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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.

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  • Has the fad for ‘missiles only’ gone away; or has it been replaced by a fascination with drones?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