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The Rise and Fall of Skybolt

Ross Mahoney and Emmett Sullivan discuss Britain’s attempt to purchase the United States’ Skybolt missile in the early 1960s.
ROSS MAHONEY: Welcome back. We’ve been looking at the various issues surrounding Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent, and of course, the RAF’s role in that. What we’re going to talk about for the moment is quite an infamous weapon– Skybolt, which Emmett is standing by right now, and its cancellation. And essentially, the decision to cancel Skybolt is essentially the death knell for the RAF’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent. Because what is bought instead of this is Polaris and the transfer of the role to the Royal Navy. Tell us something about the Skybolt programme– where it comes from, and that relationship there, Emmett.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: This is coming out of the late 1950s. And the relationship, principally, between Eisenhower and Macmillan that the RAF, having established the V force, is looking to keep it relevant for the next decade. So America is looking to equip B52 bombers with Skybolt, and we are developing Blue Steel. I managed to get it right this time, guys. But also by Skybolt, which will mean that we can attack targets far off from where the missiles are released. And that means that we have a hybridisation of the interest in missiles, but the preservation of aircraft. Now, of the two, what we have with Blue Steel, which does operate until 1970, is a standoff nuclear weapon.
It is basically an advanced missile that will home in on its target. What we have with Skybolt is something different. What it will do after launch is actually follow a ballistic trajectory, and therefore, be virtually impossible to track or shoot down. So if you like, it’s not only renewing the potency of RAF’s V force, it’s also meaning that once launched, there’s very little the Soviets could do about the warhead reaching its target. So what it’s doing is cementing that relationship between Britain and America. It’s Britain really going to America for the first time saying, we need to develop something which is sophisticated. We cannot do it on our own. But can we contribute to your development programme?
We see that more and more in the 1960s and the 1970s and beyond where we have partnership programmes being taken forth.
ROSS MAHONEY: Now, of course, the big controversy is the fact that it’s cancelled by Kennedy in 1962. It caused a degree of outrage in Parliament. Tell us, why is it cancelled, and the British reaction to this?
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Well, firstly, in terms of the cancellation– and this goes back to Kennedy’s election in 1960– Eisenhower knew full well that there was no missile gap. If you go back through the record, Kennedy campaigned on the failure of the Republicans and the Eisenhower administration for allowing the Soviets to get ahead. And therefore, there would be a missile gap where America was being threatened by Soviet ICBMs. And to a certain degree, this is the paranoia that comes after Sputnik the starts fueling this. Eisenhower knew exactly what the Soviet position was with ICBMs. He had good reconnaissance information regarding U2 over-flights, but wasn’t prepared to share it with his Vice President, Richard Nixon, who was, of course, running against Kennedy.
So we have a situation where Kennedy is elected into office later in 1960, after the Skybolt programme has been, if you like, made joint and the agreement between Britain and America, saying that America is wholly behind the Soviet Union in terms of strategic strike force via missiles. Now, the truth is very different. And Kennedy realised this fairly soon when he came into office. But politically, he’d committed himself to silo-based missiles, at which point then saying we can get by with the missiles which are in development does makes something of a mockery his election campaign. So we see a huge investment in the Minuteman programme, and then from that, Polaris as well.
So you have land-based, and then also submarine-based ballistic missiles. And Skybolt was just seen to be surplus to requirement given the way that the Kennedy administration, between Kennedy and McNamara, the Secretary of Defence, decided that they were going to devote the nation’s funds. So there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the project. It didn’t fit in with the political mix at the time about what the public was expecting the new President to do when it comes to countering a Soviet that didn’t literally exist.
ROSS MAHONEY: What about the British reaction, though? We’d invested quite a lot in the project.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: It really is something that is discussed quite roundly in Parliament, because it’s effectively saying that we are small beer. We’re not important. We can contribute to another country’s programme, and if it doesn’t suit them, we can be brushed to one side. And I think this is a little different from the position in 1945. By the early 1960s, Britain’s new place in the world was starting to become better defined. And it was quite clear that the Americans were leading the West’s confrontation with the Soviet Union. And while Britain was an important player, it was a junior player in the partnership. So it comes to the point of lack of respect to a sovereign nation, lack of cooperation.
And we talked a little bit earlier about how the Americans wouldn’t share nuclear secrets. Now they’re effectively saying you’re not worth the partnership to follow through on a programme that we had previously committed to. So it says something about what leverage the British government had at the time. I actually see this more as a huge miscalculation by Kennedy in not appropriately understanding what Britain had committed to the programme as opposed to a deliberate snub to Britain, which is the way it was interpreted in this country.
ROSS MAHONEY: What does Britain eventually get out of all this? Of course, Skybolt is cancelled, but what does Macmillan do?
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Well, he actually has a very strong negotiating stance. He can talk to the public outrage, and he can talk about Kennedy coming out of a very difficult period of his presidency saying, well, how do we re-cement this particular relationship? Now, the cutting edge at the time was considered to be submarine launch ballistic missiles, which hadn’t been deployed to any great degree, I think at all, at that point, and the reason being that a nuclear-powered submarine could be almost undetectable, effectively undetectable, which meant there was no possibility that a first strike would take out your strategic retaliation force.
And the Americans go through this process of having a bomber force, a submarine force, and a land-based silo force for nuclear missiles. What Macmillan did was manipulate the situation to this country’s advantage by saying, we put in development costs in good faith for Skybolt, and you could not deliver. Not only that, you cancelled it without proper consultation with us. We want your best technology now. And it is a remarkable conversation, because Kennedy eventually capitulated. For effectively the development cost of Skybolt, we get the best missile technology in the world at the time with respect to submarine launched weapons. So perversely, Britain could be argued to have benefited from that particular process.
But again, what it means is through a political error, miscalculation, the RAF suddenly finds it’s going to be relegated for its future role.
ROSS MAHONEY: And that decision, of course, leads to the RAF losing that strategic role, and aircrafts such as the Vulcan have to find a new role, which is essentially focusing on the central front in Europe, which is something that we will come back to next week.



At 00.47 in the next video Emmett meant to say late-1950s (rather than 1960s)! Cheers, Lauren. Exactly the way to start a step – just point out my errors, why don’t you? I am sorry – I did mean to say ‘late-1950s’. Moving on now….

Here are the statements we set out to discuss in this video step:

  1. The Skybolt programme – and other standoff nuclear missile programmes – would have given the RAF primacy in strategic nuclear delivery for decades.
  2. Kennedy’s cancelling of the programme in December 1962 caused outrage in Parliament.
  3. Macmillan drove a hard bargain with Kennedy over Britain’s Skybolt development costs.

We would like to hear your thoughts as well – please add them below.

The Rise and Fall of Skybolt

The Missile Gap was a term used during the Cold War, primarily after the launch of Soviet Union’s Sputnik in 1957, when a panic began about how many ICBM the Soviet Union had. Some estimates were in the hundreds. However it is now known that there were only four ICBM’s deployed by the Soviets, and 15 in total, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the run up to the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy pushed hard against the Republicans, condemning them for allowing the so called ‘missile gap’ to become so overwhelmingly in the Soviet Union’s favour. Kennedy was elected as president in November 1960, and took office in January 1961.

The Douglas GAM-87 Skybolt was an air-launched ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead, developed in the United States in the late-1950’s. The UK became involved in the programme in 1960 and intended to use Skybolt on their V- Force, which would have secured the RAF in the primary role of carrying the country’s nuclear deterrent through the 1960s and beyond. The UK had based their entire nuclear deterrent on the promise of Skybolt, so when the project was cancelled in December 1962 by the US (due to testing issues and a shift to submarine-launched ballistic missiles), the UK faced enormous problems over their nuclear deterrent programme, and it caused a massive strain on the relationship between Britain and the United States.

The Nassau Agreement occurred on 22 December 1962, immediately after Kennedy had officially cancelled the Skybolt programme. It consisted of talks between British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and Kennedy, with Macmillan arguing that the United States should share their project of submarine-based nuclear weapons systems as the United States owed Britain for its aid in the Skybolt programme, and the fact that the U.S. cancelled it, leaving Britain with no current missile programme to modernise their nuclear deterrent programme. The successful talks on behalf of Britain by Macmillan led to the UK pursuing the Polaris programme as their main source of nuclear deterrent, which saw the relegation of the RAF’s role in Britain as it was handed over to the Royal Navy, and the V- Force were no longer as important to the country’s security.

This really demonstrates the shift that occurred to the RAF during this period, and the rapid development of nuclear technology that caused this shift. It is also essential to consider how important the U.S. was in Britain’s nuclear deterrent programme, and how the United Kingdom still heavily relies upon the United States for weapon technology today. This article highlights the UK’s continued reliance on the U. S., and talks more about the UK’s options for the future in terms of nuclear weapons.

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

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