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The V-Force in Action

This discussion reviews the operational record of the V-Force.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now, we talked about the development of the V-Force. Let’s talk a little bit about the V-Force in action. And Ross, we’re standing in front of the Vickers Valiant. And that was developed with a high-altitude bombing role in mind. And it dropped the first operational British bomb, and also the first hydrogen bomb in 1956-1957. But clearly, there were limitations starting to develop with the idea of having a bombing strategy that involves a high-level flight over a target. DR.
ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah. The key challenge is that to drop a free fall nuclear weapon, of course, means that you have to be over the target. The problem, by the late 1950s, is that the Soviets have developed effective surface-to-air missiles. Of course, we see this come to fruition with the shooting down of Gary Powers U-2 spy plane in the ’60s. And of course, it becomes extremely dangerous to fly over a target that’s heavily defended. Moscow is arguably the most heavily-defended city in the world. Certainly by the 1960s, with a multi-layered surface-to-air missile system and a defending fighter force, it’s going to shoot these things down. These aren’t well defended aircraft. Actually, they have no defensive armour at all.
So this is one of the reasons why we see the development of Blue Steel stand off weapons, the ability to launch from a distance. It creates a degree of safety for the attacking aircraft. So that’s largely why free fall strategic bombing, because essentially, that’s what they’re doing. They’re doing Second World War strategic bombing. They may be going in in a single aircraft. But they’re doing the same sort of process for what eventually becomes redundant. DR.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Mhm. And just in terms of those changing roles, the three V bombers at RAF Cosford, are in very different liveries. We see the Victor tanker in a sort of pinky-gray livery. The Vulcan, which has got a more standard camouflage livery. But can you tell us about why the Valiant is presented like this, which I guess, is how it would have been in operation in the 1950s? DR.
ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, actually, what you see on all three aircraft is sort of an evolution in thinking about how you’d camouflage aircraft, for lack of a better description. The Vulcan is in standard disruptive camouflage, grey and green, which is what it would have been painted in post 1968, as it took on its conventional role. The Victor is in a colour called hemp, which is what it’s in when it leaves service as a tanker. And of course, the Valiant here is in anti-flash white. In short, it’s anti-flash. it’s sort of in the name. The flash from a nuclear weapon is too disperse that, to deflect that away.
Because of course, the crews, you know, the light from a nuclear could blind them. Indeed, if you look at the canopies on the V-Force bombers, there’s actually very little glass on them. Partly because of the way they’re navigated. But also, to try and protect the pilots as they go in to attack. So yeah, this was the standard colour, a white V Bomber. And it says quite a lot about the time as well. You know? This is the RAF strategic nuclear deterrent. This is the defence of the United Kingdom. So we might ask the question, what does a white V Bomber represent? So yes, that’s why it’s in that colour. DR.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: OK, and thank you for that, Ross. The Victor had a new lease of life as a tanker. And the Vulcan was re-designated as a low-level strike aircraft. Now, they continued on well into the 1980s and 1990s for the Victor? DR.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Right, OK. So what gave those aircraft longevity and versatility over the Valiant? DR.
ROSS MAHONEY: Well, the Valiant’s problem was its structural fatigue. It was retired in the mid ’60s because, essentially, the aircraft has reached the end of its service life. The metal stresses are too much. It can’t cope with low-level attacks, for example. Indeed, the Valiant is used in a conventional role in the Suez crisis of 1956. But it was operating at a medium and high level, obviously not dropping nuclear weapons, dropping conventional bombs. Whereas the Victor and the Vulcan are able to adapt slightly better. The Vulcan is a good aircraft at low level, and therefore, takes on the more conventional nuclear strike role and conventional bombing role in support of NATO and that area in a very efficient manner.
Refuelling operations are typically only taken at fairly medium altitudes. And the stress levels of the Victor allows it to continue to see service in that role up until the 1990s. It’s used during the First Gulf War. And so there are design reasons why the Valiant doesn’t have as much longevity as the other two designs. DR.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: OK, Ross. Thank you very much for that. So let’s go and reflect back on this. Remember, these were at the cutting edge, if not the cutting edge of aircraft design in the 1950s. But not all of them fared so well as they went through their service life.

The V-Force in Action

As ever, we came into this discussion with some questions and comments in mind to structure the discussions:

  1. The Valiant in particular was designed with the high-altitude strategic bombing role in mind – dropping both the first operational atomic weapon over Australia and the first H-bomb 1956-57. What were the limitations of this bombing strategy?
  2. The Victor also proved unsuitable for low-level missions, but was given a new lease of life as a tanker.
  3. The Vulcan was the most enduring of the V-Force – and covered a diverse series of missions, including maritime radar surveillance.

We would welcome your thoughts on this topic in the comments below.

The V-Force

High-level bombing, also known as high-altitude bombing is the tactic by which bomber aircrafts drop bombs from high altitude, typically greater than 15,000 feet. It was primarily a tactic used for strategic bombing, which focused more on inflicting damage to the economy and population of a country, than aiming at a specific military target. The problems that emerged with high-level bombing became apparent during the Cold War, and particularly in the late-1950s, with the development of sophisticated radar, surface-to-air missiles, and interceptor aircrafts. In combination with command and control resources on the ground and in the air, some of the newly developed interceptors were capable of detecting bombers at great ranges and to intercept and destroy them at great heights, making it increasingly risky for bomber pilots to fly these high-level missions in to the 1960s. We will come back to this point in Week 4.

This advancing technology was shown through the shooting down of Francis Gary Powers, a pilot of CIA U-2 planes, who was shot down while flying a mission over Soviet Airspace in May 1960. The U-2 planes were designed to fly over at high altitude and could take high-resolution photographs of the hostile countries the U.S. wanted to spy on. The Soviet Union became increasingly aware of these missions, and countered them with the development of surface-to air missiles.


The following two points are for reference – they reconfirm some information we have given in earlier steps.

The Valiant was a high altitude bomber, but with the development of Soviet surface-to-air missiles, they became increasingly vulnerable and were forced to change to low-level flying. However it became clear quickly that the Valiant’s wings suffered from metal fatigued and the aircraft was subsequently removed from service in 1965.

The RAF developed Blue Steel standoff weapons, operational by 1963, as an air-launched rocket-propelled missile to arm the V- Force and act as a deterrent. It also meant that the V- Force could still deliver the nuclear deterrent, but Blue Steel offered more safety to the aircraft and pilot than dropping a free-fall nuclear weapon.

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

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