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Emmett Sullivan introduces week five of the course, dealing with RAF in the period 1962-65 to c.1991.

Week 5: 1962-65 to c.1991.

During this week, we wanted to explore the implications of Britain’s economic situation on the RAF in the wake of the Skybolt cancellation. By the end of 1965, the other major prestige project associated with the RAF had been cancelled, the TSR-2. Having touched on the Duncan Sandys’ 1957 White Paper before, here we examine it in detail, and look at the implications for British industry of two Conservative governments and then a subsequent Labour-led one cancelling a number of advanced RAF projects 1957-65. At the same time, we examine the implications for the RAF of its increased focus on the NATO Central Front and West Germany from 1968, and its role up to and including Gulf War I.

… To White Heat.

Harold Wilson delivered the ‘White Heat’ speech on the opening day of the Labour Party conference in 1963. In this speech Wilson outlined his opinions on the advancement of new technology, and its implications for industry. His conclusion has drawn the most attention however. Wilson stated that if the country was to prosper, a “New Britain” would need to be forged in the “White Heat” of this “scientific revolution”. The speech served a dual purpose for Wilson, the first being that of smearing the Conservative Party for being old fashioned and afraid of change. Considering the demographic of the Conservative leadership, such an image unsurprisingly stuck, whilst painting the Labour Party as the political innovators of the day. The speech also had the important impact of uniting the Labour Party after years of turmoil and infighting. It cemented Wilson as the new Labour leader and his rhetoric was received with ecstasy among the party, trade unionists, and scientists alike. This speech is one of the most well quoted speeches of the twentieth century, although historians have become increasingly sceptical due to the fact that despite his promises of scientific innovation, Wilson was responsible for the cancellation of several high profile technological projects, thus earning him a reputation of inconsistency.

Following the end of the Second World War, the aviation industry in Britain was in desperate need of change in order to meet the different military aims presented by the Cold War. This in effect meant the development of different military jets and bomber aircraft to provide Britain with a Cold War nuclear deterrent. It is worth saying from the outset that a number of different projects were cancelled at various points in their development, regardless of their importance or military potential. In the majority of cases the British government felt that the costs incurred were simply too high in order for the projects to be justifiable. This was the context in which proposals for a Tactical Strike and Reconnaissance (TSR) aircraft were submitted. The TSR-2 was a joint project between English Electric Aviation Ltd and Vickers-Armstrong (Aircraft) Ltd, and was designed with the purpose of serving several roles for the RAF. Its multi-purpose design was aimed at serving as a bomber, strike fighter and reconnaissance aircraft. Despite its great promise, this project, like others before it, such as the Bristol Type 167 Brabazon, the Saunders-Roe SR.177 and the Vickers V1000, was cancelled. This decision had monumental reverberations across the British aviation industry, although unlike other projects, the ruthlessness of its cancellation ensured the TSR-2’s place in history as one of the most controversial decisions by the British government in this period regarding scientific innovation and the role of the RAF.

The cancellation of the GAM-87 Skybolt missile remains one of the sorest points in Anglo-American relations during the Cold War, and this decision effectively ended the role the RAF would play in Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The Skybolt missile was an air-launched ballistic missile that had been developed by the US in the 1950s, as we discussed in week three, although Britain joined the project in 1960 with the full intent of basing its entire 1960s deterrent force on Skybolt. It was to be used on their V-bomber force, and although the costs were escalating, the primary factor in its cancellation by John F. Kennedy was due to the development of the submarine launched ballistic missiles in the form of Polaris, as well as the US Air Force starting to develop the Minuteman missile, which was a far superior missile that effectively eradicated the need for a bomber command in terms of nuclear deterrent. Where the Skybolt programme would have kept Britain’s nuclear deterrent with the RAF, its cancellation meant that their future role would be significantly reduced.

The development of the Polaris missile was extremely important for the RAF as it meant that the strategic nuclear deterrent of Great Britain was transferred from the RAF to the Royal Navy. The UGM-27 Polaris missile was a two-stage solid-fuel rocket nuclear-armed Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) which was built during the Cold War by the US. In 1963, following the Polaris Sales Agreement, the missiles were carried by the Royal Navy from 1968 up until the mid-1990s. As early as 1957 representatives from the US and Great Britain were discussing the possible use the Polaris submarines would have as Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Following the cancellation of the Blue Streak and Skybolt missiles, negotiations began concerning the US provisions of the missiles to Britain between Harold Macmillan and John F. Kennedy. The 1962 Nassau Agreement determined that the US would supply Britain with the Polaris missiles, although Britain would be responsible for creating its own warheads. It must be said that like other nuclear projects of Britain in the 1960s, the Wilson Government attempted to cancel Polaris in 1964, although this ended with a reduction from five ballistic missile submarines to four, with sixteen missiles to be carried on each boat. A large part of this decision was that Polaris gave Britain a nuclear deterrent at a cost of £140-150 million less than that of the V-Bomber force. Considering this, it is perhaps not surprising that Britain’s nuclear deterrent was transferred to the Royal Navy from the RAF.

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

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