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Ordering the V-Force

Ross Mahoney and Emmett Sullivan discuss the logic of ordering three separate bomber designs for the RAF’s strategic deferent role.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Welcome back to the National Cold War Exhibition of the RAF Museum in Cosford. One of things that’s noticeable about this particular museum is that it has an example of each of the V Force aircraft. The Valiant, the Victor, and the Vulcan. So Ross, when it was decided to commission a modern fleet of aircraft, why go about designing three four-engined strategic bombers? We’d probably go that to four if we talk about the Short Sperrin. The Short Sperrin. And for those of you who are watching this, I’d just like to apologise for the number of times I’ve, a) mispronounced names which are not Anglo-Celtic, or b) managed to get Blue Streak and Blue Steel mixed up. That’s my problem.
But Ross, back to the plot. Why order so many aircraft? DR.
ROSS MAHONEY: Well, of course the background to all of this is the McMahon Act. We’ve heard about the American decision to not share nuclear technology, so Britain begins to develop a nuclear weapons capability. It starts a bomb project. It needs a means to deliver that. Again, as we’ve heard, the problem is how do you– the concern is the size of the weapons, so the belief is that the key means to deliver that will be airborne. So at about the same time that Britain starts developing its nuclear weapons requirements, it also– the RAF gives out a specification for a carrier.
And that specification essentially says, the long and short of it is the ability to carry one 10,000 pound bomb 1,500 nautical miles from any base around the world. Now, when we say one 10,000 pound bomb, of course we mean a nuclear weapon. And the ability to go 1,500 miles means it’s going to be a multi-engine aircraft. In terms of why three designs– or four, if we include the Sperrin, which is essentially a case of redundancy. Well, when the companies respond to the request from air ministry both Avro and Handley Page submit quite advanced designs.
The crescent shaped design of the Handley Page is very advanced, and the swept wing, delta wing of the Vulcan, which has become quite iconic in recent years– especially with XH-558, the Vulcan that’s just recently retired– they were advanced designs for their time. Some of the research stems from that captured from the Germans at the end of the Second World War. So they order both of those designs because– just in case there are any problems. Behind that, Vickers also submits the Valiant design, which is much more standard, much more traditional in its layout. And again, it’s essentially ordered as a– it can come into service quicker, and that it’s there to start help developing, and as a just in case.
So you have that. And that’s not unusual, we only have to look to the Second World Ward. Britain’s strategic bombing force of the Second World War is three designs. Ironically, by two of the companies you have to Avro Lancaster, the Handley Page Halifax, and for course the Short Stirling as well. So there is a precedent for this. The reality is that the Vulcan and the Victor were advanced designs. They were unsure about whether or not they would succeed. DR.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: OK, now even given the fact that they were probing the limits of what aircraft technology could encompass in one aircraft, we find that the Valiant has to be withdrawn from service in the mid 1960s, and with a change in the role of nuclear delivery– again, with respect to countermeasures from the Soviets– that the mark of the Victor that was ordered was not well-suited for low level interdiction. So really, by the mid 1960s we’re left with the Vulcan. DR.
ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, so of course the Valiant is withdrawn from service because of fatigue issues, though some serve as tankers. It proves the efficacy of the tanker role that of course the Victor will go on to do. There are some issues with the Victor in terms of low level role. It goes on to be a tanker. The Vulcan ends up being a very efficient design, a very capable design. It goes on to serve until 1984. It’s essentially, eventually replaced in its various roles by aircrafts such as the Tornado, the Buccaneer, and the such like.
Its last service is as a tanker, and it’s able to respond to the changing requirements that the Victor could– the Victor was, arguably, a much more advanced design, and perhaps therein lies its problem in terms of low level operations. But the force itself, the V Force itself essentially ends. The Vulcan continues to serve, but in more conventional roles, conventional nuclear strike role. Maritime reconnaissance, for example, as well. But again, the capability of the design and its ability was significant. DR.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now, you mentioned that the Vulcan is a very versatile aircraft, or was, in its RAF service. But after its withdrawal in 1984, the RAF didn’t pursue a direct replacement in terms of a multi-engined aircraft or a four-engined aircraft that had a potential strategic role. And we’re not seeing anything likely the B-1B Lancer, for example, in the RAF inventory. Why was that, Ross? DR.
ROSS MAHONEY: In essence, in 1968 the RAF leaves the strategic bombing game. The formation of Strike Command in the late 1960s and the changing geostrategic focus of the British military– the removal from east of Suez and such– sees a focus on the central front, sees a focus on West Germany in the defence of NATO. The Vulcan still has a role to play in that in the conventional nuclear strike role, and is tasked to NATO. But increasingly, as aircraft such as the Tornado come online, they’re much more suited to that role.
And of course, the nuclear strike role, if it is going to happen in a conventional sense, is taken over by the Tornado and the WE177 is used on that aircraft. And the RAF’s force structure has changed in that time, its role has changed. It still undertakes operational level or strategic level operations, but not in the same way because the strategic attack on Soviet Union, for example, has been taken over by the Royal Navy. So there’s no longer a need for deep, long range, strategic air capability. The RAF is now focusing much more on what modern military people would call the operational level of war. DR.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Thank you, Ross. Let’s reflect on those points before we move onto the next stage in the course. Thank you.

Ordering the V-Force

When we considered how to structure the discussion for this video step, these were the questions and statements we thought of using:

  1. What was the logic of ordering three four-engined bombers to deliver Britain’s nuclear deterrent – four four engined bombers if you count the Shorts Sperrin?
  2. The Valiant was phased out in the mid-1960s due to metal fatigue; and the version of the Victor ordered was not well suited to low-level operations.
  3. The Vulcan itself proved itself to be a versatile aircraft; but ultimately the RAF did not continue with the concept of a strategic bomber – was that correct?

Please discuss these points, or others you wish to, in the comments below.

Blue Steel and Blue Streak

In the video Emmett gets tongue-tied over Blue Steel and Blue Streak. To clarify, there is quite a difference between them!

Blue Steel was the air-launched, rocket-propelled nuclear standoff missile that was built primarily to arm the V- Force.

Blue Streak was a British medium-range ballistic missile. The project was intended to replace the V- Force, which it was believed would become obsolete by 1965, in order to allow Britain to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent. However, the project was deemed too expensive, and therefore was cancelled in 1960 in favour of the US-led Skybolt programme. Yet, as it turned out, that didn’t work out so well for Britain either.

Ordering the V-Force by Lauren Semple and Emmett Sullivan

We will be talking a great deal about the ‘V-Bombers’ in the coming weeks, so let us just note ‘the one that got away’. The Short Sperrin was the name of a British jet bomber that was designed in the early 1950s. It was considered a fall back option in case the V- Force bombers failed to perform. The Sperrin was ultimately not put into production, as the Valiant was successful.


There were a few prominent British aircraft manufacturing companies that produced the V- Force. Handly Page was founded in 1909, and went on in the post war period to produce the Victor. Avro was founded in 1910, and produced some of the most well known British aircraft, such as the Avro Lancaster, and the Vulcan. The Valiant was produced by Vickers-Armstrong in 1955, however it was noticeably less advanced that its V- Force counterparts.

The Vulcan was a jet powered delta wing strategic bomber, and was considered the most technically advanced of the V- Force. It had no defense systems, and therefore was designed to fly at high speed and high-altitude to avoid being intercepted. The Vulcan became the most pivotal of the aircraft to the British nuclear deterrent during a substantial period of the Cold War, as it was capable of delivering conventional and nuclear weapons, and was able to adapt to low-level tactics in the mid-1960s when high-altitude bombers became vulnerable to missile and aircraft developments.

The Victor was produced in 1952, and was modified significantly in order to allow it to undertake a reconnaissance role, incorporating radars, cameras and sensors into its design. As a result of the diminishing role of the V-Force after the introduction of Polaris, the Victor aircraft were converted into aerial refuelling tankers, and were often used to refuel Vulcan bombers. The Victor B.2R aircrafts struggled more than the Vulcan to adapt to low-altitude flights, and fatigue cracks were discovered and therefore retired and put into storage by the end of 1968.

Lastly, the Valiant was noticeably less technologically advanced than its V- Force counterparts. They were intended to be high-level strategic bombers, yet many went on to fill various supporting roles, such as refuelling and reconnaissance. This was mainly due to the fact that by 1964, it was discovered that all the variants of the Valiant showed signs of premature fatiguing and corrosion. By 1965, the Valiant was retired from service.

As mentioned in the next video, the multi-national Panavia Tornado took over the role of the Vulcans in the Cold War during the 1970s and the 1980s. The Tornado was manufactured by the United Kingdom, Italy and West Germany and was flying by the late-1970s. It is interesting to note that it was a joint collaboration, and perhaps it indicated a decline in the ability of Britain to create its own aircraft technology.

Name the aircraft in the video.

Please also identify the aircraft we feature in this video in the discussion below. If you recognize them, let us know! If you have any memories of these types of aircraft, please share them.

Ross and myself will be using the RAF Museum exhibits as a backdrop to our discussions. The website to the museum gives plenty of information on all of the collections.

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

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