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Project Cancelled

Project Cancelled: The Disaster of Britain's Abandoned Aircraft Projects Derek Wood "This classic book tells the story of how successive British governments of both political colours condemmed the British aviation industry to second place in the world, through a mixture of political interference, ignorance, stupidity, blind adherence to political dogma and appeasement of the United States of America. It tells how the British aircraft industry was hamstrung by timidity, a failure to understand the laws of physics and the realities of aviation and wild decisions by Ministers, such that the 1958 Defence White Paper declared that manned military aircraft were obsolete because the next war would be fought with missiles alone. That decision, by the Tory Minister of Defence Duncan Sandys, caused the cancellation of a number of projects that would have been world-beating aircraft had they made it to actual hardware, with many export sales in the pipeline."

Conservative politicians argued that an underlying reason for this situation was the ceaseless attempts of Labour Governments to compromise with their Left wing. This was a hopeless task, because the appetite of the Left wing for cancellations, withdrawals, savings and disengagements was insatiable.

All the aircraft the UK had in its arsenal in 1964 had begun development under the post-war Labour Government. Labour argued that the history of the military aircraft program under the Conservatives was one of unrelieved failure. The lack of British aircraft, and the consequent need to order American ones, was also caused by the frequent changes of procurement policy in the 10 years previous to 1967, and the continuing attempt to spread resources over too wide a field. All the projects initiated between 1950 and 1955, without exception, became the casualties of changed policy or their own rising costs within too tight a budget, and so were cancelled.

The book Empire of the Clouds is a cautionary tale in the loss of national capability. A world leader in jet aircraft technology in 1945, Britain needed only a little more than a decade to lose its lead decisively in the development and production of both military and commercial jet aircraft. This was the result not merely of inept political decisions—such as the 1957 Defence White Paper that cancelled many aircraft programs on the grounds that guided missiles made manned aircraft obsolete—but also of poor management at many levels within industry itself.

Why did the Hawker Hunter take so long to enter operational service, allowing the North American F-86 to dominate world export sales? Why did the de Havilland Comet airliner take so long to develop and deliver, even before the disastrous accidents that forced its withdrawal from commercial service, leaving the field to the Boeing 707? Why were the British still flying straight-wing Gloster Meteors and de Havilland Venoms in the late 1950s while the French, whose aircraft industry lay in ruins in 1945, began operating the swept-wing Dassault Ouragan in 1952 and the Mystère in 1954?

Britain could develop cutting-edge prototypes but could not manufacture large quantities of high-quality aircraft in a timely and economical manner. This problem prevailed not only in the aircraft industry but also in British manufacturing as a whole, contributing to the decline in national competitiveness from the 1950s onward. The precipitate rise and fall of the UK's jet aviation industry in the fifties and sixties depended upon a fragmented bunch of constructors, a desperate shortage of money, and a bunch of dim-witted politicians which included Duncan Sandys. Denis Healey also bears a substantial responsibility.

In a written Parliamentary reply on 17 June 1963 the Minister of Aviation provided a list of "major aircraft and missile projects cancelled before going into service since 1951." Mr Amery qualified the figures for estimated expenditure by saying: "They have been extracted from records extending over a number of years and may not all be on an identical basis." It is worth noting that the list is by no means exhaustive, and does not include several programs which cost sums larger than the smallest programs which are included. Two such programs are the Percival hot-gas tip-jet helicopter and the Armstrong Siddeley series of liquid-oxygen/ kerosine rocket engines.

The Hawker P.1121 Hurricane does not appear in the list because it was never under Government contract; but the Supermarine 508 and 545 might have been expected to be listed. Conversely, it is curious that the "Swift crescent-wing research fighter" should be included, because this was a single research aircraft never intended for operational use. The point may also be made that the expenditure quoted for Blue Streak is £17m more than the figure quoted by the Comptroller and Auditor-General in February 1961 as being the total spent on the programme up to the cancellation.

Lest one should conclude from these figures that British weapon-system management is excessively faulty, it must be placed on record that US judgment has been no better. On 16 June 1963 Dr Harold Brown, US Department of Defense Director of Research and Engineering, stated that during the past ten years DoD had cancelled 61 major programs costing more than S6,000m (£2,143m).

Project Cancellation date Estimated
Brabazon Bristol 167. Mks 1 and 2 transport aircraft February, 1952 6.45
Saunders-Roe SR.45 Princess flying boat May, 1954 9.1
V.1000 (VC7 civil version) Vickers military transport aircraft December, 1955 4.0
Bristol BE.25 Orion turbo-prop aero engine January, 1958 4.75
Rotodyne helicopter Westland (ex-Fairey Aviation) February, 1962 13.65
H.S.681 February, 1965 4.0
Short SB.3 Developed Sturgeon anti-submarine aircraft March, 1951 0.5
D.H. 110 fighter aircraft to RAF (F.4/48) specification May, 1952 2.5
Developed Hawker Hunter, Reheat Sapphire 7, 50° sweep July, 1953 0.14
Swift fighter aircraft Development up to Mk 4 February, 1955 22.0
Swift photo-reconnaissance fighter aircraft FR. Mk 5 and Mk 7 (Fireflash) June, 1955 0.3
Swift crescent-wing research fighter H.P.88, research for Victor December, 1955 1.6
Avro 720 rocket interceptor aircraft, specification as SR.53/177 September, 1955 1.0
Gloster G.50 Thin-wing Javelin all-weather fighter aircraft, two Olympus June, 1956 2.3
Fairey Delta 2 [FD-2] supersonic fighter aircraft, Two-seat, all-weather (OR.329) March, 1957 0.15
AVRO 730 Supersonic bomber (including engine) (Armstrong Siddeley P.176) March, 1957 2.05
Saunders-Roe SR.53 target defence interceptor rocket aircraft April, 1957 ??
Saunders-Roe SR.177 Naval interceptor December, 1957 3.2
P.1154 February, 1965 21.0
T.S.R.2 February, 1965 195.0
A.F.V.G. July, 1967 2.5
Nomad April, 1955 5.1
Screamer March, 1956 0.65
Soar March, 1956 1.2
Turmo March, 1956 0.1
Big Gyron March, 1957 3.4
R.B.106 March, 1957 0.1
Scorpion rocket engine, Napier, for Lightning February, 1959 1.25
Spectre rocket engine, D.H. Engines, for SR. 177 and V-bombers October, 1960 5.75
Super Sprite October, 1960 0.85
Vickers Blue Boar Guided bomb with television eye, flip-out wings June, 1954 3.1
Vickers Red Rapier, Soar turbojet flying bomb September, 1954 0.7
Blue Boar derivativeAir-to-ship guided bomb, EMI/Fairey March, 1956 0.9
Vickers Type 888 (Red Dean) Air-to-air missile with radar guidance June, 1956 7.5
Part of Bloodhound family Long-range surface-to-air guided weapon May, 1957 1.5
Fairey Orange William Heavy anti-tank missile September, 1959 2.4
Blue Steel Mark II Extended range December, 1959 0.825
Bloodhound Mark III, Replacement in hand March, 1960 0.6
Blue Streak ballistic missile, D.H. propellers, R-R, Smiths/Sperry April, 1960 84.0
BAC PT.428 Low-level surface-to-air guided weapon December, 1961 0.8
BAC Blue Water Medium range surface-to-surface missile August, 1962 32.1
Skybolt air-to-surface ballistic missile, Vulcan mods, training and support December, 1962 27.0
Medium Range Swingfire (anti-tank missile) November, 1964 0.234
Balloon-borne Early Warning Radar November, 1960 1.3
High Resolution Reconnaissance Radar February, 1962 0.73
Lightning III Auto-Attack System March, 1965 1.4
P35 Aerial Vehicle October, 1966 0.26
Expenditure figures have been extracted from records extending over a number of years and may not all be on an identical basis. For more recent cancellations, estimates have been given. Both sets of figures should be regarded as approximate.
The British pound of 1955 is worth about 20 pounds of 2010, and the 1965 pound is worth about 15 pounds of 2010. The pound of 2010 is worth about US$1.50, so the multiplier is about x30 for 1955 and x20 for 1965.

The following table lists defence equipment cancellations betweeen 1964 and 1980. It excludes cancellations before 1970 on which the project expenditure did not exceed £250,000, cancellations since 1970 on which expenditure did not exceed £500,000 and projects affected by reductions in numbers. In certain cases information on the years over which the costs were incurred is not available without involving disproportionate effort.

Date of
Project Total project

Years over which
expenditure spread
1965 HS 681 aircraft 4.0 Not available
1965 P1154 aircraft 21.0 1962–66*
1965 TSR 2 aircraft 178.0 1959–66*
1965 Lightning III auto-attack system 1.4 Not available
1966 Equipments for new aircraft carrier 0.3 Not available
1966 P35 aerial vehicle (hovercraft type) 0.3 Not available
1967 AFVG aircraft 2.5 1965–68*
1967 Chinook helicopter 0.3 1966–68
1968 Optical linescan for Buccaneer Mk. II 1.3 Not available
1968 F111K aircraft 13.5 1966–68
1969 Anglo-Dutch 3D Radar 1.7 Not available
1970 Taildog short range air-to-air missile 0.7 1969–71
1970 Land-based AEW system (FMICW radar) 2.9 Not available
1970 Mallard Communications systems 4.5 1967–71
1970 Deep mobile target for torpedoes 1.3 1965–71
1971 Mark 31 torpedo 5.2 1968–72*
1974 Skynet III communications system 1.2 1971–74
1974 QC434 short range air-to-air missile 5.0 1972–75*
1974 Beeswing anti-tank guided missile 1.8 1970–75*
1975 Hawkswing anti-tank guided missile 8.0 1971–76
1975 RS 80 medium gun 4.5 1970–76*
1975 VIXEN 0.7 1971–76
1975 Argosy conversion 1.9 1973–76
1975 Infantry company radar 1.3 1971–76*
1975 Sub-Martel underwater to surface guided weapon. 16.3 1971–76*
1976 No. 29 Cupola for Chieftain 1.8 1974–76
1977 P/PD artillery fuze 3.8 1971–78
1977 Other projects 6.5 1976–78
* Some of the expenditure was incurred on termination expenses or in settlement of bills after the date quoted.

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