about 10 years old when it’s ordered– and ultimately for the interdictor role, end up with the Buccaneer. Which first flies about 1952? Something around there?

Skip to 5 minutes and 16 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: Early 1960s.

Skip to 5 minutes and 20 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now in this context, the Australians take the F-111, Aardvark, and operate it for a long period of time. Compared to the TSR-2, if we’d gone down that route, would it have been a reasonable alternative?

Skip to 5 minutes and 33 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: It would’ve been a reasonable alternative. Of course, the Australians are interested in the TSR-2. And the reason they ordered the F-111 is, they’re done with this. But ultimately, the RAF decided to cancel it. And potentially, one of the problems in the British aviation industry in the 1960s and 1970s is that when we look at foreign designs, American designs principally, we want to put our own stamp on it. We see that with the Phantom. We put the Spey engine into the Phantom. The same is true of the F-111. Ultimately, by the time we get around to the Tornado, we end up with an aircraft that is more capable. And it’s still in service today, of course.

Skip to 6 minutes and 16 seconds The F-111 would have been a useful aircraft, but we were only buying 50 of them. So, we still would’ve had to find alternatives, in my opinion.

Skip to 6 minutes and 26 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: So to a certain degree, it would have been another stop gap.

Skip to 6 minutes and 30 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: Yes, I mean the reason the F-111 was being ordered was because the long-term plan was the Anglo-French Variable Geometry aircraft. That is eventually cancelled. That’s where some of the challenges emerge.

Skip to 6 minutes and 45 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: OK. Ross, thank you for that. So, we see an issue here about RAF preferences but also the political realities of budgeting in the 1960s. Putting paid to this aircraft behind us. Let’s move on from this point.

TSR-2 – Introduction

Replacing the Canberra

In this video we cover the following:

  1. The TSR-2 holds a particular place in British aviation - and is a source of much regret
  2. What were the additional developments need to make the TSR-2 operational?
  3. Would the Aardvark have been a comparable replacement?

The TSR-2 was initially considered as a replacement for the Canberra; but it was also conceived that it could do the job of the Vulcan in the longer term. The General Dynamics F-111 was only christened ‘the Aardvark’ on the day it formally left the USAF service, although it had been known informally as such throughout its service, because of its long nose.

Please add your comments on the subjects raised in the video below.

The introduction to this week gives an overview of the material, so here we will concentrate on recaps and clarifications on the terms used in the next video.

The Canberra aircraft refers to the English Electric Canberra, a jet-powered, medium-range bomber that was produced in large numbers during the 1950s as we discussed in week one, which proved a popular British export. Its primary users, other than the RAF, were the Indian, Peruvian and Australian air forces. The reason for it being such a popular aircraft was due to its superior comparative performance development over other contemporary piston-engine bombers. As well as this, it proved to be a hugely adaptable aircraft, maintaining its role as a tactical nuclear strike aircraft, but also being converted in order to serve photo reconnaissance and tactical bombing roles. It is this aircraft that the TSR-2 was designed to replace, and ironically the Canberra was still in use by the RAF until 23 June 2006.

While the video focuses on the costs related to the TSR-2 as reasons for its cancellation, there was a large degree of political interference as well as severe disruption from the Royal Navy. Lord Mountbatten lobbied for the Blackburn Buccaneer to be used by the RAF, even though its specifications did not meet the needs of the RAF. There is a strong argument that from the outset, despite the TSR-2 being a cutting-edge aircraft, far superior to any other at the time, the Ministry of Aviation sought to disrupt the project in order to cut costs. A summation of this argument can be found here.

However, the costs of the project were astronomical. At the time of cancellation, the project had cost circa £200 million, and as Ross mentions, there was still further development needed. It is also worth noting that the change in government was particularly instrumental in its cancellation due to the rising costs. For a full breakdown of the TSR-2 costs, the following book is particularly helpful: Damien Burke, TSR-2: Britain’s Lost Bomber, (Ramsbury, Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK: The Crowood Press, 2010).

The F-111 is the abbreviation of the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark, which was commissioned to be the replacement of the TSR-2, which in itself had been developed prior to its cancellation to replace the Canberra. Ironically, the British version, the F-111K, never entered service with the RAF but was used by the US and Australian air forces.

The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II was an American import aircraft that was used by both the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. Great Britain was the first customer of the F-4 Phantom principally because of the political and economic issues that surrounded their own developments. It acted as the primary combat aircraft for the RAF, starting in 1969. Whilst it was an American import, the British modified the models by using the Rolls-Royce engines; a primary example of the British “putting their stamp on things.”

The Blackburn Buccaneer came to the RAF following the cancellation of the TSR-2 and the F-111K projects. A Royal Navy aircraft, Lord Mountbatten had been a strong advocate for the RAF to use this aircraft in order to reduce costs, which is argued by some as a reason the TSR-2 project was cancelled (see above). The RAF as a replacement for the Canberra originally rejected it as both proposed designs, the B.103A and the B.108, were subsonic and incapable of meeting the RAF’s requirements concerning the range the aircraft could manage.

In 1974, the Panavia Tornado first flew and in 1979-1980 was introduced into service. Nicknamed the “Tonka”, the Tornado was used by the British in the Gulf War in 1991. Close to 60 RAF Tornado GR1s were deployed to air bases in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Granby. The Tornado has been used in a number of wars and is still in operation today.

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