Britain and the Bomb

Britain and the Bomb

W J Nuttall
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
In 2016 Parliament voted to replace the UK’s nuclear deterrent; had it not been for Brexit there would probably have been a wider debate on the subject. Now that the Brexit die is pretty much cast and we have a stable government the whole matter of defence policy is likely to come under review and public debate. As the nuclear deterrent underpins UK defence policy (and spending) this book is timely. Those who grew up after the end of the Cold War might find it useful. For those of us who haven’t thought too deeply about nuclear warfare recently it is a timely reminder.

The book covers the history of British nuclear weaponry and seeks to set it in the context of the UK’s political and cultural development. This is commendably ambitious in under 200 pages, which include a useful foreword by Lord Owen, and it gets quite close. Certainly the details on all the key decisions and drivers behind them are made clear. MacMillan’s extraordinary triumph of obtaining the Polaris submarine launched ballistic missile system from the USA in many ways save the UK’s independence and position as a major power (albeit an increasingly bankrupt one) formed the pivot for UK defence policy, which had hitherto resided predominantly with the RAF. The Army and, to a greater extent the Royal Navy had tactical nuclear weapons, leaving city busting – the roles that Bomber Command had developed in the Second World War – as the RAF’s primary purpose, with the V Bomber Fleet.

The problem with an air based nuclear deterrent is that planes are vulnerable, as was shown the Gary Powers’ U2 was shot down near Sverdlovsk in 1962. Almost overnight the RAF concept of high and fast nuclear bombers ended, and they switched to low level penetration. The additional strains this posed on air frames were significant. Low level penetration required a new air frame, enter the TSR2 and the change of the book’s focus. The author admits this, and the book becomes one about the development and ultimate cancellation of this advanced combat aircraft. Which is fine, although I found the structure of the book unhelpful and leading to the impression that some information was being repeated.

The short version is that the TSR2 was cancelled and the UK got itself an option to buy the F-111A, (the terms of the option were generous – all credit to Dennis Healey). However the drawdown from East of Suez removed the need for such a platform, so the F-111A option was not exercised either. Instead the RAF got the (Navy Specified) Buccaneer, which proved to be an exceptionally capable low-level aircraft. Of course, the air industry was up in arms by the cancellation and the perceived sell out to the US. The RAF was miserable and the Navy delighted. As the author notes, somewhat en passant, the idiocy of the government structure was largely to blame, only resolved by the creation of the unified Ministry of Defence on 1 April 1964. It is hard to disagree with the authors conclusion that the TSR2 was a plane without a clear purpose, with development issues and an escalating price – being offered by a company that had yet to get itself working properly. (The British Aircraft Corporation was a merger between English Electric and Vickers, which took a while to bed in). He also notes that a similar specification produced at a similar time resulted in the superb Tornado.

The book finishes with some interesting discussion of the Trident replacement, which is more or less where we came in. It is a very good book, well written and well researched, covering a wide range of topics. It is timely and I suggest that you buy a copy for the young people in your lives.

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