A Grand Narrative
There’s a section of the RAF called the Operational Requirements Branch. We’ve come across it from time to time along the way.
It isn’t very large. Or at any rate, in 1954, it wasn’t very large. The job of the officers seconded to the Operational Requirements Branch was to think long term, to think about the needs of the RAF ten or more years ahead, and to try to imagine the form that ‘‘the threat’’ might take geopolitically—which as we know at that time meant the Russians and their allies in the Warsaw Pact, together with the possible aspirations of new powers in what is now called the ‘‘Third World.’’ They also thought technologi- cally—in terms, that is, of the likely innovations that would be made, in particular by the most advanced of these threats, the Soviet Union.
There was talk throughout the RAF. But papers defining a change in the threat started to emerge from the OR Branch between 1953 and 1955, and what they said is this: the life of the 164 Arborescences British nuclear bomber force is limited.
At this point, to make the narrative work perhaps I need to offer some background, to make some context, some scenery.
Britain was in the process of becoming a nuclear power. It was working toward atomic weapons and was also planning hydrogen weapons. These were free-fall bombs, weapons designed, in the first instance, to play a strategic role, though they would later be developed for tactical use, to be carried by Canberras. The idea was deterrence. An enemy could be held back by threatening to drop bombs on major cities. These bombs were to be carried by aircraft, by the so-called V-bomber force. We have come across the V-bombers. These were subsonic, medium-altitude aircraft that would fly from bases in the UK or Germany to the Soviet Union. Their existence, together with the nuclear weapons themselves, provided the British nuclear deterrent.
The life of the British nuclear bomber force was limited. Why?
This is something else I have discussed. The OR Branch feared the advent of surface-to-air, radar-guided missiles. These would, or so it imagined it, be located around major targets such as Moscow. And as the technology developed, Britain’s V-bomber forces would become increasingly vulnerable. The Soviet Union was developing surface-to-air missiles, but the technology would take some time to mature and even longer before such missiles were deployed in numbers sufficiently large to make any substantial difference. Nevertheless, the writing was on the wall. By the mid 1960s, ten or more years off, the V-bombers would have become obsolete and Britain would no longer have a nuclear deterrent—unless something was done.
This, then, is one of the possible branches. Perhaps it isn’t the most immediate for the aircraft project that was to become the TSR2—the aircraft project first called General Operational Requirement (GOR)
339 and subsequently by the more specific Operational Requirement (OR) 343. But it’s important even so.
Unless something was done—but what? If the UK wanted to retain its nuclear deterrent (and this was never in doubt, at least in the Royal Air Force and government) then perhaps there were
three possibilities. Arborescences 165
First, it might develop ballistic missiles. Launched from the UK or Germany, or in some versions from aircraft based in these countries, such missiles would be targeted on the great cities of the Soviet Union. And, because of their speed, like the Nazi V2 missiles they would be quite immune to counterattack by surface-to-air missiles.
Second, it might develop a very high-speed, manned bomber. This aircraft, which would also fly at high altitude, would be too fast for surface-to-air counterattack. And, like the first option, would (or so it was suggested) outfly any likely fighter aircraft that were sent up to intercept it.
Third, it might develop an aircraft that would fly very low. So what was the rationale? Such an aircraft would be difficult to spot. If the surface-to-air missiles, or for that matter the interceptor fighters, were being guided by radar then the radar needed to be able to ‘‘see’’ the incoming attack aircraft. But radar could only see long distances at medium or high altitudes. Because it worked only along direct lines of sight, and the curvature of the earth, together with unevenness in the terrain, meant that an aircraft flying very low would not be detected until the last moment.
Each of these possibilities was to be explored. Each was, to some extent, to be developed. But the project that embodied the second option was canceled at a very early stage, which left the first and the third—and the third was to turn into GOR 339.
With some modifications. For instance, there isn’t any need to fly low all the way from Germany to the Soviet Union. A radar around Moscow can’t see into Germany and, in any case, it also uses a lot of fuel to fly at two hundred feet. So the proposal became this: the aircraft should cruise subsonically and economically at medium altitude while far from its target; then it should fly very high and very fast (Mach 2), before descending to low- altitude subsonic or transonic flight for the approach to the target.
How much detail do we need? How long is a story? How long is a piece of string? How much context is necessary, organizational, strategic, or technical? I’ve told something of each of these. Now here’s another branch to the story. It has to do with ‘‘procurement.’’ As I 166 Arborescences noted in an earlier chapter, procurement is the word they use to talk
about procedures for conceiving, designing, and in particular acquiring military aircraft.
In 1945 Britain was still a great power. It had been exhausted by years of war, but it still had a global role, global colonial possessions, and global military responsibilities and ambitions. Only with benefit of hindsight was the established wisdom to become that the world was changing, that the economic dominance necessary to sustain Empire was no longer a reality, and that geopolitics were shifting in favor of the Soviet Union and especially the United States.
So there was a combination of factors: there was the need for global military reach; the years of a war economy that gave the highest priority to procurement; the relative cheapness of Second World War aviation technology, at least compared with what was to follow; the existence of many aircraft manufacturers in the UK, again built up and sustained by urgent need in the Second World War. This combination led to a particular pattern of aircraft procurement. The government would order prototypes from several companies expecting that they would be tested and improved. Then, the most satisfactory—or in some cases several of the most satisfactory—would be put into production. This is one of the reasons that there were three quite different types of V-bombers, not just one.
In 1945 the government guessed that a major military threat was at least a decade off, which meant that there was plenty of time to undertake major projects, slowly. They called this the ‘‘long step’’ approach: big technological advances and long time horizons. But then, in 1951 came the Korean War and with it the fear of another global war. This concern led temporarily to a large increase in the numbers of aircraft ordered. Prototypes were rushed into production with sometimes troublesome results. For instance, large numbers of at least one type, the Swift, were never properly put into service at all because the technical problems were not resolved. It was also discovered that although aircraft flew satisfactorily without equipment, they encountered difficulties when armaments were installed or fired. The Hawker Hunter was a case in point.
What was the diagnosis? What was the character of the procurement problem—apart, that is, from the rush to rearm brought on by the Korean War? The answer to these questions led in 1955 to two policy decisions about the procurement of military aircraft. We have encountered the first of these already: that aircraft should be treated as ‘‘weapons systems.’’ They should be designed and built as an integrated system, including weapons, equipment, and airframe, rather than as a ‘‘weapons platform’’ for carrying weapons that were to be bolted on, as it were, afterward —at which point experience suggested that insuperable difficulties might emerge. The second was that the development and the production processes should be integrated. A large ‘‘development batch’’ of aircraft would allow problems to be identified and resolved more quickly, thereby eliminating the bottleneck caused by a limited number of prototypes, and the development aircraft could then be brought up to standard and introduced into service.
Stories about procurement methods. Now back to strategy.
In 1957 the Minister of Defence was Duncan Sandys, a man we have already encountered. Sandys wasn’t much admired by most people in the RAF. They talked, behind his back, of the “shifting, whispering Sandys,’’ and we have already seen the reason for this—it was that he was committed to missiles. These, he believed, were the technology of the future. Because the United States and the Soviet Union were developing them, it was appropriate that Britain should do so too. So he issued a government policy statement, a ‘‘White Paper,’’ in which he boldly announced that the government would no longer develop most forms of military aircraft. There was certainly no room for manned bombers because the UK would henceforth commit itself to ballistic missiles in order to secure its nuclear deterrent.
And what of GOR 339?
Now I need to provide some more context. I need to go into the question of tactical warfare, into a line of storytelling that will displace the arguments about nuclear deterrence and procurement. I 168 Arborescences need to describe how GOR 339 really had more to do with tacti-
cal strike and reconnaissance aircraft than with the grand strategic themes I’ve mentioned so far. Tactical strike and reconnaissance: hence the acronym TSR.
Tactical support. This meant bombing bridges, roads, railways, factories, ports, columns of tanks, and airfields. Now we need to distinguish between two forms of tactical support, one on or over the battlefield and the other in the form (to use the jargon) of ‘‘deep interdiction,” which involved bombing targets such as those I’ve just listed, which are miles, even hundreds of miles, behind the battlefield. We have seen that there was an aircraft in service that played this role. This was the Canberra. But it couldn’t fly terribly low and it was subsonic, which meant that many of the same arguments about the vulnerability of nuclear bombers also applied to it. Hence there was need for a ‘‘Canberra replacement,” the GOR 339 aircraft, to play the role of deep interdiction.
Another branch in the story is reconnaissance. There was need, or so they said in the OR Branch, for an aircraft that could recon – noiter, look and see, and detect military movements and concentrations, again, miles behind the front line. In an ideal world with limitless resources this would be another project, a different aircraft altogether. But how about combining this requirement with deep interdiction? This was the OR Branch proposal.
Now there is yet another branch in the story, one that I earlier left in the air. This has to do with what we now call the Third World.
Much of the Third World was, at the time, part of the British Empire or its client states. We have come across this role, this need to fly, this responsibility for acting ‘‘East of Suez,’’ in countries such as Malaya or Aden. But there wasn’t any need for nuclear deterrence in the ‘‘colonial theater.’’ Third World countries did not yet have nuclear weapons. There was plenty of room, however, for aircraft that could attack tactical targets and undertake reconnaissance in so-called ‘‘brush fire’’ wars. This, at any rate, was the argument of the OR Branch as it reflected on the lengthening shelf life of the aircraft that were currently playing that role.
Now we can rejoin the main narrative. Deterrence and ballistic missiles, tactical strike, reconnaissance, procurement and organization: as we have seen, the stories start to come together.
April 1957. This is a crisis point for the RAF in general and for GOR 339 in particular. The Minister of Defence, Duncan Sandys, has announced the cancellation of all new bombers and fighters for the RAF. They will be replaced by ballistic missiles. One or two aircraft types have crept through. One, designed to fly from aircraft carriers, a machine we met in chapter 4 and will encounter again, is called the NA 39 or the Buccaneer. But what is the future for GOR 339? This is an aircraft that at this stage isn’t even properly on, let alone off, the drawing board.
If you look at the official papers for 1957, they reveal a flurry of correspondence between, for instance, the Minister for Air (who was in charge of the RAF) and the Minister of Defence (who was responsible for all the armed forces). When he promulgated his policy about missiles, the Minister of Defence thought he was canceling all RAF combat aircraft. The Minister for Air thought that the reconnaissance GOR 339 was to be saved—though as with the cancellation decision discussed in the previous chapter, the fact that they were not taking the same decision was not clear at the time. After a flurry of official paperwork and a good deal of sweat, the Minister of Defence ended up by saying, I can be reluctantly persuaded that missiles can’t act in a reconnaissance and tactical strike role. But why do we need a new type of aircraft for this role? Why do we need a new type of aircraft when the Royal Navy already has its Buccaneer under development and indeed, this is at quite an advanced stage? Would this not do for the air force as well?
So this is another actor, another branch in the story. That of the Buccaneer. But how much do we need to know? In the present context, perhaps not so much. Let’s just say that what followed, the negotiations that took place in the corridors of the government machine (negotiations which included aircraft manufacturers and the procurement branch of the government, confusingly called the Ministry of Supply and later the Ministry of Aviation) fits the kind of pattern
imagined by those who study bureaucratic politics. Moves that catch the flavor of the 1957 debates would look like this.
Navy: You ought to use our aircraft, the Buccaneer.
Air Force: No. It’s too small, vulnerable, and it’s underpowered. It can’t fly far enough. And it doesn’t have the precision electronics we need.
Treasury: But it would be much cheaper to have one aircraft rather than two.
Ministry of Defence: Hear, hear!
Air Force (to Navy): All right. That makes sense. So how about both of us having GOR 339?
Navy: No way: Your aircraft is years off. Ours is already being made. In any case, yours is far too big to fit in an aircraft carrier. Air Force: If you say so. But there is no way your small, slow aircraft will ever meet our specification. Two engines are essential for safety and reliability. We must have our own aircraft.
Vickers Armstrong: But we can make a small version of GOR 339 that would be just as good as the big one, and it would fit in aircraft carriers too!
Air Force: Certainly not! We’ve already said that our plane needs two engines!
Navy: Let’s be serious. Your small GOR 339 won’t see service for goodness knows how long while our Buccaneer is nearly ready.
A plane in the hand is worth two. . .
Ministry of Aviation: Excuse me, but there’s something else going on here. While you’re bickering about the aircraft you want, we also need to be thinking about the future of the aircraft industry.
It needs pruning, sure, but we shouldn’t go too far. . . we need some orders.
Ministry of Defence: All right. I don’t like this disagreement between the Navy and the Air Force. Not at all. One aircraft would be much better than two. But if you absolutely insist you need a large aircraft for the Air Force then I suppose I’ve got no choice. I’m very unhappy about this, but reluctantly I’ll let you build your GOR 339.
Ministry of Aviation: And it will be built by a consortium. This will allow us to rationalize the aircraft industry.
Treasury (aside): But we’ll do our best to stop it along the way if we can, by putting up obstacles.
Parts of the Navy: And we’ll do everything we can to put a spoke in the wheel too. The whole idea of another aircraft is a nonsense when we’ve got the Buccaneer.2
So in the autumn of 1957 the aircraft manufacturers were told that they should prepare outline designs for GOR 339. But they had to do so in collaboration with one another. Individual proposals were not allowed.
In January 1958 these designs were submitted. Toward the end of 1958, after close study and a great deal of further bureaucratic infighting, some of which I discussed in chapter 4, it was announced that a contract to design and manufacture a GOR 339 weapons system would be awarded to a consortium of two companies, English Electric and Vickers Armstrong. Subsequently, the relevant parts of these two companies were to merge to form the British Aircraft Corporation (later British Aerospace). It was indicated that Vickers would be the dominant partner in the GOR 339 project, both because it had more systems expertise and because it was believed that it had stronger management. And the expectation was that, at a subsequent point, a development batch would be ordered.
That is a narrative of the conception and design of the TSR2, some of the various branches that led to the decision to build. Subsequently the project, as they say, “progressed’’—and a narrative of that progress might run as follows:
The doctrine of missile dependence did not long survive Duncan Sandys’s quite brief incumbency at the Ministry of Defence. Britain abandoned its own attempt to build long-range ballistic missiles and after various vicissitudes, bought American Polaris missiles to carry British nuclear warheads and install in submarines built in the UK. At the same time the TSR2 began to play an increasingly strategic role in the minds of defense planners. In part, 172 Arborescences this was because the distinction between tactical and strategic
nuclear weapons was becoming increasingly fuzzy in the 1960s as smaller nuclear weapons were becoming available.
The first TSR2 aircraft flew in September 1964, well over a year behind schedule and very substantially over budget. In the meanwhile it had become clear that no foreign government would buy the aircraft, and we know, of course, that in April 1965, after a change of government, the aircraft was canceled. An option was taken on an American aircraft with some similar properties, the General Dynamics F111A. This option was abandoned in 1967 as a result of a sterling currency crisis. In the end the RAF obtained a number of kinds of aircraft, none of which fully matched the specifications of the TSR2. These included a developed version of that original naval aircraft, the Buccaneer, which saw active service in the 1991 Gulf War, nearly forty years after it was first conceived.