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Emmett Sullivan reviews what we have learnt from week four of ‘From White Heat to Cold War’, and the RAF’s role deterring attackers from the air.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: To conclude this week’s discussions, we’ve looked very much at how the RAF roles defending the skies has changed in the Cold War period from 1945 all the way up to 1991. Now in 1945, we have the Meteor coming into service and the first jet fighters really coming of age. In 1991, in the Gulf War, we have F-4 Phantoms flying combat air patrols over forces in the Gulf. So that entire arc sees a technological change, a change of defending British forces in theatre, and also a change in the way that we defend Britain itself. Now some of the underlying tactics and the mentality do date back to the Second World War.
Certainly the concept of the scramble through the quick reaction alerts has its roots in getting aircraft off the ground quickly to intercept bombers. We also see civil defence as being a thing that’s kept through most of the Cold War period, although we’ve talked about it in the demise of civil defence and how quote, “home defence” might be organised in face of a nuclear threat. The RAF performs a number of important roles in defending the skies, so to speak. Particularly, when the V-Force was the strategic bombing force for the country as a whole, then we find the Lightning interceptors, the Bloodhound missiles, their principal role was to defend the RAF airfields and well as defending the population as a whole.
As we move through time, and the strategic deterrent is moved offshore, literally, into a submarine launched ballistic missiles, we find that the RAF is more focused on defending its assets in the NATO Central Command as well as British airspace. And finally, in this respect, we have the issue of how we actually defend and monitor the vast areas of the North Sea and the North Atlantic that Britain is responsible for NATO. Now, behind us is the SR-53. This is an interceptor aircraft which was contemporary with the Lightning development but was cancelled and would have been quite an innovation in itself had it gone forward.
What we’re going to be talking about next week is how the Royal Air Force role changed with respect to both applications to technology, Britain’s changing economic circumstances, but a change in the RAF’s role once Polaris is selected as the principal way that our strategic deterrent is going to be delivered. So I’ll sign off now and look forward to picking up with you on that discussion next week.

In the final section for this week’s topic…

… We must ask the question, how did the RAF develop in its role in protecting Britain? The Cold War was a period of vast technological change, from the speeds, heights, and durations an aircraft is capable of, to the development of missile technology, and the advancements in surveillance equipment. Now, alongside this we have the ever developing nuclear weapons, to work coherently with other technological changes.

Whilst many tactics of the Cold War are rooted in the Second World War, most notably the ‘scramble’ and Civil Defence, much of the RAF’s strategy had to adapt to the ever changing technological advancements and requirements of the time. At the beginning of the Cold War, the RAF’s principal role was to defend the V-Force airbases, but as the nuclear deterrent moved off-shore the RAF’s role had to adjust accordingly. The RAF became more focused in defending its own assets and NATO’s interests more generally.

Thank you for completing Week 4!

We are so glad you have stayed with us through this week. Thank you very much. We are also pleased that the main theme of this week’s work – defending Britain’s skies, and the airspace of its overseas interests – was something that the RAF had to do – actively – only very rarely in the Cold War era. The Soviets would send Bears (and other bombers) out to test the RAF’s readiness to respond to an incoming threat; and you will have noted from an earlier e-mail notice that the Russian Airforce has done the same recently with Blackjacks and Bears.

Air defence depends on good surveillance – whether by ground radar, airborne early warning, photo reconnaissance or maritime patrol. These are areas where the RAF excelled through long periods of the Cold War… although a working Nimrod AEW would have been nice… and this can be seen as an area of success.

However, we did also consider how the most effective way of keeping Soviet bombers out of our skies and their missiles in their launchers and silos was the possession of the ability to strike back with terrifying force. We mentioned in passing Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative – commonly known in the 1980s as ‘Star Wars’ (much to the annoyance of George Lucas) – Reagan did not want to be responsible for destroying half the world as President, and did genuinely (if somewhat naively) want to find a way of shooting nuclear warheads out of the sky. We touched very lightly on how that fear of nuclear attack affected the British population in the 1980s… even if it did produce a string of great dance songs (‘Enola Gay’ by OMD; ‘Dancing with Tears in My Eyes’ by Ultravox; ‘Two Tribes’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood…. I could go on).

We return to the issue of nuclear weapons and the RAF next week – Week 5 picks up where we left off in Week 3. Returning to the 1962-65 era, we review some of the defence procurement decisions in the legacy period after the Duncan Sandys’ 1957 Defence Review and Harold Wilson’s ‘White Heat’ speech, which partly gives its name to this course. By 1968 the RAF has still a devastating armoury of nuclear weapons – the tactical bombs we discussed this week – which it kept for thirty years. However, during this time, the Royal Navy became the service with the strategic nuclear role; and the RAF consolidated on its NATO obligations, and Europe.

Finally, Prof David Edgerton joins us to lament, as many did, the cancellation of the TSR2 programme when considering the cultural and social impact of that decision in 1965. Thereafter, the RAF’s procurement of new aircraft would take on an international focus – with the Phantom and the Tornado having British components and input, but no longer being British aircraft from the drawing board to service.

We look forward to welcoming you back for these discussions in Week 5.

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

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