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‘Sale of the Century’

Ross Mahoney and Emmett Sullivan discuss whether Polaris was Britain’s best option in 1962.
ROSS MAHONEY: Welcome back. We previously looked at the deployment the Thor intermediate range ballistic missile to the UK. And we’ll be talking about Skybolt, and of course, eventually the decline of the V Force and the decision to purchase Polaris, the so-called sale of the century. But of course, there is a background context to all of this. Britain developed or is developing a medium range ballistic missile, which never comes into service, Blue Streak. So we’re just going to spend a little bit of time exploring some of the potential alternatives to Polaris and the eventual decision to purchase Polaris. So Emmett, of course, Blue Streak would’ve been the alternative to Thor.
Give us some indication of why does Blue Streak not come into service. Why does it not continue to be developed?
EMMETT SULLIVAN: I think there comes a point that the fad of missiles of all types starts challenging our technical ability to actually push it forward. There’s also a realisation that the Americans are making much more headway in that particular area of development. So around about 1960, the idea of having an independent British medium or intermediate range ballistic missile is put onto the back burner. But the problem with Blue Streak is that having put so much kudos, or invested so much kudos around the developing of it, to actually completely cancel it would’ve been a dent to national pride.
So we see the programme limping on for about another decade until the early 1970s, under the guise of the Black Prince satellite launcher. So I think it’s more in terms of, firstly, how the nuclear deterrent is going to be delivered, but also, secondly, the capabilities of the government to fund a number of different programmes to do roughly the same thing. Whether it be air launch, ground launch, or eventually submarine launch for the delivery of the strategic nuclear weapon.
ROSS MAHONEY: OK, of course, about this time in the early 1960s the Blue Steel missile was coming online with the V Force, and the primary weapon that the V Force is essentially being designed around. A stopgap? Or was it planned to be longer lived than it ends up being, given that we eventually introduced Polaris?
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Well we’ve talked in terms of what we consider the lifespan of the V Force itself. And TSR-2 being an issue that we deal with in this course. So what we have with Blue Steel is the opportunity to extend the life of the Vulcan bombers in particular to have a semi-recessed stand-off nuclear missile. It means that the V-Force can get near their target, but not be subject to the same level of anti-aircraft or aircraft interception that deploying a free fall nuclear weapon would’ve involved.
So what we’re actually seeing is a capable weapon, but one that doesn’t really fit too well into the long-run planning of either the RAF or, after about 1965, Britain, when it comes to the delivery of a strategic nuclear weapon. We didn’t need to go for Polaris. But because Harold MacMillan cut such a good deal with John F. Kennedy to buy it, we start putting most of our development resources into the idea of having nuclear capable submarines, and then developing our own warheads for the Polaris force. At which point, a stand-off nuclear weapon is not a dead end in itself, but we have decided that we’re going to rationalise our development strategy when it comes to threatening the Soviet Union.
Of course, just in that context, we talk about threatening the Soviet Union, our strategy with Polaris was to destroy Moscow. It was the only target for all of the missiles for the majority of their life. So the coming of Polaris also changes the nature of the way that the strategic deterrent is being deployed. In RAF colours, however horrible nuclear weapons are, at least we had a broad range of contingency planning. With the Royal Navy, all our eggs went in one basket. And that’s something that becomes, I think, a little more limiting.
The other thing I would say in terms of the development of air launched nuclear tipped missiles is that the ballistic missile, or the long range stand-off missile at super or hypersonic speed go out of fashion. So the Americans cancel Hound Dog. But you do have the short range attack missiles, and eventually in the 1970s the strategy changes again. Not in terms of very large warheads or delivering missiles that will destroy an entire area; but with the introduction of both the Boeing and the General Dynamics cruise missiles, smaller warheads, and very precise air or sea launched missiles, potentially to take out targets.
So the Americans are changing their strategy while we are still somewhat wedded to the submarine launched ballistic missile as the strategic deterrent. Now, as we’ve talked about, free-fall nuclear weapons are still part of the RAF’s inventory as late as 1998. But the prospects of them actually being used are actually quite remote. So there’s two things I think we need to consider here. Why we have a strategic deterrent, and what are the objectives of the government in maintaining it with regards to targeting? And over the 1960s and into the 1970s, the development of a Sky Bow alternative, or a Blue Steel alternative, never really comes up once that agreement’s been reached between MacMillan and Kennedy.
ROSS MAHONEY: Thank you Emmett. A couple of interesting points there, and something we’ll go on to have a look at is actually the implication of the shift to the strategic nuclear deterrent to the Royal Navy. Since the RAF develop a very different role in the 1970s and 1980s, something we will go on to look at is essentially the shift of the RAF from its imperial role and its strategic role to a more operationally-focused role on the central front in Germany, which is something we will come on to explore in future weeks.

‘Sale of the Century’

In this video we consider the following statement and questions:

  1. Blue Streak would have been Britain’s alternative to Thor; but it was cancelled in 1960 in favour of Skybolt.
  2. Blue Steel operated 1963-70, and would have delivered a 1MT warhead. Was it purely a stopgap measure?
  3. Ultimately, was it the adoption of Polaris which saw resources being diverted to the Royal Navy over a new generation of RAF bombers?

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