Win the adventure of a lifetime!

UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Defense Policy - Cold War

The end of the Second World War did not bring about complete peace. As weapon technology became more advanced, defence policy became more crucial. The post Second World War period was marked by dramatic reduction in defence spending. However, after the start of the Korean War, amid fears of a general war with the Soviet Union, a dramatic expansion of defence spending took place. By the 1960s Britain had considerable worldwide defence commitments that were scaled down in the 1970s when the focus of defence shifted towards operating within North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) requirements.

Britain placed great importance on the political and diplomatic status of strategic nuclear weapons and made considerable financial sacrifices to obtain them. During the Second World War, Britain and America cooperated closely in the development of the atomic bomb, with many British scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. Importantly, under the wartime Quebec agreement, Britain surrendered the right to veto American use of atomic weapons. Agreements at the Quebec Conference in 1943, at Hyde Park in September 1944 and in Washington in 1945 promised continuing nuclear cooperation after the end of the war.

The McMahon Act of 1946 stipulated that the US would not share information concerning atomic weapons. This was a bitter disappointment to the British government, and as a direct result Attlee's government initiated its own atomic weapons program in January 1947. This led to the first test at Monte Bello in October 1952. Despite advances in nuclear submarine propulsion, Britain's deterrent was based on RAF jet bombers - the V-bomber force. The British tested their first thermonuclear weapon (the hydrogen bomb) in May 1957.

The birth of the nuclear armed ballistic missile made the RAF's V-bomber force out-of-date and expensive. The fallout from the Suez Crisis forced Britain to reassess defence. A British-designed medium range ballistic missile, Blue Streak, was not expected to be able to replace the V-bomber force until the mid 1960s. At the same time, the resignation of Anthony Eden as Prime Minister and his replacement by Harold Macmillan allowed for new thinking on strategic policy. Macmillan was keen to develop the concept of Anglo-American nuclear interdependence. In March 1957 Macmillan met Eisenhower in Bermuda and agreed to the deployment of Thor IRBMs in Britain.

The Blue Streak was cancelled in February 1960 and replaced by an agreement to purchase the American Skybolt missile. In 1962 the American Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, decided to scrap Skybolt and left Macmillan without a nuclear arms strategy. The submarine-based Polaris system was identified as a viable replacement (already in service with the American navy). In December 1962, during further negotiations at Nassau, Macmillan demanded submarine-launched Polaris missiles for Britain. John F. Kennedy was reluctant, believing bilateral arrangements would hinder British entry to the European Economic Community (EEC), but eventually agreed to supply the missiles. With the decision to replace the V-bomber force with Polaris, control of the nuclear deterrent passed from the RAF to the Royal Navy. By 1968 the first of the strategic missile submarines was on deterrent patrol.

Between the end of World War 2 and the end of the Cold War there were four major exercises which could be broadly classified as defence reviews-in 1957 under Duncan Sandys; in the mid-sixties under Dennis Healey; in 1975-76 under Roy Mason and in 1981 under John Nott.

From the mid-1950s defence spending increased. The defence review of 1957 led by the Minister for Defence, Duncan Sandys, acknowledged the likelihood of rapid escalation into nuclear war in the event of conflict with the Warsaw Pact nations. Spending was therefore concentrated on nuclear weaponry as a deterrent. During this period there was also a reduction in military garrisons in the colonies and West Germany, and conscription was phased out. The immediate post-war years saw the introduction of an annual defence White Paper setting out defence policy. In 1963-1964 the merger of the War Office, Admiralty, Air Ministry, and the Ministry of Defence created a new 'super' Ministry of Defence.

By 1964 the United Kingdom had considerable worldwide defence commitments. These included former colonies in South East Asia and protectorates and allies in the Persian Gulf. British and Commonwealth forces had become engaged in a major counter-insurgency campaign in Malaysia and Brunei against Indonesian forces.

The great advances in military technology and spiralling cost of defence projects was an intolerable strain on finances in the fragile economic climate. A series of defence cuts and reviews instigated by the Defence Secretary, Denis Healey, cancelled major hardware programmes, which included the TSR2 and the CVA01 aircraft carrier. The defence reviews committed Britain to withdrawing from its bases east of the Suez Canal by 1975.This withdrawal was later brought forward to 1971 as a result of a further spending review following the devaluation of sterling in November 1967. The purchase of the US F111 strike aircraft was also cancelled.

Succeeding governments continued the gradual downscaling of defence commitments and capabilities. A defence review in 1975 resulted in further withdrawal from overseas commitments and bases in the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean. The focus of defence shifted towards forces operating within North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) requirements in central Europe and the Eastern Atlantic.

Join the mailing list

Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:05 ZULU