‘Much of my story pivots on a single military project: the TSR2 aircraft. The label ‘TSR2’ stood for ‘Tactical Strike and Reconnaissance 2’, and this was the most ambitious military aviation project ever conceived by the British.’
Britain and the Bomb: Technology, Culture and The Cold War
By WJ Nuttal
Published by Whittles Publishing
This book tells a historical story centred on the mid-1960s, a point in history when the UK made its important decisions about the Bomb. The UK has made crucial decisions about nuclear weapons at four points in its history. There was the late 1940s decision to develop plutonium-based atom bombs similar to the Fat Man weapon dropped by the Americans on Nagasaki, Japan, which helped bring the Second World War to a close a bit sooner than might otherwise have been the case. The next decision came in the 1960s. It was to transition the British nuclear deterrent from primarily a Royal Air Force-delivered capability to a Royal Navy submarine-based approach, deploying US Polaris missile technology. The third decision concerned the upgrading of that system through the 1970s with the Chevaline upgrade – a uniquely British idea.
A fourth decision came in the early 1980s with the shift to the Trident submarine-launched nuclear weapons system. A fifth major decision is at the time of writing being implemented – via the construction of a successor system to the original Trident capability. We consider stories from the 1950s and 1960s in order to understand the present better. One observation from those years is how for Britain the threat-space moved from a global set of confrontation points, particularly including the Middle East and the Far East, to become a more narrowly European, North Atlantic and Arctic story.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, Britain’s areas of defence emphasis have broadened once again, particularly to the Middle East and central Asia, but also to include West Africa. The global reach of British power is an area where ambition and obligation collide with the realities of tight budgets.
This book describes Britain during a period of perceived international decline, retreating from Empire and losing independence of action in defence and security. It was also a time of renewed prosperity at home, social change and post-war optimism. It provides an insight into a Britain of the past, one that is many ways so very different from the Britain of today, but one which can give us insights into, and perspectives on, contemporary choices. The issues surrounding Trident replacement are often presented in the British press as a choice concerning Britain’s ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ – and indeed it is. Arguably, however, that is not its raison d’etre. It is also a contribution to NATO strategic security and, perhaps most importantly of all, a British investment sustaining and strengthening security guarantees from the United States. Would the United States really risk its very existence to defend interests on the other side of the Atlantic? The existence of British nuclear weapons arguably affects that calculus, to the benefit of Britain. Such connections and linkages emerged during the Cold War, and in particular the years described in the pages that follow.
This book is a story from the past, one that has resonances for the present and focuses on a different, earlier, period. Yes, it was a dangerous time – but it was also a fun, exciting time for many people. It is the story of a generation emerging from the dismal rigours of the Second World War into a new and optimistic high-technology future. But while this book concerns itself with nuclear weapons, their ethics and destructive potential are not our focus. Rather the intention is to evoke a lost Britain and to reflect on what we might learn from it. Much of my story pivots on a single military project: the TSR2 aircraft. The label ‘TSR2’ stood for ‘Tactical Strike and Reconnaissance 2’, and this was the most ambitious military aviation project ever conceived by the British. It was wonderfully, and recklessly, ambitious. It represented national aspiration verging on hubris, and in early 1965 it was cancelled. Only one aircraft ever flew – and that aircraft, XR219, went supersonic only once.
My analytical opinion is that the TSR2 cancellation was a wise and carefully handled step. It was a sensible decision in Cold War defence policy. It was a correct and timely move in the Cold War game. This book will help explain the choices made, and perhaps reassure those that see error and even conspiracy. The defence decision makers, however, did not fully realise that the choices they were making would start a redefinition of Britain in the spring of 1965, and in those terms it was a very sad decision indeed. The emotion of the story is important. The TSR2 cancellation was a decision that becomes sadder as time passes. It appears to affirm national weakness and a retreat from ambition. It suggests that Great Britain has become Britain. Looking at the story in such terms, it appears to represent a mistake of long-term significance made for narrow, short-term motives.
On such matters, however, the author leaves the reader to judge.
Britain and the Bomb: Technology, Culture and The Cold War by W. J. Nuttal is published by Whittles Publishing, priced £18.99.