Blue Streak – The Cancellation

All modern aircraft have four dimensions: span, length, height and politics.

– Sir Sydney Camm

Politics obviously play a very important role in a project such as Blue Streak. It was competing for resources, or to put it another way, for money, with not only other defence projects, but with Government spending as a whole. The Government was the customer, and it was the Government that would have to decide whether it was value for money. On the other hand, the Government is not one single entity; it is a mixture of departments all with their own agenda, and their own axes to grind. These agenda would often come into conflict, and that is what the story of the cancellation of Blue Streak illustrates.

The political decision by the UK to become a nuclear power in the late 1940s implied two interlinked technical policies: the development of the nuclear device itself, and the development of a credible means of delivery. Credible in this context can imply a variety of different concepts.

Primarily, the threat of the nuclear deterrent has to be credible to the opposition, and as far as the UK was concerned, this meant Russia. Secondly, the deterrent has to be credible to the armed services that have to deploy it, and also politically credible to the UK electorate. Thirdly, in the UK context, it had to be credible to the US, since the UK deterrent was perceived by the Government as essentially an adjunct to the US deterrent, and also since the UK wished to have some influence over US nuclear policy. This was not possible unless the UK had her own nuclear weapons. The 1957 Defence White Paper described the U. K deterrent thus:

The free world is today mainly dependent for its protection upon the nuclear capacity of the United States. While Britain cannot by comparison make more than a modest contribution, there is a wide measure of agreement that she must possess an appreciable element of nuclear deterrent power of her own.

A bomb without a delivery system is of little use. In the early 1950s, the intended means of delivery was by a free fall bomb dropped from jet aircraft (the

V bombers, which were the Valiant, the Vulcan, and the Victor), which were to be further augmented with Blue Steel. However, technological advances meant that many other means of delivery became possible as the decade advanced.

Principal among these was the ballistic missile, which, above all, seemed to have one overriding advantage. This lay in its apparent invulnerability: once the vehicle was safely launched, it would be extremely difficult to intercept. But there were various ways in which ballistic missiles could be deployed, and as the various possibilities unfolded, each new system appeared to offer advantages over its predecessors. Thus it was possible to begin development of one system only to find half way through that another system was becoming feasible, and which threatened to supersede its predecessor. Technological advances during the 1950s were such that a new system could appear within a year or two of development having begun on an earlier system.

This was a particular problem for UK policy makers, those in the Cabinet and the Defence Ministry. For whatever reasons, development times in the UK were far greater than their US counterparts. UK policy makers were put into a position where they had to take a decision on a system which might take ten years to develop, with an expected service life of perhaps another ten years. Thus they had to look 20 years into the future, and with little hard intelligence as to the capabilities of the Soviet Union. Much of this intelligence was based on erroneous assessments of the industrial capacity and technological achievements of the USSR. The launch of Sputnik in particular led the West to think that the USSR was in many areas technically superior. In fact, the missile that launched Sputnik, the R7, was far too big and clumsy to be deployed operationally. However, Soviet nuclear forces from the late 1960s onwards would be a formidable challenge to a country such as the UK.

Political and Service tensions developed as a result of the development of potential rivals to Blue Streak. Proponents of one system often deliberately misused technical information to cast doubt upon another, and a good deal of the policy making was deliberately partisan. In other words, lobbying for a particular system was heavily influenced by particular Service departments who wished to control the means of delivery themselves and whose budget would benefit accordingly. There were also other Service factions who wanted as little money as possible to be spent on nuclear weapons, to free up the Defence budget for conventional weapons. Most of this is as true now as it was then!

The Operational Requirement for Blue Streak had called for a missile that could carry a megaton warhead over a distance of 2,000 nautical miles. The weight of the warhead then available meant that a relatively large missile had to be designed, and in retrospect, this was a mistake. Given the long development time for the missile, it might have been reasonable to assume that warhead design might have made significant advances in the interim. Indeed, at the time the design was ‘frozen’, Britain had not yet developed a fusion weapon. However, hindsight is a wonderful thing.

The use of a cryogenic fuel for Blue Streak was also a potential limitation on its deployment as the missile could not be kept in a ‘ready to fire’ state indefinitely. However, in this context it should be noted that exactly the same constraints were to apply to contemporary Russian and American designs such as the R7, Atlas and Thor. Furthermore the structure of this type of missile was relatively fragile, and extremely vulnerable if deployed on the surface. Hence the intention at the outset was to site the missile in ‘underground launchers’, as already described.

Compared with the US, development times for UK projects were very much longer. By the time of cancellation, Blue Streak had been under development for around 57 months with the first flight still some months away. The Thor missile, albeit smaller but of the same technological sophistication, was 13 months from inception to first launch. There are various reasons for this.

The first is that the Americans had much more prior experience than the UK: American missile development had proceeded almost uninterrupted since the war, whereas efforts in the UK had been much smaller scale and directed mainly at small defensive missiles.

A second reason was the means of procurement. In the US, specific teams were set up with considerable executive powers and, by comparison with the UK, almost unlimited finance. In the UK, the procurement ministry was the Ministry of Supply (later to become the Ministry of Aviation). A reading of the Ministry papers shows that the executive powers of the Ministry with regard to the industry carrying out the work were very much less.

Furthermore responsibility for the project was very much divided. The Ministry of Supply was the procurement Ministry. The Air Ministry would deploy the missile when it went into service. The Air Ministry, however, came under the control of the Ministry of Defence, who also then became involved. Finally, the RAE was to be the technical overseers of the project. Hence representatives of all these organisations, together with representatives from the firms, might all have been present at the various progress meetings. Such cumbersome bureaucracy cannot have helped the progress of the project. For example, an official in the Ministry of Defence wrote about the building of the facilities at Spadeadam:

I think the Minister of Supply ought to be shaken. It is up to him to warn us as soon as there is any administrative or financial difficulty to his not getting on as fast as he could with the project.[6]

The sending of memoranda back and forward (in the days before email!) from one Ministry to another must have been another time waster.

A third brake on the project was the Treasury, who took a much closer interest in Blue Streak than seems to be the case with many other defence projects. Thus in a minute to the Minister of Defence: ‘During most of 1956 we were defending the very existence of Blue Streak against savage attacks by the Treasury.’2 Such comments occur frequently in the Ministry of Defence files. By comparison, US resources were incomparably greater, and American engineers could afford to launch missile after missile until the design was a success. The UK did not have this luxury.

However, the feature of Blue Streak that was to prove the most controversial was the means of deployment in ‘underground launchers’. These launchers evolved gradually from relatively simple ideas into what today would be termed missile silos, although the term was not then in contemporary British use. The design of these launchers would give almost as many technical problems as the missile itself, and their size and complexity would have created considerable construction problems for the UK

But Blue Streak was running into other financial difficulties, apart from the cost of the ‘underground launchers’. In a sense, the Treasury’s anxiety was justified, since the costs seemed to be open-ended. The Ministry of Supply seemed to be unable to make any realistic cost estimates, and the time was fast approaching when firm decisions as to silos and their location would have to be taken. In addition, even the Home Office was becoming concerned since their location affected civil defence decisions. The sheer size and scale of the silos was only just becoming evident: a site would occupy around three acres, and would have to be a considerable distance from any habitation. (One potential site at Bircham Newton was ruled out on the grounds that it was too close to the Queen’s residence at Sandringham!) Stopping any such major project in its tracks is extremely difficult; very good reasons had to be found. There would be considerable political implications to cancelling such a major project.

Alternatives to Blue Streak did begin to emerge soon after development had begun. These were the Polaris submarine launched missile, and an air-launched missile code named WS138A, later to be known as Skybolt.

Polaris was a system developed by the US Navy. It used solid propellant motors, and the early versions had limited range and payload. However, a decision had been taken by the US Navy that since warheads would become much lighter as their design improved, the range/payload problem would be much less pressing by the time of deployment (warhead design in the US was considerably in advance of that in the UK).

Britain’s first nuclear submarine was HMS Dreadnought, made possible once the US Navy had provided a design for a lightweight reactor. Since then there had been close co-operation between the two services, and Admiral Arleigh Burke, in charge of the programme in the US, was eager for the Royal Navy to acquire the Polaris system.

The problem was that Polaris was not particularly attractive to Whitehall. It would mean building quite a number of nuclear submarines (certainly more than the five, later reduced to four, planned after the Nassau agreement) and buying the missiles from America – providing America was prepared to sell them. Such an arrangement did not appear to be cheaper than Blue Streak, it would have taken just as long to get the submarines into service, it would mean spending valuable dollars on the missiles, and it would also appear to reduce Britain’s independence as a nuclear power. Certain factions in the Admiralty had rather different views.

The Navy felt it had come out of the cuts in defence resulting from the 1957 Sandys’ White Paper relatively lightly. But the deterrent and Blue Streak in particular was resented as it was felt that too much of the defence budget was being diverted towards it; money that could be used for new ships. However, attitudes began to change when the First Sea Lord, Mountbatten, was told of Polaris by Arleigh Burke, the originator of the system in the US. Mountbatten and Burke were old friends, and a rather clandestine correspondence began between them. Soon the correspondence became more official. Burke was a formidable proponent for the system: he invented rather poorly scanning clerihews for the system along the lines of ‘move deterrents out to sea/where the real estate is free/and where they are/far away from me’3 to hammer the point that a submarine on patrol does not need fixed bases, and where it can remain undetected and thus invulnerable. A faction within the Navy took up Polaris with enthusiasm during 1958, but realised that the big obstacle was Blue Streak. The UK could not afford yet another nuclear delivery system. Accordingly a campaign began with the Admiralty, as an internal memo shows. I

I share your views that what we are most immediately concerned about is so to reduce the deterrent that we can maintain adequate conventional forces. I believe however that a decision to go for Polaris would give a large enough saving to guarantee the conventional forces we need. Further expenditure on Polaris would I think be less than future expense on Blue Streak plus fighter defence of the deterrent.

If I am right that we can get an immediate saving by taking the decision now, I feel that we should present the economic advantages of Polaris rather more strongly. Such a presentation would it appears fall on fertile ground.

Further papers indicate similar lobbying. In a note on a possible European IRBM from the First Sea Lord in February 1959, he comments:

Nevertheless, mainly thanks to the Treasury, it was possible to secure a chance to refer this point to Ministers on the grounds that, in the highly unlikely event of our NATO partners taking up the offer, HMG would be committed to the completion of Blue Streak with all that entails.

Later on in the note, commenting with reference to solid fuel motors, he says ‘… unless we can effectively answer them, the chances of upsetting BLUE STREAK may be considerably weakened.’

The Admiralty became even more excited when they discovered (and misinterpreted) a scheme for a UK ABM system: ‘You would hardly believe it, but since sending you my note this afternoon we have unearthed further information which really does put BLUE STREAK out of court.’

The language used goes well beyond the simple evaluation of the merits of rival systems: it becomes distinctly partisan.

The Navy’s efforts had not gone unnoticed by the Air Ministry either, as the following note in June 1958 from the Secretary of State for Air to Sandys shows:

The general conclusion that I come to is that the matter is of such fundamental importance and so complex that it might be more helpful to you if the Chiefs of Staff were asked to examine the requirement in all its aspects, strategical, tactical and technical, in the light of… the First Lord’s paper, and then to put forward a considered military opinion to you.

Mountbatten, then First Sea Lord, was pushing hard for some form of report too, as a note to Sir Frederick Brundrett shows:

. we are all most anxious to see that the Powell enquiry is dealt with on the right lines, to be quite sure that it will lead to the right answer. This is a Defence question first and foremost, although it may have all sorts of secondary interests. We none of us can believe that Powell and two outside scientists can possibly arrive at the right answers if they have no Service views on the requirements represented at the Committee.

For this reason, we are all convinced that we must have adequate representation on the Committee from each of the Services; and that is why we decided that the three Vice Chiefs should sit on it.4

[‘Powell’ refers to Sir Richard Powell, then Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, and a key figure in the story of the cancellation.]

This is a letter full of ambiguity: what is the ‘right answer’? Presumably, to Mountbatten, this meant Polaris. And it is interesting that Mountbatten is pressing for Service representation on the committee.

Accordingly, Sandys minuted Powell in December 1958:

The Chiefs of Staff have no doubt been considering for some time the respective advantage and disadvantages from the British stand-point of basing our nuclear deterrent underground or under the sea.

I think we ought to have a discussion of this matter at an early meeting of the Defence Board. I should, therefore, be glad if you would let me have a summary of the views of the Chiefs of Staff as soon as you can after Christmas.

Powell submitted a reply to Sandys outlining the form he felt such an inquiry should take, and suggested its terms of reference as being: ‘To consider how the British-controlled contribution to the nuclear deterrent can most effectively be maintained in the future, and to make recommendations.’

But then he had to push Sandys for further action:

In a minute of 23rd March I submitted proposals for setting up a study into the future of the British deterrent… you agreed that this should be set in action but subsequently asked me to do nothing, in order to avoid casting doubt on the future of BLUE STREAK.

The Chiefs of Staff and Sir Norman Brook [the Cabinet Secretary] have recently asked me about this study. Both felt that it ought to go on, since the future of the deterrent is bound to come up again after an election, if not sooner. I think they are right, and should like to have your authority to proceed.

In any event, a note from Sandys’ office to Powell shows that his hand was being forced:

The Minister discussed with you this afternoon the proposed Study Group on the British deterrent. He felt that we had only recently reached our conclusions on the need and form of the British contribution to the nuclear deterrent. Little further information would be available, and in his view, the time was not yet ripe for a further study of this problem. He asked that if this matter was raised in your coming meeting at Chequers, you should say that he was considering setting up a Study Group, and you should leave this matter open. You agreed to discuss this further with the Minister after discussing it with Sir F. Brundrett and after your visit to Chequers.

But an internal Admiralty note written to the First Lord (the Earl of Selkirk) by the First Sea Lord (Admiral Sir Charles Lambe) in May 1959 gives another perspective:

My predecessor also turned over to me the fact that the Minister of Defence had agreed to a team under the Chairmanship of Sir Richard Powell, to examine the pros and cons of three possible methods of providing the future British contribution to the Deterrent, namely Manned Aircraft, Ballistic Missiles (BLUE STREAK) and POLARIS. Though this had been agreed by the Minister, I understand that, just before he left for New Zealand, he ordered this investigation to be suspended, giving as his reason the fact that ‘he did not wish the validity of BLUE STREAK to be questioned’ …

As I see it, the present Minister of Defence [Sandys] will do all in his power to prevent any alternative to Blue Streak from even being considered. I am also certain that the new Chief of the Defence Staff [Mountbatten], when he takes office, will do everything in his power to see that the merits of Polaris are brought to the attention of HM Government. Domestically, I am certain that we in the Admiralty need a much clearer picture than we have at present of the probable repercussions of the Polaris programme on the rest of the Navy before we start any official pro Polaris propaganda. Indeed, I doubt it is right for the Navy to undertake any such propaganda at all. I believe we would be in a far stronger position if we were (at any rate, apparently) pushed into the POLARIS project rather than have to push it ourselves.5