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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Bombers and Bomber Weapons
United Kingdom Nuclear Forces Guide


DH 111
AVRO 730

Bomber Weapons

Blue Steel
GAM-87 Skybolt

Tanker Aircraft

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 August 1946, 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 2 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.

Bringing a strategic nuclear force into operation took nearly 10 years after those decisions were made. During that time the western deterrent was in the hands of the strategic air forces of the USAF and the political leaders of the West were primarily occupied with the possibility that the Cold War could escalate into Third World War. The confrontational situation in Europe at the time of the Berlin Airlift has already been seen. It led to USAF B-29s being deployed in Britain and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. It also, along with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, led to the largest ever peacetime UK defence budget to provide for an expansion of men and equipment (4,700 million was to be spent over 3 years, 1951-54, compared with less than 800 million spent annually before 1950); the recall of reservists and the extension of National Service to 2 years gave an active strength of nearly 900,000 for the 3 Services; RAF strength was over 270,000 of which about one-third was National Servicemen.

The term V-Force originated from the bomber's names - Valiant, Victor and Vulcan. The first V-bomber the Valiant, came into service in 1955. The Valiant was used to drop the first British atomic bomb at Maralinga, Australia, on 11 October 1956 and, after the Government had decided to follow the USA and Russia into the thermonuclear age, to drop the British H-bomb at Christmas Island in the Pacific on 15 May 1957.

The V-Force of Bomber Command became operational by mid-1955 and maintained the strategic nuclear deterrent until 30 June 1969 when the role was taken over by the Royal Navy's nuclear-powered submarines armed with Polaris nuclear missiles. At its peak in 1961 the V Force had 164 V-bombers in 17 squadrons. The original armament was a 10,000 lb bomb with an atomic warhead designed to fit exactly into the bomb bays of the aircraft. It was this type of bomb that was successfully tested in the first British A-bomb explosion at the Monte Bello Islands in October 1952. When thermonuclear weapons arrived in 1958, the Vulcans and Victors carried the Blue Steel stand-off missile, which could be launched from about 100 miles from the target and gave the bombers some protection from Russian defences.

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 British-made long-range ballistic missile (LRBM), Blue Streak, had been under development since 1955 but until it became operational medium-range missiles would be supplied by the USA). 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 2 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. The policy appeared to threaten the place of the manned aeroplane in the execution of air power, it tended to put all its eggs into one technological basket, and it initiated large reductions in the size of the armed forces. It was over-dogmatic in its assumption and took no account of the lessons of history - that air power is flexible if it is anything and that the flexibility must be exploited.

The policy was modified in succeeding years for several reasons; either the development of missile technology did not go according to plan, or development costs snow-balled, or political decisions over-rode the technology. Bomber Command operated the American Thor intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) from early 1959 until August 1963. The RAF Thor force - 20 squadrons each with 3 missiles - was manned by Bomber Command crews trained in the USA but the missiles remained under American control. The weakness of the Thor system was that it was static, above ground, and lacked the mobility that the V-Force had from its dispersed bases.

Blue Streak, although launched from underground, was similarly inflexible. Its development was abandoned in April 1960, having already cost 100 million, in favor of the American-built Skybolt air-launched missile. Skybolt was designed to have a range of 1,000 miles (the British Blue Steel designed for the Vulcans and Victors had a range of only 100 miles) and a joint US-UK development programme would allow it to be used by both the RAF and USAF. It was an ideal arrangement for the RAF; the life of the V-Force would be greatly extended at very little cost. Skybolt, however, never arrived. After major problems in development, the Americans cancelled the project in December 1962. Within 18 months, therefore, the RAF had lost its 2 future nuclear weapons, Blue Streak and Skybolt.

In place of Skybolt, the British Government agreed to accept the American Polaris missile (already proven) which would be launched from British-built nuclear-powered submarines. Thus the Royal Navy came to take over responsibility for the strategic nuclear deterrent, which it did from 30 June 1969, bringing to a close a chapter of RAF history. The strategic role of the aeroplane had been tied fundamentally to the independent mission and the independent organization of an air force. The creation of the Royal Air Force in 1918 was closely linked with the creation of the Independent Force soon afterwards. The doctrine of the independent strategic mission was the main, sometimes the only, case put forward for having an independent organization.

With the strategic nuclear deterrent transferred to the Royal Navy, there were some who supposed that the Royal Air Force would no longer remain a third service, who felt that, without its independent role, it would wither and die. In fact there was no possibility that the absence of the strategic role could affect the independence of the RAF. What happened was that the employment of air power by the RAF came a full circle; the great operational strength of the RAF at its formation was in the tactical support of the British Army and the Royal Navy.

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Page last modified: 03-11-2019 18:55:54 ZULU