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The Royal Air Force in the Cold War

Fighter Attack
  • Bristol 188

  • TSR-2
  • Apart from world-wide operations, the history of the RAF from 1945 to the early 1990’s was dominated by two factors; firstly, from 1945 until 1969 the RAF was responsible for the creation and operation of the British strategic nuclear deterrent; secondly, from the mid-1960’s drastic economies in defence expenditure which radically altered the deployment, the size and the shape of the RAF, as they did for the other two Services.

    By the end of the Second World War the jet, missile and nuclear age had arrived. The problems for the British Government and the RAF were whether Britain should develop its own atomic bombs and, if they were to be developed, what type of aircraft would be needed to drop them. The Labour Government of Mr Attlee, which came to power in June 1945, decided that United Nations organization was not strong enough to enforce any international control over atomic energy development. If the USA was not to have a monopoly of the new weapons, Britain must develop its own nuclear weapons to safeguard its own security. That decision was made, after much political heart-searching and despite the strong opposition of some members of the Labour Party, on 8 January 1947.

    The Air Staff had, however, anticipated the decision by issuing, in the previous August, a requirement for an atomic bomb. They had also, in November 1946, issued a draft requirement for a new bomber that could deliver the atomic bomb. This specification was for a 4-engined bomber with a greater range, twice the speed and twice the height over the target of any existing bomber. On 9 January 1947, the day after the Government’s decision to develop an atomic bomb, the leading aircraft manufacturers were invited to design and build the new bomber. These decisions, plus, of course, the doctrine of the strategic air bombardment, were, therefore, the foundations of a strategic nuclear deterrent force - the V-force of Bomber Command, whose creation and deployment was the single most important and costly activity of the RAF between 1945 and 1969.

    The 1957 Statement on Defence cast a long shadow over the future of the RAF. While stressing the overriding importance of maintaining the nuclear deterrent as the only way to prevent war and reaffirming British military responsibilities throughout the world, it aimed at what it called ‘a comprehensive re-shaping of policy’. This meant taking into account both the country’s economic and financial strength - the cost in terms of men and resources devoted to defence in the previous years was said to be too high - and, above all, the scientific advances in weapons and missiles that must ‘fundamentally alter the whole basis of military planning’. The very strong, almost dogmatic, emphasis on missile forces was reflected in the plans for both the bomber and fighter forces of the future. The V-Force was to be ‘supplemented by ballistic rockets’.

    The fighter force, responsible only for the defence of the V-Force bases since a more general task of air defence was thought impossible, was to be ‘in due course replaced by a ground-to-air guided missile system’. These basic assumptions, therefore, led to two crucial statements on research and development; firstly that ‘the Government have decided not to go on with the development of a supersonic manned bomber’; and, secondly, ‘that the RAF are unlikely to have a requirement for fighter aircraft of types more advanced than the supersonic P.1 and work on such projects will stop’. The P.1 entered service as the Lightning, an aircraft capable of flying at Mach 2. Both this radical new policy and its author, Mr Duncan Sandys, then Minister of Defence, have been called many things, very few of which are complimentary.

    Notwithstanding the 1957 Sandy’s Statement on Defence, the RAF entered the 1960s with the clear recognition that manned aircraft would remain essential for the successful performance of its many roles. Developments went ahead in 2 important areas: a replacement for the Canberra and the application of Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing (VSTOL) principles to a new range of fighter and transport aircraft. But in 1965 the financial cut-backs bit immediately into these projects. The TSR 2 (Tactical/Strike/Reconnaissance aircraft), which was to replace the Canberra and which had flown for the first time the previous year, was cancelled.

    At its peak post-1945 strength in 1952, total RAF manpower was over 270,000 of which about one third were National Servicemen: in 1962, with barely a trickle of National Servicemen remaining, it was 148,000; in 1968, when the first large scale changes were announced, it was 120,000; and in 1976, when the second major defence review had been completed and more cuts made, the RAF was only 90,000 strong (in total less than the number of officers in the USAF).

    Changed commitments and concentration upon the role in Europe, together with the much reduced size of the RAF, led to a simplification of the Command structure. At the end of the Second World War in Europe, there were 10 RAF Commands at home: Bomber, Fighter, Coastal, Transport, Balloon, Flying Training, Technical Training, Signals, Maintenance and Reserve (later Home). Balloon Command disbanded in June 1945 and Home Command in 1959. By 1968 it was clear that the old organization of functional Commands, established after 1936 when the RAF was expanding, was no longer necessary.

    The major restructuring process began on 30 April 1968 when Bomber and Fighter Commands merged to form RAF Strike Command. Air offensive and air defensive elements were concentrated in No 1 and 11 Groups respectively. A year later Signals and Coastal Commands became No 90 (Signals) Group and No 18 (Maritime) Group respectively within Strike Command and then, as the Service continued to contract, Air Support Command (incorporating the old Transport Command) was integrated into Strike Command on 1 September 1972 to form one single multi-operational RAF command at home.

    The British Army found itself facing a new situation. In complete reversal of the previous 400 years of British military policy, which had been to avoid keeping troops on European soil, it now had a sizeable force permanently stationed in Europe in peacetime, and the RAF needed to be there in proportionate strength. Once the Berlin Blockade had demonstrated the nature of the threat from the East, it was clear that the RAF’s deployment on the old Luftwaffe bases, many of them near the zonal boundary, made no military sense and, in the early 1950s, many of its squadrons were moved back to a group of newly-built airfields west of the Rhine, soon to be known as the ‘clutch stations’. At the same time, the title British Air Forces of Occupation (BAFO) was changed to Second Tactical Air Force (2TAF). s. By the end of 1972, RAF Germany was made up of 4 Phantom squadrons, 3 of Harriers, 2 of Buccaneers, 2 of Lightnings and one of the Wessex.

    Between 1973 and 1976, Nos 14, 17 and 31 Squadrons at Bruggen exchanged their Phantoms for strike/attack Jaguars They were then joined by 20 Squadron which had exchanged its Harriers for Jaguars. A fifth Phantom squadron, No 2 Squadron re-equipped with the reconnaissance version of the Jaguar at Laarbruch. Phantom interceptors replaced the Lightnings at Gutersloh, and because these aircraft had a far better range and endurance than the Lightning they were deployed back at Wildenrath. This in turn made it possible to move Nos 3 and 4 Squadron Harriers to where they should have been all along, on the forward base at Gutersloh alongside 18 Sqn’s Wessex helicopters.

    The jointly developed British, German and Italian swing-wing Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) came into service as the Tornado. By the mid-1980s, this new aircraft provided over half the combat strength of the RAF having replaced the Vulcan and Buccaneer in the nuclear strike role and the Phantom and Lightning in the air defence role - one aircraft for what were the old fighter and bomber forces. Spitfire and Lancaster in one airframe.

    After the expansion period during the Korean War, the Government in the 1950s and early 1960s became increasingly conscious that the continued extensive overseas commitments placed a strain on Britain’s manpower resources and foreign currency reserves. In order to reduce defence spending and cut the size of the armed forces (National Service ended in 1960), the number of overseas garrisons and the size of the remaining bases were reduced.

    The plan was that troops should be held in reserve in the UK (the Strategic Reserve) and then flown overseas when needed to reinforce the existing forces. The strategic and tactical air transport fleets of the RAF were therefore built up to provide the airlift - first the Comet IIs, Hastings, Beverleys, Britannias and Argosies, and then later the Comet IVs, Belfasts, Hercules and VC-10s. In the mid-1960s, strategic airlift began to be seen as the dominant role for the RAF at the time when the V-Force was coming to the end of its strategic deterrent responsibility. Transport Command was renamed Air Support Command in 1967, indicating the widening role of all forms of tactical and strategic support aircraft.

    Although the United Kingdom was declared one of the 4 air defence regions in NATO in 1960 and made subordinate to SACEUR in 1961, it was not until 1975 that a dedicated separate air defence command was set up in the UK, the United Kingdom Air Defence Region, (UKADR). This region was established because of the United Kingdoms strategic position. In the event of a (conventional) war with the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom would be in geographical terms of strategic importance in two ways; firstly in protecting and safeguarding supply routes into Europe from North America and secondly in its importance as a forward base for the United States in Europe. The UKADR was spread from the English Channel in the South to the Faeroes in the North and from the North Sea in the East to almost the middle of the Atlantic in the West.

    By 1988 the Soviet Union was operating Tu-160 Blackjack long-range supersonic strategic bombers designed to carry Kickback short-range cruise missiles. Since it was virtually impossible to intercept such bomber-launched missiles, it was essential to intercept the bombers at long range rather than attempt to shoot down the cruise missiles, the aim was to ‘hit the archer not the arrow’

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    Page last modified: 25-08-2016 12:35:46 ZULU