Rippon and Strath will have told you how things have been developing in your absence.
The first development is that WS.138A seems to be doing well. You will have seen the messages sent to your Ministry by the Mission, which show that it has now been approved by the Department of Defense…
This leads on to Blue Streak. The Chiefs of Staff have been considering their attitude to Blue Streak and have now given me their unanimous advice that they find Blue Streak, as a fire first weapon, unacceptable. I am afraid Dermot sold the pass here to begin with.
If then it is open to us to obtain an American weapon on acceptable terms, we are faced with a disagreeable choice. Either we must go on with Blue Streak in the knowledge that the Chiefs of Staff advise against it as a weapon. Or we must cancel it in favour of an American weapon, with all that may be involved in the way of losing the ability to develop missiles on our own. No intermediate course seems to be feasible as I understand from your department that if Blue Streak is to go on at all there is no sensible way in which any significant sum could be saved. I am not sure that they have really thought this out enough, but you will know better than I about this.
This then is the choice so far as spending defence money is concerned. It may be that the Minister of Science will conclude that he can justify financing the development of Blue Streak and converting it into a project for space research, primarily from civil funds. I have put this proposition to him but I should doubt whether he can find the money.
All this presents us with a difficult choice and I am not yet clear what it is best to do in the national interest. In order to help me to form an opinion I have been asking your department for information about the consequences of stopping Blue Streak. Your department is directly in touch with the Minister of Science’s office about the cost of the space research programme.
I should very much like to know what you think, as soon as your people have finished setting out the consequences of stopping Blue Streak, or any possibility of saving something from the wreck.22
‘Dermot’ referred to in paragraph five was the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Dermot Boyle. Blue Streak was intended for service in the RAF, yet even the head of that Service had rejected it. Watkinson’s implication is that Boyle’s withdrawal of support for Blue Streak was the precipitating factor. The phrasing of the letter is also interesting: Watkinson realises the implications for Sandys, yet cannot argue against the advice given to him by the professionals.
What were the motives of the Chiefs of Staff? Crudely, they could be summed up as follows.
The Army had no real interest one way or the other. Their only real interest was to keep the cost of the deterrent as low as possible to allow more room in the military budget for new equipment (tanks and the like) for conventional forces. If a cheaper alternative to Blue Streak were available, they would vote for it.
Mountbatten, as mentioned, had other motives. He was, in addition, Chief of the Defence Staff and a man with a considerable Whitehall network. Cancelling Blue Streak, to which he was opposed anyway, opened the way for the Navy to acquire Polaris submarines, which they did in the mid-1960s. His successor as First Sea Lord, Sir Charles Lambe, was also pushing hard for Polaris.
Boyle, of the RAF, also saw new opportunities for his service. Not only would the V bombers be given a fresh lease of life, there was a window of opportunity for the RAF to acquire further aircraft to supplement and replace the V bombers. Proposals were well advanced at the time of the cancellation of Skybolt to modify the VC-10 airliner to enable them to carry the missile.
Apart then from the Ministry of Aviation, Blue Streak had no Whitehall or Service support. Hence it was to go.
But there were other political considerations to the cancellation. Two of the most important were the political dimension of the cancellation, particularly given the cost to date, and the implications for relations with Australia.
Since the late 1940s, there had been considerable co-operation between the UK and Australia in matters of weapons development. The UK had devices to test but no room in which to test them; Australia had the room but did not have the devices. Thus Australia provided testing sites for atomic weapons (the Monte Bello Islands, Emu Field, and Maralinga), as well as the Long Range Weapons test site at Woomera. All Blue Streak test firings were to have been carried out at Woomera, and many facilities, funded jointly by the UK and Australia, were nearing completion. Thus the Foreign Office in particular was concerned about the impact of the cancellation on the Menzies Government and on Australian public opinion.
As to the cost of the project so far, there was a salvage option: to continue Blue Streak not as a military weapon but as a satellite launcher. This would help deflect much of the political criticism, but it was an option that had not been thought through very clearly – in particular, the cost implications.
Now the decision went to the Cabinet Committee on Defence, and the minutes of its third discussion on 6 April concerning Blue Streak read as follows:
THE PRIME MINISTER said that the first question for consideration was whether
the provisional decision… to abandon the development of BLUE STREAK as a
weapon should now be confirmed. There were two main issues to decide:-
(a) Would it be militarily acceptable to rely on the V-Bombers, with SKYBOLT, rather than on BLUE STREAK, as our strategic nuclear force from about 1965 onwards?
(b) Was it reasonable to assume that SKYBOLT and eventually POLARIS (if we needed it) would be made available to us by the Americans on satisfactory terms?
THE MINISTER OF DEFENCE said that… the general consensus of opinion was that, in circumstances other than a surprise saturation attack, the V Bombers equipped with SKYBOLT would have certain advantages over BLUE STREAK. The main considerations leading to this conclusion were political rather than scientific or technical. The Bomber force had qualities of mobility and flexibility which were useful for conventional operations as well as for the nuclear deterrent. It had the advantage that it could be launched on a radar warning without an irrevocable decision being taken to launch the nuclear attack itself.
THE MINISTER OF AVIATION agreed that there would be certain financial and political advantages in depending on the V-Bombers and SKYBOLT rather than on BLUE STREAK for our strategic deterrent force in the later 1960’s [sic]. From the military point of view, there was no marked advantage one way or the other. In these circumstances he would concur in the decision that the development of BLUE STREAK as a weapon should be abandoned.
… The Americans had indicated their willingness to make SKYBOLT available unconditionally, except for the suggestion, which we might be able to persuade them to modify or abandon, that specific reference should be made to its use for North Atlantic Treaty (N. A.T. O.) purposes. It should be possible to reach a similar understanding as regards POLARIS (on which, however, no immediate decision was required) .
THE PRIME MINISTER said that the Committee’s discussion showed that their provisional decision to abandon BLUE STREAK as a weapon could now be confirmed. The next question to be considered was whether its development should be continued for scientific and technological purposes. The officials’ Report showed that there were only two alternatives:
(a) to cancel BLUE STREAK completely; even if this were done immediately, there would be unavoidable nugatory expenditure of about £72.5 millions, of which £22 millions would fall in 1960/61.
(b) to adapt it as a space satellite launcher at a cost, including the development of a stabilised satellite, of about £90-100 millions.
The advantages and disadvantages of these two courses could not be wholly assessed in material terms. To cancel BLUE STREAK would involve dislocation of industry, difficulties with the Australians, heavy charges, the loss of the potential value of a large British rocket for space research or other purposes and the abandonment of that part of the work already done which was relevant to the development of a satellite launcher; but it would curtail expenditure in the longer term, and make resources available for other purposes. To develop BLUE STREAK as a space satellite launcher would be much more costly. and the Ministry of
Aviation had not been able to consult the firms concerned about whether the £90100 millions launcher and satellite programme would in fact be practicable…
THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER said that an immediate decision should be taken to bring all further work on BLUE STREAK to an end. The nation’s resources over the next few years would be inadequate to meet all our existing commitments. Since there was no suggestion that any other project should give way to the development of BLUE STREAK as a space satellite launcher, he did not see how the heavy expenditure involved could be met. The programme was estimated to cost over the next four or five years some £75 millions more than the cost of immediate cancellation; past experience suggested that this figure might be considerably increased and that other defence projects, for which no provision had yet been made, would eventually come forward to take the place of expenditure saved on BLUE STREAK. The national economy would benefit from the industrial and man-power resources made available by the complete cancellation of BLUE STREAK.
Summing up, THE PRIME MINISTER said that the Cabinet should be informed of the decision to cancel the development of BLUE STREAK as a weapon and invited to consider whether this decision should be announced in terms that all work on BLUE STREAK should cease completely or that further consideration was being given to its development as a space satellite launcher. If the latter alternative were adopted it would be desirable for a final decision to be taken if possible within the next few weeks.
The Committee took note that the Prime Minister would arrange for the Cabinet to be informed of the decision to cancel the development of BLUE STREAK as a weapon and of the terms in which this decision might be communicated to Parliament and to the Government of Australia on the alternative assumptions that –
(a) all further work on BLUE STREAK should cease;
(b) consideration should be given, in consultation with industry and the other interests concerned, to the adaptation of BLUE STREAK as a space satellite launcher.
The decision having thus been taken, it fell to Watkinson to make the announcement in the House of Commons on 13 April. He rose to read a statement which ran thus: