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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.



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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