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Aircraft versus missiles

Ross Mahoney and Emmett Sullivan consider why the idea of ‘missile only’ defence strategies became so popular in the 1950s.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: When we’re talking about defending Britain during the Cold War period during the 1950s, we’re moving fairly rapidly from the idea of aircraft with cannons to aircraft with missiles; and then, eventually, the development of surface-to-air missiles– SAMs– like the Bloodhound missile behind us. Now this was designed to shoot down long-range Soviet bombers at equal long range– I think up to 80 miles away that it could take down an aircraft. Now we have issues about how you appropriately defend firstly the V-Force, which the Bloodhound was here principally to do. And then when the strategic nuclear deterrent gets moved to the Royal Navy, we find Bloodhounds deployed to Germany to help defend the, if you like, the NATO central front line.
There is a fad in the 1950s and through to the early 1960s of moving away from cannons, and even moving away from aircraft, and becoming a country and an air force which is depending on missiles. Now there’s a retreat from that position. But Ross, if we’re talking about the Cold War, and even now in the first part of the 21st century, is that fad for missiles only in terms of defending airspace? Has that been retrenched? Or now is that fad moving into different instruments, such as drones, for example?
ROSS MAHONEY: It’s a difficult thing to answer. I mean is it a fad? It’s a recognition that technology is moving on in the 1950s when you see increasing missiles. It increasingly becomes clear that missiles-only is not the way to go. I mean, from the perspective of aircraft, you only have to look at the American experience in Vietnam with the early versions of the F-4 Phantom which lacks a cannon, lacks a gun. They suffer quite quickly in terms of combat. It gets lesser aircraft that the North Vietnamese are equipped with. In terms of surface-to-air missiles, it becomes increasingly clear that they’re part of a multilayered aerial defence system. So you can’t separate surface-to-air missiles from air defence QRA with aircraft.
They’re part of a combined system. We increasingly, certainly in the British case, less and less surface-to-air missiles in RAF service. Today is that being replaced with drones, or remotely piloted aerial systems? Again no. Again, there’s very much a recognition that certainly for the moment, drones or RPAS are not going to completely replace manned aircraft. In a very simple way, if you look at transport aircraft a simple question, if you put it in the civilian perspective– would you get on an airliner with no pilot? The psychological answer is no. Does that mean that you can’t control the aircraft? Well, yeah, you can control the aircraft remotely, but you wouldn’t do it. Similarly with fighter aircraft.
The situational awareness offered by a pilot sat in the seat flying next to, in the Cold War period, TU-95 Bear, a maritime patrol version, going up and down the North Sea. Even today we’re seeing the Russians doing that recently. The affordability of having a pilot in the seat who can make the decision on the spot is still there. So it’s not so much a fad as an increasing awareness that these systems need to and must operate together provided a group synergy. And I think that’s what happens in the 1960s. There is the sudden “fad,” for lack of a better description, of we’ll go to missile defence. Then there is a realisation that they’re not the answer.
They’re not the complete solution. That actually what you needed was a much more complex solution than what was perceived to be a more efficient way of defending the UK. But that simply wasn’t the case.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: OK, Ross. Thank you for that. Just two points around this. Clearly surface-to-air missiles and the development of them in the Soviet Union changes the role that the V-Force in particular performs, because they could no longer be a high-flying strategic bombing force, as the technology the Soviets developed became more advanced. So it’s a little bit of tit for tat on both sides in that regard.
ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, you always have the technological innovations on both sides that do affect strategy. Strategy as a concept is very conceptual, but when technology changes, it can have an impact on the ways and means of achieving your strategic ends. The means of doing that changes because technology changes. To borrow a phrase, the logical strategy adjustment, that the grammar of it can– that the means changes. And of course the major change there is that we go from aircraft armed with nuclear weapons, or standoff nuclear weapons, because the RAF maintains a nuclear role up until very recently– to the Polaris missile and the sea-based nuclear deterrent.
But of course, in between all of that, the RAF do experiment with intermediate ballistic missiles. So there is a missile aspect to all of this as well– the introduction of the Douglas Thor for four years as part of the nuclear deterrent.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: OK, Ross. Thank you for that. Let’s move on and consider other ways in which the Royal Air Force helped defend Great Britain during the Cold War.

Missiles only

When we came to consider this topic, we rather stripped down our discussion to the following statement:

  • Has the fad for ‘missiles only’ gone away; or has it been replaced by a fascination with drones?

Neither Ross or myself saw much merit in the late-1950s and 1960s concentration on missile technology to the exclusion of guns and cannon. A mixed armoury always seemed more sensible in maintaining the capabilities of aircraft. Hence the ‘fad’ comment.

However, this point was not conclusively rejected by the RAF even ten years ago:

‘The RAF has been forced into an embarrassing U-turn on its policy of not allowing pilots of the new Eurofighter Typhoon to fire their gun. … The decision follows experience in Afghanistan showing that guns are still one of the most effective weapons when supporting ground troops. In a scathing e-mail, a Parachute Regiment major commanding an isolated outpost described air support from RAF Harriers, which have no guns and rely on rockets, as “utterly, utterly useless”. He contrasted their performance with the support offered by US air force A10 aircraft, which are equipped with a 27mm (sic) rotary cannon.”

‘Typhoon wins gun dogfight’, The Daily Telegraph, 3 October 2006. (The A-10’s Avenger cannon is, of course, a 30mm Gatling gun.) However, the F-35Bs Lightning II that the RAF is buying, as with the Harrier IIs whose role they will principally replace, do not have internal cannons – both aircraft needed cannon pods added to their fuselage.

The Americans probably went the furthest with the concept of the anti-aircraft missile, adding nuclear warheads to the Bomarc and Falcon missiles, and the Genie rocket. You can read more on these developments in the 1950s here.

We welcome your comments on the video below.

Technology throughout the 1950s developed at a rapid pace, but the key issue worth discussing here is that often when a new technology became available, other basic resources were downgraded in importance, and not utilised alongside the new advancements.

We shall explore how aircraft with cannons, missiles, or mixed armaments, plus the strategic positioning of surface to air missiles, worked in combination to create an efficient defence. No single aspect could defend Britain successfully. However, in the late-1950 and the 1960s, this was lost sight of. The lack of cannon on American aircraft in the early years of the Second Vietnam War (c.1965-68) became a problem – they were being outperformed in close combat by notionally inferior aircraft. That did lead to a major re-think on the issue of interceptor armaments in NATO, including Britain. This underpins most of the discussion in the following video.

Bloodhound Missile

  • This surface to air missile was Britain’s main air defence weapon, to protect the V-Force bases, and therefore Britain’s retaliatory strike capability. It was designed to shoot down Soviet bombers that had got through the efforts of the interceptor class, but before they came close to their target.
  • Most of the Bloodhound missiles were later positioned in West Germany to defend the so called NATO front line, when the British nuclear deterrent was moved to the Royal Navy.
  • It remained in service until the end of the Cold War, as despite its limitations in mobility, the remarkable range of the missile was difficult to match – the Mark II version of the missile could take down a target 80-100 miles from the point of launch.

Whilst we discussed earlier that Britain had developed a ‘two-stage’ defence process, using both interceptor aircraft and surface to air missiles, as missile technology was advancing and becoming more popular, it was held that aircraft need not play as an important role. The defence of Britain became very quickly dependent on new missile technology, and for a period of time, the RAF failed to utilise the use of both missiles and aircraft harmoniously.

The Vietnam War, as noted, was very illustrative in showing the hindrances of depending upon missile based aircraft. The prominent aircraft used by the United State Air Force was the F-4 Phantom, but suffered badly against the Vietnamese with far weaker aircraft. This was because the Phantoms were not designed to be fitted with any cannon weapons, and so could not defend against cannon-based close-in attack. So, even though the missile capability of the aircraft was vastly superior to that of the Vietnamese, the Phantom’s attempts at self-defence were also compromised. For the RAF, the Mark K and M versions were ordered in the late-1960s without guns, even though the Fleet Air Arm versions the RAF inherited were for fleet defence. A massive Gatling-gun pack could be added in an air defence role, but that affected the performance of the aircraft, creating additional drag as external ordnance, and having a recoil that ‘stopped’ the aircraft momentarily.

The belief that Britain could be defended by superior missile technology alone was luckily short-lived and discredited. It was quickly understood that Britain must use both missiles and aircraft in unison to create an effective defence. However, just as new missile technology became largely depended upon in the 1960s, there is a fear that we shall soon become too dependent on drones. Certainly, the use of unmanned aircraft carries a host of advantages, but the general feeling stands that you cannot completely replace the use of manned aircraft.

Technological innovations happened coherently on both sides of the world, and so strategy was always questioned and updated consequently. The most important change from Britain’s perspective was the transfer of nuclear weapons from the RAF to the Royal Navy, as it was realised that the RAF was simply too limited in the range of resources it was provided to achieve its objective of deploying the retaliatory force. Despite this, the RAF did experiment with IRBMs (Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles), as we noted last week. Thor missiles were placed across the UK, from 1959-1963, and were armed for launch around the tensions in Cuba. However this experiment was brief and largely American-led, and the nuclear capability was still ultimately transferred to the Royal Navy.

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

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