Despite the critical contribution of many British scientists to the USA's Manhattan Project to develop atomic weapons during World War II, the United Kingdom was refused US technical assistance to develop their own atomic weapons after World War II as the USA wanted to maintain a monopoly on atomic weaponry. In order to shore up Britain's Great Power status, Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill's governments recognised the need to continue substituting military for economic power; Britain had not had the largest economy of the Great Powers since the 1890s (having surpassed the Empire of the Qing in the 1850s), but she had nonetheless continued to play a significant role on the world stage by virtue of her fleet and alliance with France. Despite being totally broke after the debts of the war and the colossal costs of establishing a modern 'Welfare State', Britain pursued her own atomic bomb project alone (not even collaborating with the French!) and at great cost. She managed to detonate her first atomic bomb in the Australian state of Western Australia in 1952, but, by that time, the USA had already developed 'nuclear' weapons, and, the same year, the USA detonated her first 'hydrogen' thermonuclear device (the latter being several thousand times more powerful again than a roughly equivalent atomic weapon).
Since the British had already proven that they could and would pursue their own R&D of atomic and nuclear weapons, the USA resigned herself to the prospect of an atomic-armed Britain. Moreover, she reasoned that if she shared nuclear weapons R&D information with Britain then Britain would have far more money to spare for conventional weaponsnote . The conclusions of the Strath Report of 1955 (official title THE DEFENCE IMPLICATIONS OF FALL-OUT FROM A HYDROGEN BOMB)note , which were never released to the public for fear of massive panic and anti-nuclear sentiment, gave a particularly large incentive for Britain to develop nuclear weapons and systems of delivering them so that she might deter others from using nuclear weapons upon her.
Fewer delivery systems, but all noteworthy enough to make this a separate entry. British spy fiction likes to point out sometimes that we aren't totally dependent on the Americans and there are some cool looking platforms in British military history.
Nominal authority for firing missiles rests with the Prime Minister, but one of the powers of the Monarchy is the right to veto that (in the event, say, of the PM turning out to be a madman) or take over themselves. Submarine captains also have the authority to launch on their own, due to the historic nuclear threat being from Russia, which is close enough to erase Britain from the map before the sub can receive its orders.
Many of the weapons are referred to by their Rainbow Codes, a UK Code Name system.note
As you will see, there are a lot of weapons that never saw squadron service, due to Government defence cuts.
The missiles- Polaris and Trident are of American design and are discussed under Peace Through Superior Firepower.
Resolution classWith the V-force becoming rather vulnerable, the UK Government decided to go SSBN instead, with US technological help. Four of these subs were built. Containing 16 Polaris A3 missiles, they were in service from 1968 to the mid-1990s.
- The Spy Who Loved Me features HMS Ranger, a fictional example.
The successor to the Resolution class, entering service in 1996. Carrying 16 Trident D5 missiles, with a theoretical maximum of 192 warheads. However, what it actually has on board now (which could be as low as 12 sub-strategic warheads) remains classified and the government claims that readiness is now a matter of days rather than minutes. Four built.
The current system is getting a bit old and creaky and is due to be replaced around 2020. There is some Parliamentary support for the policy, although not as much as several years ago. Before the 2010 election, both the Conservatives and Labour planned to replace Trident; the existence of the anti-deterrent Liberal Democrats in the resultant coalition government meant that other alternatives were being looked at, such as deferring the decision another few years, or even sharing the weapons with the French. In 2016, the first of the class was laid down and given the name HMS Dreadnought.
Other Naval Nukes
Britain ditched its tactical sea-based nukes along with the land-based ones in 1998. The below-listed carriers are all light ones under 25,000 tons displacement; the UK is only now building its first super-carriers.
Centaur-class aircraft carriers (Albion, Bulwark, Centaur, Hermes)
Started in the closing years of the Second World War, the second four of these eight planned carriers were cancelled. Due to their design (non-angled flight decks), they proved unable to handle jets and were ultimately converted into "commando carriers", basically amphibious assault ships, before being retired, with one notable exception...
Let's do the conversion again: Hermes
A modification of the Centaur-design, completed in 1959, this was able to carry Buccaneers and Sea Vixen fighters, but not Phantoms. Converted into a "commando" carrier, then an ASW helicopter carrier, then getting a ski-jump to become a Harrier Carrier, In the last configuration it participated in the Falklands as the flagship of the Task Force, carrying up to 26 Sea Harriers and 4 ground-attack versions—Sandy Woodward* commented that losing Invincible would have been very bad, but losing Hermes would have ended the war right there.
Following that war, it was converted to commando carrier and back again. With Invincible no longer on the table post-Falklands, Australia was offered Hermes to replace HMAS Melborne, but declined after the Hawke government was elected in 1983. So they sold it to India instead, where it is nearing the end of its career as INS Viraat.
A WWII-era Illustrious-class aircraft carrier, she was selected for a full modernization in 1950, a modernization that took eight years due to a combination of rapidly advancing technology and a major cock-up on the Royal Navy's part: namely, realizing that her machinery needed to be replaced after rebuilding much of her upperworks, which necessitated tearing it all down and starting over.
In many respects a completely new ship afterward, she operated first Scimitars and then Buccaneers, before a minor fire and cuts to the defense budget conspired to retire her early.
Appears as both herself and HMS Ark Royal for the movie Sink the Bismarck!.
Audacious class aircraft carriers (Eagle, Ark Royal)
Armored carriers designed during WWII to carry both a full airgroup and the most modern of carrier aircraft note , making them the Royal Navy equivalent of the American Midway class, albeit a fair bit smaller. Their construction was protracted, and they both had to be modernized shortly after commissioning, but for many years they were the best carriers not part of the US Navy.
Both carried Buccaneer strike planes and Sea Vixen fighters, and Ark Royal was modified to carry Phantoms. By the 1970s, however, their age and relatively small size were finally catching up to them, and with their replacements (the below-mentioned CVA-01) strangled in the crib first Eagle and then Ark Royal were retired and scrapped.
Invincible-class STOVL aircraft carrier (Invincible, Illustrious, Ark Royal)
The three purpose-built "Harrier Carriers" that entered service in the 1980s- the first seeing service in the Falklands (just after it was proposed to be sold to Australia!). These vessels carried nuclear depth bombs until 1998 and used to carry Sea Dart SAM systems (also removed). The Illustrious was the last still in service, withdrawn in 2014.
A naval two-seater strike fighter, this was designed as a response to a Soviet cruiser type of the early 1950s, the Sverdlov class. Carrier and land-based versions were developed. The former were transferred to the RAF when Ark Royal left service. Subsonic, but very good at low-level (the RAF used to operate them at speeds of over 600mph, only 50ft off the ground. Over the sea, the Navy could fly them even lower!) this two-seater aircraft stayed in service until 1994. Turned up in the Gulf War, where its laser designator capability was pretty handy. Exported to South Africa (only), who used it in their bush wars - and would have carried their nuclear bombs if they ever used them.
A definite Cool Plane, this STOVL fighter could carry a nuclear depth bomb. Proved to be brilliant in the Falklands with a 22-0 record in air-to-air combat and was later upgraded for AIM-120 AMRAAM, much like the USMC Harriers. They also served in the Gulf War and Bosnia.
These fighters, although still in Indian service, were retired from British service in 2006, it not being deemed cost-effective to upgrade for only six years' more service (i.e. until the Yanks with Tanks finally delivered the F-35. Now that it's 2016 and the thing hardly any nearer to getting off the ground than it was five years ago, Parliament may be regretting this decision, as well as their rejection of the proposal for retrofitting the Sea Harriers' radar nosecones onto the Harrier GR.9 fleet). The remaining Harriers are of the GR.7/GR.9 variety.
- An experimental two-seater Sea Harrier for ASW work features in the novel of The Hunt for Red October.
English Electric Lightning
While not a part of the UK's Nuclear deterrent, the Lightning was an interceptor built specifically to be scrambled in the event of Russian Nuclear bombers approaching UK Airspace, and particularly to defend the airfields that housed Britain's own nuclear bombers. Essentially two gigantic engines (mounted fore-and-aft, rather than side-by-side, with some complicated plumbing to ensure even airflow to both engines) with a cockpit and wings attached, it had phenomenal acceleration, rate of climb, and speed. By the time they entered service they were already verging on obsolete, due to the threat shifting from Bombers to ICBMs. A few were maintained and flown out of a South African civilian operation, taking paying passengers, until a fatal 2009 crash.
Due to the shorter distance between the UK and Moscow, Britain has never felt the need for an ICBM programme. All of these programmes were cancelled before entering service.
Intended to be a silo-based deterrent for the UK, with a range of 3,700 kilometres/2,300 miles. Took half an hour to fuel, which with "four-minute warning" et. al, would have been a bit of a problem had it not been silo-based. Went way over budget, was politically unpopular (you have to remember the South-East of England is not Nebraska and is in fact one of the most densely populated regions in the world, even more so than Taiwan) and not supported by the services. Cancelled in 1960 before a full flight-test. Attempt to use it as part of a space launcher didn't work because the parts that weren't Blue Streak kept not working.
- Test launch footage was used in The Prisoner's final episode, appropriately titled "Fall Out".
Airborne Early Warning aircraft (AEW)
The UK's answer to the USA's E-3 Sentry, although the Nimrod came first. Developed from the UK's coolest of cool airliners, the De Havilland Comet. While designed primarily as a Airborne Early Warning aircraft, this plane also served as a strategic bomber. It could carry plenty of conventional bombs in its belly, as well as nuclear weaponry if necessary. Unfortunately, the Nimrods were retired by the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition in 2010, much to the ire of the general public.
Boeing E-3 Sentry
Boeing P-8 Poseidon
The V-Force (so called because they all began with V)
Britain's first (and as it turned out, only) strategic jet-powered nuclear bomber force was made entirely up of their so-called "V-Bombers," from the fact that each bomber design was named with something starting with the letter "V." If the Cold War ever got nuclear, the entire "V-Force" would be assigned to support USAF Strategic Air Command, and would report directly to SAC whenever nukes were carried. Purchasing three different bombers with largely the same role instead of the less expensive option of just picking a single design was done as a precaution against any one of the designs experiencing unexpected problems, similar to the RAF's practice with both fighters and bombers before and during World War II.note
The RAF's nuclear weapons were removed from service in 1998.
The first of the "V-Bombers" and one of Britain's first jet bombers, the Valiant entered service as a low risk alternative to the aerodynamically more advanced Vulcan and Victor. The Valiant was the only V bomber to actually drop a nuclear weapon when it was used in Britain's nuclear tests. Designed to fly higher and faster than contemporary fighters, technology (namely the S-75/SA-2 SAM) quickly caught up to it and it had to fly low and and slow to avoid Soviet radar. The extra turbulence from such flying meant that their structures were prematurely weakened, leading to an early retirement. Saw service during the Suez Crisis of 1956, being employed in the classic conventional carpet bombing role.
The second "V-Bomber" and the longest-lived as its large delta wing was best suited of the three designs for low-altitude flight, although this was by accident as again it was designed to fly higher and faster than contemporary fighters (but once again technology caught up with it). Severely embarrassed the USAF in the 60's during Operation Skyshield 1 and 2, when pretty much all the Vulcan bombers involved in the exercise (to test the US' air defences) got in and out unscathed. The only time it dropped weapons in anger was also one of the most interesting bomber operations in history: during the Falklands War, the RAF barely had enough time to hastily cancel the Vulcan's retirement, retrain the crews in air-to-air refuelling, and sent them on what was at that time the longest-rage bombing mission in history, Operation Black Buck, to bomb the airfield on Stanley Island in an effort to ground the Argentinian aircraft that were operating from there. The modifications necessary for this operation involved tons of engineering improvisation, and some mind-boggling logistics - the Vulcans were accompanied during most of the flight by a whole fleet of Victors (see below) operating as tankers for the aforementioned mid-air refuelling, not only of the Vulcans themselves but also of each other, to ensure that the whole thing didn't end with any of the incredibly expensive aircraft ignominiously splashing down in the sea. Black Buck was successful, although its effectiveness is still debated to this daynote - the arrival of Carrier-launched Sea Harriers in theater reportedly caused more consternation among the Argentinian Air Force, even though they had supersonic Dassault Mirages and Harriers are strictly subsonic, albeit extremely maneuverable. XH558 has recently been restored to flying condition and has been flying airshows, though it was permanently grounded in 2013 due to the ruinous costs of its upkeep.
- A Vulcan and its nuclear warload ends up being the main plot device of the James Bond film Thunderball.
- Three appear in the climax to Devil May Care.
- Vulcans are the stars of Derek Robinson's Cold War era novel Hullo Russia, Goodbye England which deals with Britain's primary nuclear deterrent.
The final member of the "V-Bomber" trio, the Victor was the fastest (in fact the only supersonic of the V-force, albeit only-just, and even then, not intentionally, but it remained flyable after landing from a supersonic sprint) and most advanced but was edged out in service as a bomber by the Vulcan - allegedly because Handley-Page refused to cooperate with the Government sponsored amalgamation of the British aero-industry. Nevertheless, it was the longest-serving of the trio as a tanker, last seeing action in Desert Storm. Had a distinctive crescent wing design that was once again optimized for high-altitude, high-speed flight, and like the Valiant did not fare too well at low altitudes. The Victor looks so futuristic that tankers stopping over at US air displays have reputedly been mistaken for a new British "stealth bomber," despite not remotely resembling any "stealth" aircraft ever built or flown.
Bombs and Stand-Off Missiles''
Yes, that was its Code Name- you can just imagine a video of nuclear explosions to that tune)- the first British air-dropped weapon to become operational. Had a 16-KT yield (close to Hiroshima size), but appears to have suffered from reliability problems. Informally referred to as "Smallboy", because it was pretty big. Withdrawn after only four years in 1960-61.
The primary means the British had at striking far-off targets with a nuke; a huge missile (looking somewhat like a vastly overgrown Bullpup) with an equally huge warhead over 1 megaton and capable of speeds over Mach 2 with a range of over 150 miles. Designed to give the Vulcan a bit of an edge in survivability by allowing the launching craft to stay outside of Soviet defenses; the Victor was more or less designed around it. Soviet defenses caught up with it though, despite its long range, and it was retired in favor of the aforementioned Skybolt; Vulcans and Victors were pressed to use free-fall "dumb" nukes after the Skybolt's cancellation.
- Carried by one Vulcan in the climax of Devil May Care- it does not have to use it
Not much more needs to be said that is not in Superior Firepower. Carrier and land-based versions. The former had the problem that the Ark Royal was just a bit smaller than the US carriers and was retired with that carrier in 1978 as the Fleet Air Arm (the Royal Navy's aircraft section) went STOVL.
An Anglo-French project to build a supersonic air support aircraft, which started off as separate trainer ideas. Not fitted with a radar, it was Sidewinder-capable. It was exported and is still under licensed production in India. In RAF service, it underwent a number of upgrades. However, the aircraft was controversially retired in 2007 as the Eurofighter Typhoon came in to save money- those in favour argued it was obsolete, those against disagreed..
Panavia Tornado IDS (InterDictor Strike- GR.1/GR.4 in RAF service)
Developed as part of the multi-national Multi-Role Combat Aircraft programme, this variant (there are electronic warfare and interceptor versions too, the latter about to retire) is in service with a number of countries. Successor to the Vulcan, this is a swing-wing two-seater strike aircraft. All remaining now converted to GR.4 standard and used solely in the conventional role. One notable squadron they serve with is 617 Squadron- "The Dam Busters".
First used in combat in the Gulf War, where it got handed the very dangerous task of attacking Iraqi runway. 6 aircraft were lost during this, with seven crew being killed. Two were captured by the Iraqis, getting the full "Baghdad Hilton" treatment.
The ones that didn't quite make it
TSR-2Possibly one of the plug-ugliest aircraft in history (perhaps excepting only some Soviet designs) and yet by all accounts extremely capable, the TSR-2 was to the British equivalent to the US F-111. It got as far as a flying prototype and to all appearances would have been an entirely successful aircraft before it was cancelled, officially due to spiraling costs. Unofficially, there is a conspiracy theory that the US used economic blackmail to ensure its cancellation. The TSR-2 would have been in direct competition with the F-111 for export sales and it looked like was going to end up being faster, more capable and probably cheaper. A generation of British aviation fans resent its loss to this day.
A planned pair (at least) of 55,000 ton displacement fleet carriers that would have carried Phantoms and Buccaneers, as a replacement for the Centaurs. They got canned, with the TSR-2, in 1966. This cancellation is resented just as much by Royal Navy fans as the cancellation of the TSR-2 was by aviation buffs, in particular since the RAF (arguing against the carriers because given the limited Defence budget, more funding for the Navy would inevitably mean less for the Air Force) allegedly presented documents to Parliament that moved Australia 500 miles north of its actual location to assert that land-based aircraft flown from allied nations' bases would be just as effective for power projection.
The fictional etc
- You think "Chicken-powered nuclear land mine" is too silly to be an actual weapon? Blue Peacock consisted of a seven-ton tactical nuclear anti-tank mine, to be buried in northern Germany in the event of a land war against the Soviets. To keep the thing at a working temperature in the winter, the designers suggested sealing a live chicken in the case, with enough food and water to keep it alive for the week or so that the weapon would be viable. Fortunately, it never went into production over concerns of fallout and the apparent willingness to contaminate allied territory. The existence of this idea was declassified on April 1, 2004, causing it to be mistaken for a joke.
It does seem like an April Fool but it most certainly is not. The Civil Service does not do jokes.
With thanks to:
- The Channel 4 website
- MiG Man
- The book Vulcan 607.
- Hell yeah!
- The Other Wiki
- AIR International.
- Mountbatten Centre for International Studies, University of Southampton.