BRITAIN AND THE BOMB: TECHNOLOGY, CULTURE AND THE COLD WAR

Reviewed by: J. R. STOCKER

The title of this book doesn’t do justice to its content – or perhaps it’s the other way round. The blurb on the back cover tells us what it’s actually about: “What were the TSR2 and Chevaline? Why was one cancelled and the other developed?” The photograph on the front cover indicates what the book’s really about – TSR2. Chevaline gets half a chapter, TSR2 five and half chapters. Nuttall’s purpose, he tells us, is to help inform the public about issues involved in the decision to renew the Trident nuclear deterrent, but this looks more like a rather weak attempt to apply a contemporary relevance to an unrelated subject from half a century ago.

TSR2 (‘tactical strike reconnaissance’) was a highly advanced aircraft developed in the UK in the early 1960s, ostensibly as a Canberra replacement. It was never meant as a strategic bomber and by the time the first prototype flew in 1964 the decision had already been made to transfer the strategic nuclear role from the ‘V’ Bombers to the Navy’s future Polaris submarines – hence the book’s rather tenuous connection to Chevaline. TSR2 would have had a nuclear (as well as conventional) role but it was the tactical/theatre role within Europe performed by the Canberra, then the Vulcan and finally the Tornado.

Nuttall does a good job of providing a detailed account of the development of the TSR2 and its cancellation by the new Labour Government in 1965. The decision remains controversial to this day. It may have been a sensible recognition that the aircraft’s technology was too far ahead of its time (some of it later made its way into the Tornado) and continued development too expensive in relation to the number of aircraft likely to be built. Or it may mark the point at which the UK gave up on large parts of its aircraft industry (the HS 681 transport and P1154 supersonic Harrier were cancelled at about the same time).

The author also tries to put TSR2 into the wider political and social context of the time but in just 200 pages of text doesn’t have the space to do more than a fairly superficial job. It also means he gets distracted by topics of questionable relevance, such as a three-page discussion of the Lightning fighter and several personal anecdotes about people involved in the TSR2 project. TSR2 was replaced by an order for the American F-111 aircraft, a rather less advanced but cheaper machine. This is relevant to a naval readership as that aircraft became the basis of the ill-fated ‘island bases strategy’ east of Suez meant to compensate for the cancellation of the new carrier CVA-01. Neither the island bases nor the F-111 survived very long. There’s a wide, but not universal, consensus that the answer all along was further development of the Buccaneer which of course is what the RAF ended up with anyway.

Chevaline appears in this work really as just a comparison with the demise of TSR2 because it was another highly advanced aerospace project, one that was not cancelled. In fact, it wasn’t initiated until after TSR2 had gone and the two subjects are largely unrelated. Nuttall is wrong to assert that the Polaris Improvement Programme, later called Chevaline, was an “utterly British technology” as it drew heavily on an earlier, but incomplete, American programme called Super Antelope – as he himself later on acknowledges. He also gets some timelines a little muddled, alleging that it was the F-111 or Chevaline – the UK couldn’t afford both. Actually, in 1967 (when the F-111 order was cancelled) it was F-111 or Polaris. Although the latter’s vulnerability to the Moscow ABM system was already becoming apparent Chevaline didn’t get properly underway for some years thereafter.

If you’re interested in the TSR2 project this book is for you. On Chevaline there are better and more comprehensive accounts elsewhere. And don’t be fooled by the title. This is not about ‘Britain and the Bomb’.