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The 1957 Defence White Paper – Part II

Ross Mahoney interviews Seb Cox on his views on the 1957 Defence White Paper
DR ROSS MAHONEY: In this section of the course, amongst other things, we’ve discussed the 1957 Defence Review by Duncan Sandys, which remains controversial amongst historians, especially for its implications with regards to the shift in missiles over manned aircraft. With me here is Sebastian Cox, head of the RAF’s Air Historical Branch. So what are some of the long-term implications of The Sandys Review?
SEBASTIAN COX: Well, Sandys, as many people understand it, essentially says that the future of manned aircraft is not particularly rosy, that within a decade or more, manned aircraft will potentially even pass right out of the picture, and that the future is all to do with missiles. And so Sandys is projecting forwards that the manned aircraft in the RAF will disappear. If not completely, then it will certainly be replaced as the most important element by missiles, both defensively and offensively.
In the shorter term, the view was that the V-Bomber force was still extremely important, that the nuclear deterrent would be carried by it, obviously for the following decade. But for example, that the role of fighter command, therefore, was not to protect the UK against nuclear attack from the air, Soviet nuclear bombers, because the perception was that that was probably impossible. You could never achieve a sufficiently effective defence to prevent some nuclear weapons being dropped on Britain. And that therefore, fighter command’s role was actually to protect bomber command on the nuclear deterrent, and to prevent the Soviets from knocking bomber command completely out of the picture in a preemptive strike so the deterrents would fail.
Because if you can take the other guy out with a first strike, then obviously, you can then do you want. So fighter command was going to be reduced in scope. And it’s really there to protect bomber command and not the UK as a whole. Looking longer then, again, the defence of the UK is going to depend primarily on missiles, surface-to-air guided weapons. And you’re also going to develop missiles in an offensive capacity with blue streak and so on. Many of those things that appear to be the core underpinnings to The Sandys Review, oddly enough, they don’t really come to pass. Fighter command is reduced in strength. Of course it is.
And eventually, the nuclear deterrent role does pass to the strategic missiles of the Polaris submarines. But the strength of the RAF per se does not, in the longer term, shrink in the ways that Sandys predicted. And in particular, here we are in the early 21st century and we still have manned aircraft. We’ve just sent more manned aircraft to Cyprus to take part in a war that’s happening today, long after Sandys had predicted that these would be things of the past. In that sense, Sandys’ predictions don’t come to pass.
But it’s also interesting that over the following years, partly because of changes which were not anticipated– it was anticipated that the next generation of air launch weapons might to extend the life of the strategic bomber. But cancellations of weapons systems, cancellations of the British missile, in terms of Blue Streak, cancellations of the American air launch missile, Sky bolt, cancellations of or a failure to develop the programme for Blue Steel Mark Two, the British air launch missile, all of those fall by the wayside for various reasons, often principally cost reasons, you won’t be surprised to learn. And you might expect that in that sense, Sandys is proving right. Because we have gone to a submarine-based nuclear deterrent.
But he’s not proving right in the sense that missiles per se, other than in a strategic concept, don’t become the all-important element of air warfare that he had predicted. And we’re only now in an era of significant development of unmanned aerial vehicles, and they’re not really in the form or the format that Sandys would have expected. Because they’re not missiles. They’re unmanned aircraft, remotely piloted air systems. So there’s still aircraft. They actually still have a pilot. The pilot is, though, sitting on the ground flying the aircraft, not sitting in the airplane. And also, some of the things that Sandys expected to happen didn’t come to pass. Again, some of these changes are driven by things that he didn’t necessarily expect.
So when we move forward, there is a recognition that you’re still going to need manned aircraft. And funny old thing, some of that is to do with the use of force outside of the European theatre and NATO. So the RAF actually maintains a lot of its strength and numbers of squadrons, but because they’re needed outside of the central NATO area. They’re needed in the areas like the Middle East in the 1960s and even the Far East still in the 1960s, because we’ve not yet withdrawn from East of Suez. And some of the events that happen during the ’60s do see the RAF deploying significant manned aircraft strength outside of the UK.
DR ROSS MAHONEY: Thank you, sir. There’s an interesting lesson in there, I think, about strategic planning. As Seb has quite rightly mentioned, we’re still using manned aircraft in campaigns against IS in Syria and Iraq. Sandys would not have thought that. The problem of planning for the future is a difficult one. And as such, we must understand and critique Sandys, understanding the context in which he was seeking to plan for the future.

Seb Cox on the 1957 Defence White Paper

We were very grateful for Seb Cox’s participation in this video, giving his view of the Duncan Sandys’ Defence White Paper from his position as the Head of the Air Historical Branch at the MoD.

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The video continues our discussion of the 1957 Defence White Paper; here we clarify a number of terms that we use in that discussion.

RAF Fighter Command was an RAF command formed in 1936, in order to oversee and control specific fighter aircraft. In 1943 the Command was disbanded into two separate forces, with the Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) taking on the responsibility of British air defence, whilst the offence force was named the Second Tactical Air Force. The ADGB was later renamed Fighter Command once more, and following the conclusion of the Second World War and the ushering in of the Cold War, Fighter Command’s role was still to protect Britain, but from the Soviet Union instead of Germany.

Surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), or ground-to-air missiles (GTAMs) as they are otherwise known, were developed with the purpose of destroying incoming aircraft or other missiles. The RAF’s deployment were the Bristol Bloodhound in 1958, and in many ways they served as a replacement to Fighter Command as these missiles have replaced most other forms of dedicated anti-aircraft weapons.

The Blue Steel II was a longer-range replacement of the Blue Steel missile that was considered by the British government in order to combat the issues that had arisen concerning improved SAMs that had caused the Blue Steel to loose its advantages. The Blue Steel II was cancelled, with the government preferring the longer-range Skybolt system.

As mentioned, the RAF following the conclusion of the Second World War was involved in a number of conflicts, but by the late 1960s its role had significantly reduced as they pulled out of a number of global air bases. The major conflicts that they were involved in at this time included Kuwait in 1961, the South East Asia Confrontation of 1963-66, and they were also involved at Radfan, the Arabian Peninsula, in 1964.

After the mid-1960s, the focus of Britain’s resources, including military forces, was on Europe and maintaining allegiance to the NATO alliance. This is once again explained by the wider Cold War context, as during this period there was a perceived threat from the Warsaw Pact as led by the Soviet Union. There was a common belief that this threat had increased following the deterioration of relations highlighted by the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

A good account of the RAF’s activities during this period can be found via the RAF’s history timeline.

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

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