The officer commanding, seated in the War Room of his
operational control center, reached for the red phone and spoke an order into
it which energized his widely dispersed command. The order was a single
A small but superbly trained band of men sprang into action.
With machine precision, they raced through prescribed checkout procedures,
preparing their planes for flight. Jet engines began their roar. Seconds later,
hundreds of aircraft were on the roll. In less than two minutes, a giant
nuclear retaliatory armada was airborne.
Most Americans would immediately conclude that the situation
described was taking place in our own Strategic Air Command. We have become
accustomed to thinking in terms of SAC alone in the retaliatory role. We
overlook the fact that, in the event of actual nuclear hostilities, the first
manned strike on Soviet defenses will likely be spearheaded by someone else.
Preceding SAC and its B-52s, and perhaps even blasting a path for it, will be
the V-bomber force of the RAF—SAC's kissing cousin—Bomber Command.
Kissing cousin is an apt term for the relationship between
these two elite organizations. There is a corn almost religious, bond between
them. They train together, compete together, target together, and, if need be,
are prepared to die together in the performance of their joint mission. Both
firmly believe, however, that so long as a credible deterrent and the will to
utilize it in defense of freedom are maintained by the West, the danger of nuclear
conflagration is remote. In this sense, peace is truly their shared profession.
Bomber Command was assigned its deterrent role in 1957. A
Defense White Paper issued that year an-bounced, "Britain must possess an
appreciable element 11nuclear deterrent power of her own."
Up until then, she had none. Though her scientists d made
significant early contributions to atomic theory (it was an Englishman who
first split the atom) and had cooperated closely with scientists of this country
in the development of the original atomic bomb, Britain did not embark on her
own nuclear-weapons program until 1949. Progress thereafter was swift, however.
On October 3, 1952, the British coned their first atomic tests in the Monte
Bello islands, off Australia, and on October 11, 1956, the RAF air-dropped
Britain's first operational atomic bomb over Maralinga, Southern Australia.
And, a few months later, on May 15, 1957, Britain successfully tested her first
H-bomb over Christmas Island in the Pacific.
But bombs alone do not make a deterrent. Effective delivery systems
are also required. Knowing this, the British government embarked upon a
concurrent program to develop its own strategic medium bombers. The result was
the V-bomber force of Valiants, Victors, and Vulcans which became operational
in the mid-1950s.
First of the series was the Vickers Valiant. Entering
squadron service in 1955, it was a Valiant that carried Britain's first
air-dropped A- and H-bombs. Because of its lower performance it was phased out
of the strike role some time ago, although it continues to render yeoman
service as an aerial tanker and also serves as a tactical bomber for NATO.
Next came the Vulcan, the world's first large bomber of
deltawing configuration. Manufactured by Avro, the Vulcan B.1 entered squadron
service in 1957 with the B.2 following along in 1960.
Third of the V-bombers was the Handley Page Victor. It
became operational in 1959 with its B.2 model entering service in 1962. It was
the biggest and heaviest, as well as the last, of the series. Victor features
a readily identifiable crescent or cusp-shaped wing.
The average radius of action of the V-bombers is beyond
1,500 nautical miles without in-flight refueling. This brings them within
range of seventy percent of the important targets in the USSR, including most
cities with more than 100,000 population.
Currently, the Mark I series of Victors and Vulcans is being
replaced by more advanced models. New from the ground up and equipped with more
powerful engines, the Mark 2 versions boost over-all performance
significantly. They are more maneuverable and can fly higher (as high as a U-2)
and faster than our own B-52s.
Originally designed to carry free-falling bombs, the V-force
is in the process of transition to the Blue Steel standoff air-to-surface
missile. With a nuclear warhead in the megaton range, Blue Steel enables
launching aircraft to attack targets without having to penetrate the close
defenses surrounding them. Inertially guided, Blue Steel's liquid-fueled rocket
engine propels it at more than twice the speed of sound. Range has not been
released but is said to be in the neighborhood of 150 miles.
Is today's Bomber Command a viable force in the 1960s?
"Decidedly," asserts its new boss, Air Officer Commanding
in Chief, Air Marshal Sir John Grandy. The Air Marshal's confidence appears to
be solidly based. Through technical innovation and advance and a tremendously
high state of crew proficiency, both ground and air, Bomber Command has kept
its V-force of 180 of the world's most modem aircraft at least one step ahead
of its competition. That is all it needs to be to perform its mission.
From its inception, Bomber Command built with viability in
mind. "If the deterrent influence of the bomber force is to be
effective," declared the Defense White Paper of 1958, "it must not be
thought capable of being knocked out on the ground." Acutely aware of its
vulnerability, British planners concentrated on the problem of keeping the
V-force alive in the event of hostilities.
Their thinking proceeded on certain assumptions. The chief
of these was that, in the event of nuclear attack, the United Kingdom would not
be the only target. The US would also be assaulted. Interdependence in this
sense was taken for granted.
Accordingly, joint procedures have been worked out to ensure
that the retaliatory forces of both nations survive even a surprise nuclear
assault. Although it is deemed highly unlikely that one could be launched
without prior warning from political or intelligence sources, such a possibility
has been taken into account. An elaborate electronic warning network has been
constructed around the periphery of the USSR. BMEWS, the DEW Line, and other
early-warning devices assure both nations tactical warning of atomic attack. A
minimum of four to eight minutes notice, perhaps as much as fifteen, will be
provided Britain by the system. For Bomber Command, that will be enough.
As with SAC, a portion of the V-force is always on Quick
Reaction Alert. It can be scrambled in a matter of minutes. Additionally, the
flexibility of the readiness plan enables the AO CinC to quickly bring his
whole command, or any part of it, to full alert condition. An immediate-link
system enables him to communicate directly with crews on the ground or in the
air. In times of rising international tension, the entire V-force can be
scattered to bases throughout the United Kingdom. More than fifty of these
bases are in a state of operational readiness. Such dispersal would pose severe
targeting problems for a nuclear aggressor.
No more than four bombers would be assigned to any one base.
The sites themselves are designed with survivability in mind. Aircraft are
stationed on Operational Readiness Platforms directly adjacent to runways
which eliminates taxiing delays. Aircrews are housed in caravans (trailers)
nearby. In times of crisis, crews are stationed at cockpit readiness. All four
jet engines on V-bombers can be started simultaneously. Ground, servicing
equipment automatically falls away as aircraft begin to roll. These features,
plus tremendous aircrew proficiency, enable Bomber Command to react with
remarkable agility. Its average four-element scramble time in 1963 was one
minute, thirty seconds.
The V-bomber retaliatory force, which incidentally can
deliver conventional as well as nuclear weapons, was assigned to SACEUR
(Supreme Allied Commander, Europe) in May 1963. Although national control in
peacetime is still maintained by Britain, the V-force in the event of war will
follow SACEUR's nuclear, strike plan. After seeing his new command on exercise
in Britain not long ago, Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer called his visit "a very
Bomber Command's ability to reach the targets assigned it
is equally impressive. To get there, it has a number of extremely difficult
penetration problems to surmount—an elaborate early-warning net, an abundance
of day fighters and all-weather interceptors armed with air-to-air missiles,
ground-to-air antiaircraft missiles in profusion, plus the system of tactical
controls which coordinates the lot. In typical fashion, it has set about
finding counters for each. It has come up with a mixed bag of Electronic
Countermeasures (ECM) calculated to confuse, upset, jam, or neutralize the
defensive forces unleashed against it. Every V-bomber is equipped with ECM
devices. So powerful is some of the equipment that the RAF has never been
permitted to turn them all on at one time in any exercise over England for
fear of causing a total communications blackout.
Other devices relied upon to assist target penetration
include evasive routing of strike aircraft, the Blue Steel standoff weapon, the
disruptive effect that would be wrought on Russian defenses by US ICBMs, and,
last but certainly not least, retaliation from the deck up.
Both SAC and Bomber Command have turned to the multilevel
pattern as Russian defenses against the high-level attack have improved. By
coming in with a portion of their force at extremely low altitudes, they hope
to underfly Soviet early-warning radar. But hot-rodding Vulcans, Victors, and
B-52s—which were designed to fly at 50,000 feet and higher—at 500 feet and
lower is not without its problems. Fatigue increases markedly. Extensive
structural beefing-up of all three aircraft has been required.
Air Marshal Grandy says, "Penetration by aircraft 1of
Bomber Command of areas covered by the most modern and sophisticated
air-defense systems couldbe successfully prevented."
But how long will this ability last?
The immediate outlook is good. A new, longer‑range,
low-level version of Blue Steel is in the works. It should push viability
beyond the mid-1960s. And that was the time the Skybolt was due to take its place
in the lineup.
Slated to be carried by the Vulcan (one slung under each
wing), Skybolt would have constituted a major addition to the British
deterrent. Its 1,000-mile range from a highly mobile, nearly undetectable
launching platform made it a near perfect weapon for the RAF. It could even be
launched from points over Britain itself. There was a possibility that Skybolt
would be wedded to a military version of the VC-10 long-range jet transport.
Six missiles were to be carried by each aircraft. A fleet of thirty VC-10s were
to be procured. The plan was for one-third of them to be airborne at all times.
This would have brought Bomber Command close to its ideal of an invulnerable
For these reasons, the RAF could not have been keener on
Skybolt. Its cancellation was a severe blow.
Skybolt was only one of a series of disappointing decisions
in recent years which tend to cloud the future of the British deterrent. The
Statement of Defense in 1957 was the kickoff. It dashed RAF hopes to develop a
supersonic bomber by substituting in its stead the Blue Streak missile. In
1960, Blue Streak, too, was canceled (partly, it is speculated, because of the
Skybolt deal, executed that year, with the United States). The final blow in
the series occurred at Nassau.
But Britain is not out of the deterrent business—not by a
long shot. Scheduled to roll out early this year is a new aircraft, the TSR-2.
Designed to penetrate at ground level so as to skim under
enemy radar, the TSR-2 is powered by two Bristol Siddeley Olympus turbojets
with each developing 33,000 pounds of thrust. These are the same engines that
will be used in the Anglo-French Concorde SST. Possessing a short-field
capability, TSR-2 will be able to fly at more than twice the speed of sound at
altitude (60,000 feet) and at close to Mach 1 on the deck. A sophisticated
electronics system will enable it to hug the ground at high speeds in total
darkness. Armament will consist of a short-range nuclear guided missile carried
Announced ferry range is several thousand miles without
in-flight refueling. Range at low level has not been released. It is a safe
bet, however, that despite the fact that fuel consumption is reputed to be less
than in comparable engines, the range penalty for low-level operations will be
severe. The radius of operations on such missions is not expected to exceed
1,000 nautical miles.
The TSR-2 gives promise of being a highly versatile weapon
system. While its initials indicate its mission is Tactical
Strike/Reconnaissance, it is capable of another role. This was described by the
Secretary of State for Air, Sir Hugh Fraser, in a recent speech:
"With its long range it can be employed, if need be, to
attack strategic targets. Thus, the TSR-2 will not only help to close the
so-called gap before the arrival in service of Polaris submarines, but, when
the submarines are on station, it will be a most useful supplement for them
in the deterrent role."
Current plans call for the procurement of a minimum of
The emergence of the TSR-2 as a strategic-delivery system
has been followed with great interest in NATO circles. A "growing
belief" is reported to exist that TSR-2s could form the nucleus of a far
better MLF than the vaunted but vulnerable Polaris surface fleet.
Beyond TSR-2, prospects for Bomber Command look grim. At
present, no successor aircraft are planned. British thinking on manned systems
in recent years has closely paralleled our own. A fascination with missiles as
an end-all in weaponry has prevailed. But just as over here, this outlook is
slowly changing. There is a growing awareness that we may have jumped the gun
in eliminating man from the strategic-weapons picture. Increasingly, the view
expressed by Air Marshal Grandy that "there will always be a future for
manned aircraft" is gaining acceptance. His reasoning that only manned
systems provide the "degree of flexibility, discretion, choice of target
and accuracy" needed in today's strategic arsenal has begun to make sense
to even the most enamored of missile men.
And so, after a hiatus of several years, new manned systems
are being seriously discussed again on both sides of the Atlantic. Pervading
these conversations in Britain, however, is the realization that unless something
radical occurs, Bomber Command's deterrent days are numbered. While its
viability is vouchsafed through the 1960s, thereafter the major deterrent role
shifts to the Royal Navy. Needless to say, the Admiralty looks forward to its
impending prominence with pleasure. It has never liked being out of the
deterrent picture. Deprived of its senior strategic status a decade ago by Bomber
Command, it was delighted with the Nassau agreement which put it back in the
picture again. When Polaris becomes operational, the Royal Navy will be top dog
The RAF's attitude toward playing a back-seat role is
exemplary. One high-ranking officer summed it up in this way: "No one
minds such a change, so long as there are sound military reasons for it."
But outside Whitehall, not everyone is happy with the
Polaris decision. Some analysts feel that the submarine-delivery system, even
with the advanced Polaris A-3, is overrated—not for today, but for the 1970s
when the first of the British fleet is scheduled to enter service. One critic
summed up his reservations thus:
"Polaris became operational in 1960. It will be extraordinary
if, in this age of rapid fire technology, it is able to survive a decade
without an effective counter.
"All through history, for each new weapons development,
a successful counter has been found. I cannot bring myself to believe that the
development of Polari signaled the end of history."
Some Polaris detractors even question its viability today.
Patrick Gordon Walker, the Labor Party's shadow Foreign Secretary, has
described it as "a small, second-strike weapon." It is relatively
inaccurate, he claims, and "wholly inadequate" as the backbone of
Britain's deterrent force.
Other critics point out that, since the seas are free and
open to everyone, nothing could stop an aggressor from dispatching a fleet of
killer subs to lie in wait at harbor entrances where Polaris submarines are serviced.
When they put to sea, they could be followed. While nuclear subs would be
required for the job, the awkward Polaris subs' shape assures that killers would
have little trouble keeping up with them.
Even in peacetime, one or two vessels could be disposed of
in this fashion. Who could question their disappearance? Who knows how the Thresher was lost? And you can't start a
nuclear war on suspicion alone. Yet the loss of just two submarines in this way,
they point out, would constitute the loss of half the British deterrent.
These arguments and others like them have opened up Pandora's box. Opponents have seized upon them to call into question the whole future of British deterrence. Some urge that the nuclear arsenal be scrapped immediately. Others, while more reasonable in their criticism, profess to see no future at all for the UK in the deterrent game.
Unfortunately, the controversy has been injected into
politics. A Parliamentary election must be held sometime this year. As the
campaign warms up, it appears that one of the most important issues, perhaps
the major issue, will be the future of the deterrent. Championing the
antiposition is the opposition Labor Party. It has always had a vocal minority
which favored unilateral disarmament and banning the bomb. But responsible
elements in the Party take a more cautious view. They hold that an independent
deterrent, while desirable, has become too expensive for a country of the UK's
limited resources. They point out that, at present, seven percent of the gross
national product is allocated for defense purposes. Of this amount, roughly ten
percent is spent on the V-force. But the exploding cost of technology will
require larger and larger outlays in the future, if credibility is to be maintained.
In Labor's view, the UK simply cannot afford it. And so the Party looks forward to easing Britain out of the deterrent business.
The Conservatives generally favor the retention a deterrent
capability. Despite the high esteem and genuine affection felt for the United
States, they shudder at the idea of entrusting their destiny totally to us.
They are convinced that if Britain is to continue to play a major role in world
affairs, strategic-nuclear forces must be maintained. They see them as the
ticket to the conference table. Perhaps the most eloquent defense of the
Party's position was made by the aging but ageless Winston Churchill:
"Sometimes in the past we have committed the folly of
throwing away our arms. Under the mercy of providence and at great cost and
sacrifice we have been able to recreate them when the need arose. But if we
abandon our nuclear deterrent there will be no such second chance. To abandon
it now would be to abandon it forever."
One of the most appealing arguments of the antis is that
unilateral disarmament by Britain will tend to inhibit the spread of nuclear
weapons. Proponents scoff at such claims. One prominent pro voiced his reservations
in this way: "The fact that we pull our nuclear teeth will not make a whit
of difference to France, India, Red China, Israel, or any other nation seeking
to grow its own. Nuclear nationalism," he asserted, "is a virus that
cannot be stopped by example alone. Furthermore," he added, "think
of how humiliating it would be if, after our grandiose gesture, we ended up a
simple pawn in a three-way nuclear chess game between the US, Russia, and
As the British election draws nearer, the debate grows more
heated. But heat does not necessarily generate light. Oftentimes, the
proliferation of comment serves more to confuse and confound than it does to
explain. Yet the controversy has brought out several points of great interest
over here. They relate to aspects of the problem not generally appreciated or
taken into account by us. They should be studied.
The first concerns the size of the British deterrent as
suggested by Air Marshal Sir Dermot Boyle in a lecture last March:
"The size of a deterrent force must be related to the
value to an enemy of the prize being protected. For example, suppose, I repeat,
suppose Russian leaders were prepared to sacrifice half their country in exchange
for the removal of the USA from the competitive scene. Then, for the American
deterrent to be viable, it would have to be demonstrably capable of destroying
far more than half Russia in retaliation. But Russia would not be prepared to
accept anything like the same damage in exchange for the removal of the United
Kingdom. Therefore, a much smaller retaliatory force can give us as much or greater
security than the USA achieve with their vast nuclear capability."
Another factor worth heeding over here is the growing mistrust
of the United States which is being manifested by both major parties. With
Labor, this takes the form of a reluctance to rely on us as a supplier of weapons.
Skybolt is cited to show that the only deterrent worth having is one that is of
the home-grown variety.
A simmering mistrust of American intentions also permeates
Conservative thinking. It furnishes the theme for a quite different hypothesis,
however. It was summarized by the Defense Correspondent of the London Times
"The official view, which bears a remarkable similarity
in essence to that of General de Gaulle, is that the American guarantee of
European security may possibly lose, at least in Russian eyes, its force and
effectiveness at some time in the future. Until effective political union can
be achieved either in European or Atlantic terms—and British defense planners
believe the latter, at least, to be some way off, national nuclear
capabilities are regarded as valuable."
One final point. Underlying the mistrust of America's
intentions is the belief, widely shared, that the US wants Britain out of the
nuclear business altogether. This has led to a suspicion in some quarters that
we deliberately set about creating the current deterrent crisis. Rightly or
wrongly, we are blamed for furnishing the antis with the only
"intellectual" support they have. It is thought that not until
Secretary McNamara's Ann Arbor speech formally adopting the doctrine of
counterforce did they have a strategic leg to stand on. The counterforce
doctrine gave them one. Although it may not be appreciated in this country,
Britain is one big city as the H-bomb flies. Accordingly, counterforce has
little application or appeal. Air Marshal Sir John Slessor's caustic comment
perhaps best sums up British reaction to it. "Thermonuclear
incineration," he wrote, "is a rose that smells no more sweet under
the other name of counterforce retaliation."
The Ann Arbor speech tended to undermine British faith in
the whole concept of deterrence. The shock of Skybolt's cancellation did not
improve matters. Nor did our espousal of MLF. It is believed that from these
acorns, the deterrent issue grew.
Advocates of an independent deterrent ask whether any
nation, committed as we are to nuclear weapons, can legitimately aspire to
inhibit the UK from possessing or maintaining them in its own national
interest? Besides resentment, there is a strong feeling that such policies are
dangerously shortsighted. A British deterrent compounds the problems of both
offense and defense for the Soviet Union. In addition, it relieves this country
of the sole moral responsibility for the possible use of nuclear weapons.
The trouble with any debate on deterrence is that it
inevitably leads to an Alice in Wonderland of suppositions and hypotheses. One
can never see with total clarity; nor does one ever emerge into a state of
Yet, the quest for credibility must continue. It is a
Whether or to what extent Britain will remain in the
deterrent game is not yet clear. But what is certain is that the game will go
on—with or without her.
The author, Richard C.
Feet, recently returned from England, where he interviewed Air Marshal Sir
John Grandy and other members of Bomber Command, the RAF, and the British
Defense establishment. A lawyer by training, Mr. Feet has held professional
positions on both Capitol Hill and in the Executive Branch of government. He
has devoted considerable time to study and writing on defense matters. A
graduate of Tulane University, he is a former Reserve officer in the Air Force.
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