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End of the V-Force

Ross Mahoney and Emmett Sullivan discuss the RAF’s loss of the strategic nuclear deterrent and the end of the V-Force.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now let’s consider 1968, and the beginning of strike command, and if you like the changing role of the RAF with respect to nuclear weapons. And Ross, the switch from the strategic to the tactical role really saw little practical change in what the Vulcans were being deployed to do. Is that correct?
ROSS MAHONEY: Not quite. I mean, it’s a difficult one. They’re no longer maintaining a strategic role. They’re no longer the strategic nuclear deterrent for the UK. That’s of course gone to the Royal Navy and the Polaris force. What you see is that the Vulcan is assigned to low level strike missions principally eventually in support of the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, NATO, and is operating tactical nuclear weapons, the WE 177. Though of course, something our students might like to consider is actually how tactical is a nuclear weapon. The WE 177, for example, has a yield several times greater than the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs.
Quite how that fits into being a tactical weapon I think is an interesting area that needs to be looked at. It’s also deploying conventional roles. But there is this switch, which is a broader switch within the RAF as well, the shift and the focus on Europe, focus on RAF Germany. Still defending the UK, but this move away from its strategic nuclear role is quite interesting. And the Vulcan does quite well in that changing role. And it’s sort of representative of what the RAF is doing in the 1970s as it seeks to find a new role in many respects– it’s lost its raison d’etre.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: OK, in 1984, we have the Vulcan force decommissioned. And that’s the end of the V force. What does that mean for the RAF?
ROSS MAHONEY: Well, I mean arguably, the V force ends in 1968, between 1968 and 1970. If we want to associate V force, it’s the strategic nuclear deterrent. The V bombers continue service in various ways, shapes, and form. Victor obviously is a tanker. The Vulcan in maritime reconnaissance roles, low level strike, and the suchlike. It’s eventual withdrawal from the RAF, the Vulcan’s retirement from the RAF in a strike role, I think represents the end of that strategic perception. The RAF is still content conducting operations at the operational level. It still has a strategic role in the defence of the UK.
But it represents that final shift to a more focused force that’s looking at the operational level of war– deep strike missions. I mean, the introduction of the Tornado as an interdiction weapon. It’s designed to attack targets behind the Soviet’s lines. It’s not a long range bomber. It’s not a strategic bomber. But it is designed to hit targets at the operational level, which our students might like to go away and read up on what we mean by strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war. But the withdrawal of the Vulcan is the end of that area of the RAF’s development.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: I appreciate what you’re saying in that regard. The other thing that I think it is worth just dwelling upon, and we’ve talked about, what is a tactical nuclear weapon given the yields that were being carried in freefall bombs up until 1998 when WE 177C, the final version, was withdrawn from service? But one of things that we’ve touched on is the independent nuclear deterrent. And once that last freefall bomb is withdrawn from service, effectively that ends the RAF’s role in carrying Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. But it’s not really that independent, is it, Ross?
ROSS MAHONEY: No, I mean, it’s the very close relationship with the Americans. We still have aircraft that could carry weapons. The Tornado is a nuclear-capable aircraft. We just don’t have the weapons. But of course, yeah, this whole issue of what we mean by tactical is interesting. I suppose to posit it in a different way, it’s not to do with the yield of the weapon. It’s to do with the targets that weapon is used against. These weapons are not being used to attack strategic targets. They’re not being used to attack Soviet cities. So they’re being used in a slightly different way. So there is an interesting dichotomy between what do we mean by tactical.
Is it yield or is actually the target set? Now I would suggest what they mean is the target set. Because, of course, to draw a comparison, the British Army in the 1950s plays around with tactical nuclear weapons. But of course, these are being used on the battlefield. They’re not being used in a strategic role. But again, the yields are greater than Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs. There’s an interesting tension there between what do we mean by these terms and what’s the implication for force structure and how they’re used on the battlefield and how they’re ultimately used in war. And what the RAF practise for, the RAF trains to deploy these weapons.
Well, what are they training for are some of the interesting questions raised by what do we mean strategic or tactical or nuclear weapons.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Thank you very much, Ross. And this is a topic that we touched on last week. And I think it might be worth considering these discussions a bit further in the future stages for this particular course. But that takes us to the end, if you like, of this little bit of segment dealing with the end of the force and of the V bombers.

The loss of the strategic nuclear deterrent

In this video we consider the following statements:

  1. The switch from the strategic to the tactical role saw little practical change in the role of the Vulcan after 1968.
  2. The Vulcan bomber was eventually retired in 1984, ending the V-Force.
  3. With the withdrawal of the WE.177C nuclear free-fall bomb in 1998, the RAF lost its independent nuclear deterrent capabilities.

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

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