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: Thank you very much for sticking with us again to the end of week five. And Ross is already castigated me for considering filming this conclusion in the front of a nose of an air fleet arm Phantom. But what we see in the period from 1962 to 1991 is not only a change in the role and purpose of the RAF, but also we’re getting a change in the equipment that’s put in. So the Phantom, which was bought for fleet defence and for RAF into diction, suddenly by the end of the period, is flying combat air patrols over Gulf War One. The roles of the aircraft are changing as the nature of the threat from overseas changes.

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 seconds But also the way that the RAF is being deployed to meet them. The most obvious change during this period is the change which is associated with the nuclear bombing role of the RAF. From 1968 we find that the strategic defence of this country through nuclear weapons is transferred to the Royal Navy. And the RAF’s role is very much in terms of theatre or tactical strike. But as a point we’ve made already, that means equipping the RAF with weapons at least as powerful as the Hiroshima bombs, and in some cases 12 times as powerful and beyond. So the RAF remain a potent threat as delivering nuclear weapons during this time.

Skip to 1 minute and 46 seconds But in terms of the diplomacy, then we’re seeing that the strategic deterrent is moved to the Royal Navy, as I said. We’re also seeing a change in the procurement priorities of the RAF, largely given by government policy. Gone are the days of commissioning three different bombers to fulfil one role. With the cancellation of TSR-2 we see the end of a very strong commitment that the Royal Air Force flies predominantly British aircraft. And there are some implications about the cancellation of TSR-2 for British industry, which we’ve talked about.

Skip to 2 minutes and 31 seconds So we go through a process of the commissioning and then the cancellation of TSR-2, the ordering of the F-111 Aardvark and the cancellation of that, the actual purchasing of the Phantoms, and then those being redeployed from a strike role to an interceptor role, and eventually the use of the Buccaneer as the aircraft that will deliver Britain’s tactical nuclear threat in terms of theatre weapons. Now we talked about the Buccaneer in the context of the Gulf War. And that’s about the end of its life, but it’s still provided a useful service in helping to support the Tornado bomber fleet at the time.

Skip to 3 minutes and 21 seconds So what we are seeing now is the RAF moving away from being a force which is primarily flying British aircraft. We are seeing more American procurement, which had been the case in the past. But from this point onwards, we are seeing more cooperative programmes. So for both the Jaguar and the Tornado, they are partnered with European colleagues. And we see that again towards the end of the period with the commissioning of what becomes the Euro Fighter, and a consortium with the Italians, the Germans, and eventually the Spanish.

Skip to 3 minutes and 58 seconds So it has implications about the cost and development of the aircraft, purely because of the sophistication of what these jets are required to be a credible threat through to the end of the Cold War period, and ultimately in many cases, through to the 21st century. Thank you very much. Next week we are going to deal more with the museums and how the public interacts with the RAF through the memorials to the RAF and the museums they maintain. Thank you very much.

Week 5 Conclusion

The end of the Cold War

Throughout the period looked at this week, it is clear that the role and structure of the RAF changed and developed continuously. This was in part a response to the ushering in of the new Cold War era, but was a more practical consequence of the economic conditions within Britain following the conclusion of the Second World War. From the beginning of our period, and the 1957 Sandys White Paper, up until the concept of ‘peace dividend’ in the early 1990s, the RAF, and the aerospace industry as a whole, is subject to strenuous interrogations about its need for finance and indeed additions to its arsenal.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the transference of Britain’s nuclear deterrent from the RAF to the Royal Navy with the development of the Polaris missile system. This was a consequence of costs spiralling out of control, and also highlights the dependence Britain had on the US at this point in time. Indeed, the Skybolt scandal raised serious questions in Parliament about the influence of Britain, and consequently led to the RAF putting their own stamp on any aircraft or missile imports from abroad. However, due to the changing nature of geopolitics and indeed Britain’s financial status, the need to co-operate on different programmes, be they aircraft or missile development, was a crucial element of our period.

Thank you very much!

Congratulations on reaching the end of Week 5.

This has been the last week in which we explicitly deal with the history of the Cold War. As you will have seen, twenty years on from the end of the Second World War, the British Government ended any real attempts to put British combat aircraft research and development at the very forefront of world developments. The eventual replacement for the Canberra, and the follow on from the TSR-2, was built in collaboration with Germany and Italy. The Tornado is a capable aircraft; but is among a number of similar aircraft which came out of the 1970s and 1980s. The RAF started to buy aircraft ‘off the shelf’ (the Phantom, the Sentry), or collaborate with other nations in design and production (e.g. the Jaguar, the Harrier II, the Eurofighter). The Nimrod, the first version of the Harrier and the Hawk trainer, perhaps represent the last of the original British aircraft developed for RAF service.

The transfer of the nuclear deterrent to the Royal Navy saw the RAF become a very effective tactical air force supporting NATO in Europe. However, as we noted in week two, perhaps the Falklands War was the last point when the RAF could mount a major campaign on its own overseas. With Gulf War I, the RAF showed how it could effectively contribute to a coalition force and draw on its Cold War training in a different environment.

For the final week of the course, we are still going to deal with the RAF in the Cold War (and beyond), but in a substantially different context: how the RAF was remembered through this period; and how the Cold War has been commemorated with the National Cold War Exhibition. The National Cold War Exhibition is part of the hangers displaying RAF History at Hendon and Cosford, and we will be looking at the development of both sites. However, we will also consider how the RAF is viewed through memorials in Runnymede and London established after 1945.

This course to a certain degree can be considered as a form of public history, and we will use the final week to consider how the history of the RAF was brought to the public though physical memorials and museums associated with the RAF.

We look forward to seeing you back for the final week.

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