Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsDR.

Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsROSS MAHONEY: Welcome back. So in this section, we're going to talk about the threat that Britain faced, so looking at it from the enemy's perspective, for the lack of a better term, the other side of the hill, as some historians might put it. So, Emmett, could you tell us something about the threat that Britain faced, certainly up until the 1960s from the Soviet Union? DR.

Skip to 0 minutes and 27 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: What we see is the Soviet Union developing its own independent bomber force. First off, they capture a number of B-29s and copy those. But more substantially, we see the TU4 and then a number of other jet bombers coming on stream. The TU95 Bear is probably the most iconic Soviet aircraft, a turboprop swept wing aircraft, which is still in service now. So rather like the RAF and the United States Air Force, we're seeing the strategy of high flying, long range bombers looking to threaten targets in Britain. Initially, with free fall nuclear weapons, but eventually we stand off nuclear weapons as well.

Skip to 1 minute and 21 secondsSo really, what we're seeing is certainly through most of the '50s and to the early '60s is that the Soviet threat really is a bomber threat. The time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, they only had four operational intercontinental ballistic missiles. And while they did have a substantial force of shorter range missiles, the bomber fleet was really quite key to what the Soviets were trying to achieve in threatening the West with nuclear weapons. DR.

Skip to 1 minute and 50 secondsROSS MAHONEY: And just say a little bit how the Royal Air Force responds to that perceived threat, especially in terms of defending the V-Bomber bases and the suchlike. DR.

Skip to 2 minutes and 0 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: We tend to see a two-stage process. Remember that the V-Bomber force was a retaliatory force. So the key objective was to allow them to get into the air before any Soviet bombers took out their bases. So firstly, we would have dedicated interceptors-- aircraft which were designed specifically to get into the air as quickly as possible, fly as high as possible, as fast as possible with purely the intention of releasing their weapon load of the bombers and returning to base for refuelling and probably go through the same sortie again. Now we see this with the Meteor, the Hunter, the Javelin behind us, but most obviously with the Lightning.

Skip to 2 minutes and 49 secondsAnd we'll perhaps talk about this a little bit later in the course. The second wave is surface to air missiles-- long range missiles from the late 1950s designed to take out the Soviet bomber force before it gets anywhere near Britain's defences. Now in the 1960s, towards the end of the 1960s, we start seeing a slight change in strategy as the role of the Air Force as a bombing force moves from, quote, "strategic" to, quote, "tactical." And certainly, the repurposing of the Royal Navy Phantoms and the re-designation of the RAF Phantoms to be interceptors gave a more diverse source. But we then see the development of something which is perhaps a little unusual at the time. The Tornado air defence variant.

Skip to 3 minutes and 47 secondsAnd again, we'll come back to that a little bit later, the reason being that it was argued that it wasn't a great improvement on the aircraft that replaced the Phantom, but it did a slightly different job and with more sophisticated technology. And that's the idea of point defence. DR.

Skip to 4 minutes and 3 secondsROSS MAHONEY: OK, so how does the Soviet bomber threat evolve? Because of course, the Soviets introduced intercontinental ballistic missiles, sea-launched ballistic missiles, which of course is very difficult to defend against. What about the bomber threat? DR.

Skip to 4 minutes and 17 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: Well, there's a number of thoughts in that regard. Firstly, we're a major maritime nation. So as well as attacking Britain's cities, the bomber force may be targeted from the Soviet Union to destroy our shipping. So we actually need to think about how best to cover large areas to make sure that we've got the best technology available. The key development is the advent of the Backfire bomber in the 1960s and particularly its deployment in the 1970s. Could fly faster than the speed of sound, jet bomber with a variable geography capability.

Skip to 5 minutes and 1 secondAnd added to that in the 1980s with the Sukhoi SU-27, you actually had a very capable combat aircraft which potentially could come in and escort bombers into British airspace. Now at that point, the idea of engaging with rapidly purely with the bomber force in an interceptor role changes because you now have to start thinking about whether there's going to be an, if you like it, a close engagement or dog fighter role. And the RAF in the 1980s was not necessarily well equipped to cover that role. But the air defence variant of the Tornado, with its technology, could track targets many miles away and release its missile load to destroy them before they got anywhere near Britain.

Skip to 5 minutes and 56 secondsSo the idea of having combat air patrols really is something that operates during wartime. But the persistence of a quick response alert, if you like, something that's akin to the Second World War scrambling of fighters was the principle way to be ever-vigilant, early warning, purchasing of the Sentry aircraft from America to replace the Shackletons in that role, and having crews on quick alert standby so that they could actually get into the air very quickly and to meet any threat that's being flown in. DR.

Skip to 6 minutes and 42 secondsROSS MAHONEY: So that's the threat that Britain faces. What we'll start to look shortly is how the RAF prepared to face that threat. Emmett's already mentioned QRA , which we'll go into a little bit more detail, and also the important shift in Britain's defence network in the UK. So more on that shortly.

The Soviet bomber threat

The Soviet bombers

When considering how to put this video step together, we thought of the following statements to frame what we wanted to say.

  1. The Soviet nuclear threat was effectively carried by their bomber force well into the 1960s.
  2. Britain operated a quick response force to intercept the bombers.
  3. However, that threat substantially changed with the introduction of the TU-22 and the ability of the SU-27 to escort them in the 1980s.

We would appreciate your thoughts on these and other points from the video in the comments below.

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