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Discussion: Reasons for the Retirement of the V-Bombers

Wyvern

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Before I start my ramble, I would like to ask the moderators that if they feel this is in the wrong area of the forum, that they move this to an area deemed as the right place. I intend this thread to be a discussion mostly about the technical aspects of these aircraft and sources related to the discussion. I do not intend this to become a political discussion, and I ask that members to refrain from beginning a political discussion.

With that sorted, it is time to begin. Whenever the topic of 1950's strategic bombers is being discussed, there are always two common questions "What happened to the V-Bombers? and "Why were they retired?" It is a question that often crops up in online discussions between amateur historians, or even in YouTube comment sections. When discussed properly, it can lead to an interesting discussion. When it isn't, it would usually lead to the Internet equivalent of a bar brawl. I have been involved in both. These questions makes relative sense, especially to those who lack an in-depth understanding of the topic discussed. Bombers such as the B-52 and Tu-95 have been in service for over 60 years, pushing on to 70, and will remain in service until their hundredth anniversary in service. But Britain's V-Bombers had a relatively short stay, when compared to these aircraft. The Valiant was gone by 1965, the Vulcan by 1984 and the final Victor was retired in 1993, after serving in the First Gulf War. So what were the causes for for their retirement?

I have managed to nail it down to these points:

1. A change in the way operations were carried out (From High to Low; a new bomber (TSR.2) was needed)
2. A change in British defence policy (1957 Defence White Paper and subsequent reviews)
3.A change in role of the bomber (power projection weapon and cruise missile carrier)
4. The role of the Deterrent being handed over to the Royal Navy

Here are some reasons for my above statements:
1. The V-Bombers were designed as High Altitude strategic bombers, as most other bombers of this period were. The way they were designed and built, was tailored to this role. The downing of Francis Gary Powers by an SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile in 1960 brought about a major change in the methods used by Western bombers. No longer were high altitude penetrations possible, now bombers had to penetrate at low altitudes to evade detection by Soviet radar. This put a massive strain on the designs of these aircraft, and their crew, which were both operating outside of the environment they had been trained in. This would shorten the service lives of all the aircraft, especially the Valiant, which had to be retired in 1965 due to fatigue cracks (although it's retirement could be down to political reasons as well - let's not get into that). The entry into service of the TSR-2 and later the F-111K would have meant the removal of the V-Bombers from the low level role, and put them into roles more suited for their design. The cancellation of both of these types meant that V-Bombers, mainly the Vulcan, served in the low-level role until the entry into service of the Tornado, adding more strain on the fleet.

2. The 1957 Defence White Paper began the withdrawal of British forces from East of the Suez Canal, after the embarrassment of the 1956 Suez Crisis. Subsequent Defence Reviews continued this trend, and the need for a strategic bomber became less and less necessary. Britain's focus was on Europe and focused on defeating Soviet movements in the event of the Cold War turning hot. A tactical bomber was needed, a strategic bomber would be too large for such a task.

3. The role of the strategic bomber since the 1970's has been to mainly carry a large number of cruise missiles and act as a weapon of power projection. The latter was certainly put into practice when RAF Vulcans flew to Southeast Asia during standoffs between Indonesia and Malaysia in 1964, and during the Black Buck raids in 1982. The former however, was never really taken advantage of by the RAF. Blue Steel didn't really give the RAF the capability it wanted, and it's replacements never made is past the drawing board. Skybolt was cancelled in 1962, rendering the modifications the Vulcans received null and void until the Falklands War, when AGM-45 Shrikes were mounted on pylons under the wings, thanks to the strengthening of the wings for the Skybolt program. Cruise missiles began to appear in the Sixties, and eventually became more common by the mid to late Seventies, yet the RAF never jumped on the opportunity to develop or procure cruise missiles (to my knowledge at least, I think giving Vulcan's Hammer a read would help settle some doubts)

4. The role of the deterrent was handed over to the Royal Navy, with their Polaris-armed Resolution-class submarines. These provided a somewhat cheaper alternative to the V-bombers, and provided greater capability and a greater chance of reaching the target.

There is no single factor that lead to the retirement of these aircraft, all factors were responsible for retirement of these aircraft.

I hope my analysis isn't too flawed, this is the first time I've gone into much detail about such a topic. Constructive criticism is always accepted, and I would also like to hear your thoughts and opinions about this topic and my analysis.

Are there any sources, both online and in books that could help to either back-up or disprove my analysis? I have Vulcan's Hammer by Chris Gibson and Tim McLelland's Britain's Cold War Bombers, as a start.

I hope my ramble wasn't too long, and isn't completely wrong.

Wyvern
 

Archibald

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3. The role of the strategic bomber since the 1970's has been to mainly carry a large number of cruise missiles and act as a weapon of power projection. The latter was certainly put into practice when RAF Vulcans flew to Southeast Asia during standoffs between Indonesia and Malaysia in 1964, and during the Black Buck raids in 1982. The former however, was never really taken advantage of by the RAF. Blue Steel didn't really give the RAF the capability it wanted, and it's replacements never made is past the drawing board. Skybolt was cancelled in 1962, rendering the modifications the Vulcans received null and void until the Falklands War, when AGM-45 Shrikes were mounted on pylons under the wings, thanks to the strengthening of the wings for the Skybolt program. Cruise missiles began to appear in the Sixties, and eventually became more common by the mid to late Seventies, yet the RAF never jumped on the opportunity to develop or procure cruise missiles (to my knowledge at least, I think giving Vulcan's Hammer a read would help settle some doubts)

This. Definitively this. The 800 pound gorilla there is SRAM. As in, AGM-69 SRAM.

That one very much kept cruise missiles (and B-52s to carry them) alive between 1963 and 1978.

Between two eras

- the first cruise missile era when they were huge monstrosities like Blue Steel or Hound Dog (note: I do know Hound dog lasted into the late 70's)

- the second cruise missile era lasting to this day, which started with the AGM-86 in 1975. SRAM despite having a nuclear warhead was the first mass produced cruise missile in the modern sense of "cruise missile".

SRAM bridged that gap, how ? because it was very small and cheap. Dumb rocket engine, altimeter guidance, short range, mass production, small size. And thus B-52s could carry shitloads of them to punch holes into Soviet SAMs belts.

SRAM and Rolling Thunder / Linebacker are really what allowed B-52s to survive Skybolt cancellation (and McNamara unabated love for ICBM and hatred of strategic bombers). Note that all B-52s not G nor H went away before 1980, McNamara again (C - D - E - F older BUFFs)
SRAM was small and light enough to even fit FB-111As.

Now I can really see SRAM adapted to Vulcans and Victors, much more than Hound Dog, Blue Steel, or even Skybolt.

Incidentally, SRAM replaced Skybolt as the B-52 lethal weapon to punch holes into Soviet air defenses. It come too late after Nassau however (I checked: 1963-64) and so Polaris went to the RN.

But Victors and Vulcans with SRAMs could have lasted into the 90's (1989 - right between 1984 and 1993 !) - well as long as SRAM itself, which went away only with the Cold War (and because the rocket engine solid-fuel aged badly, and so did the nuke - scary !).
And it had a SRAM II successor planned even with AGM-109s on B-52G and B-52H.
 
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Wyvern

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Thanks for the input! I never thought of it from that point of view. Indeed, it is an interesting thought.
 

Artie Bob

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Not perhaps a reason, but consider the use of the Vulcan during the Falklands war. To put the single Vulcan over target and return required (IIRC!) 16 Victor tankers. It may be that the range vs payload for non-nuclear weapons was not cost effective compared with other weapon delivery systems. Perhaps OK for a propaganda event with little real military importance but not the best way to spend a limited budget for a wide range of scenarios.

Best regards,

Artie Bob
 

Wyvern

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My thoughts exactly, although in fairness, it was never intended to fly such vast distances. The raids did however mean that the Argentines had to concentrate on homeland defence, therefore sacrificing operational aircraft that could have been used over the Falklands. Whether this made enough of a difference is debatable, and I am not completely sure about whether pulling a few aircraft out of the conflict for homeland defence would make much of a difference.
 

Archibald

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Note that Victor and Vulcan would be considered medium bombers - on par with B-47 and Tu-16, rather than B-52 and Tu-95. Which absolutely doesn't change the fact the Victor could have lasted longer - hint, Chinese Tu-16s = H-6K...
Now that would make one interesting TL. Whatif the Victor pulled a Tu-16 / H-6, to the present day ?
The Chinese Tu-16s definitively look the part with the non-glazed nose, modern turbofans and much enlarged intakes. And the Victor also had a pretty awesome look...
Maybe the Chinese are unable to pull out the H-6 after the 1960 split and 1969 near- nuclear war; and GB sell them Victor blueprints in the 70's instead...
 

Wyvern

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I guess it's all about strategy, as a strategic bomber is a bit too large for the requirements of the armed services of the UK post-1957. China wants a strategic bomber because they want to emerge as the next superpower, and also because they need a platform for cruise and hypersonic missiles. If Britain were to remain a global power, then yes, a heavily modernised Vulcan or Victor would have appeared, or at least, been discussed.
 

Hood

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To my mind its amazing that the Vulcan lasted until 1983.
I've always assumed it was because Strike Command wanted to retain some kind of tactical nuclear strike platform until Tornado was ready. And the Vulcan still had some psychological impact on the Soviets in being a long-range bomber.

Comparing with the B-52H and Tu-95 is apples and pears. I don't know what the serviceability is like for the Tu-95 but some money has been spent on integrating weapons systems and EW kit but presumably they are still very much analogue cockpit.
The B-52H has had millions spent on it and almost every internal part has been changed and its kept pace with every phase of technological development going from LLTV, EW and stand-off cruise missiles.
At the end of their lives the Vulcan and Victor were essentially stock B.2s, a 1950s radar, visual bomb-aiming, 1950s ECM, reliance on either dumb bombs or a handful of compatible nukes, manual navigation. Now a lot of 1960s kit lasted in frontline use in many smaller NATO air arms until well into the late 80s and 90s but given the events of Desert Storm its hard to imagine the Vulcan could have had any part to play in that.

If, after the death of TSR.2, the MoD had given HSA a contract to strip out and completely modernise its avionics and engines in the late 1960s then there would be a case of giving them life. Especially if a new stand-off role could have been found.

The removal of the nuclear mission left the RAF holding a bag of V-bombers with no role. Victors could become tankers but what to do with Vulcans? Air sampling for radiation and maritime recon were two minor roles that kept a few airframes busy and didn't need any expensive mods. The RAF wasn't about to waste a penny on the Vulcan, it wanted MRCA. Vulcan was an orphan.

It was a good prestige tool at airshows but didn't fit with ranks of Phantoms and Jaguars. They were the new carriers of WE.177. There was no call for stand-off nuclear weapons or cruise missiles. Even if there had been, they couldn't have been integrated with a late 1950s analogue (and I mean a real mechanical analogue system) NBC system. Archibald raises a good point regarding SRAM, it could have been a life-line but most RAF tac nuke was flying in the weeds and wasn't going to go further than East Germany, so no real need for a SAM-buster.

The RAF didn't even bother keeping the inflight refuelling system fully operational. Also by 1980 the idea of having half the crew without an ejection seat in a strike aircraft was probably not ideal, the back-seaters were on a one-way trip if they got hit at low level. Newer engines would have been difficult to fit given the buried location (look at the Nimrod mess).
Victor never got any avionics upgrades until the Falklands War required some kind of modern assistance to get them over such desolate distances safely.
(Incidentally this is why I never subscribe to the TSR.2 is mighty fanclub, there is a high chance those bulky 1960s analogue/digital black boxes would never have been updated given the Treasury parsimony of the 1970s and 80s).

The V-Bombers were a product of the 1950s. They simply lacked the mission to justify spending any money updating them yet perversely the Air Staff deemed them too valuable as prestige items to scrap them in 1970.
 

Justo Miranda

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On February 26, 1955, the Soviet CPSU Central Committee ordered the development of weapons system Uragan-5, for the automatic guidance interception of enemy supersonic bombers flying at 82,000 ft (25,000 m) and 1,234 mph (2,000 kph).

The system was to be formed by 59 early warning ground radar stations with P-14(5N84A) Tall King VHF radar sets and 400 km of detection range, digital control computer, IFF interrogation system, command data link and a point-defense interceptor with 120 km combat range fitted with TsKB Almaz fire-control radar.

On March 7, 1957, the Mikoyan-Gurevich bureau was charged with the design of the new interceptor, under the codename Ye-150. The prototype was flown on July 8, 1960 reaching a top speed of 2,816 kph (Mach 2.65) and 73,000 ft (22,500 m) ceiling.

The combat version Ye-152-1 was flown on May 16, 1961 reaching Mach 2.28 armed with two underwing air-to-air missiles MKB Raduga K-9-51.

On July 7, 1962, the aircraft established the absolute speed record flying at 1,666 mph (2,681 kph) under the fictitious designation Ye-166.

The K-9 (NATO AA-4 Awl) was a beam-riding air-to-air missile with 5.6 miles (9 km) operational range, 3,130 mph (5,040 kph) top speed and only 55 per cent estimated accuracy because its GOS guidance system was vulnerable to the electronic countermeasures of the SAC bombers.

In 1959 entered service the first Soviet strategic air defense system, deployed around Moscow with 56 launch sites of SA-1 Guild surface-to-air missiles.

The SA-1 had Mach 2.5 top speed, 23 miles (37 km) range, 60,000 ft (18,300 m) operational ceiling and high explosive warhead with 120 ft kill ratios. Their B-200 guidance system was type track-while-scan.

The new surface-to-air missile SA-2 Guideline was deployed in 600 launch sites around the Soviet Union between 1960 and 1964.

The SA-2 had Mach 4 top speed, 21.7 miles (35 km) range, 131,200 ft (40,000 m) ceiling and high explosive warhead with 200 ft kill ratio. Their VHF guidance system P-12 Spoon Rest was type semi-active radar command.

On May 1, 1960 six MiG-19 fighters failed when trying to intercept a high-altitude reconnaissance U-2 piloted by Gary Powers, but the spy plane was shot down little afterwards by two SA-2.

By 1964 the Soviets already possessed small nuclear warheads capable of extending the kill ratio of the SA-2 to 19,680 ft and the ceiling to 80,000 ft.
 

Wyvern

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Also by 1980 the idea of having half the crew without an ejection seat in a strike aircraft was probably not ideal, the back-seaters were on a one-way trip if they got hit at low level.
This was made markedly obvious when a Vulcan exploded over the village of Żabbar on the island of Malta in 1975.

XM645 was flying in to RAF Luqa from Waddington, and undershot the runway, bouncing at least once. The pilots decided that a go-around was necessary, and were going to attempt another landing. By this time, a fire had broken out in the starboard wing, and it was quickly realised that the aircraft wouldn't make it. The two pilots ejected, but the other crew members didn't have time to bail out, and were killed when the aircraft finally succumbed to its wounds, and exploded in mid-air. One ground fatality occurred, an old lady who was walking in the street. There were 20 reported ground injuries. The small number of deaths on the ground has been interpreted by some as a miracle. There was extensive property damage on Sanctuary Street, where most of the debris landed.

The accident was described as "an avoidable accident in which a serviceable aircraft was flown into the ground killing all rear crew members."

The accident is still pierced into the memories of many over here in Malta. My grandfather witnessed it while at the petrol station in Rabat, and my great uncle, who was in the RAF at the time, was tasked with helping stand guard of the crash site, if I am not mistaken.

Some sources:








Here is a quote from the article above:
On October 14, 1975 Flying Officer E.G. Alexander was co-piloting a routine flight of a Vulcan XM645 bomber from the RAF base in Waddington, UK to Malta. He was not normally part of the crew, but the original co-pilot had asked to be replaced because his wife was about to give birth. This change in crew proved to be fatal.

The RAF’s official reports of the incident say the co-pilot was “imprudently” given leave by the captain, Flight Lieutenant G.R. Alcock, to do the first approach at Luqa. Fl. Off. Alexander was not adequately briefed on the problems of landing on a short runway, especially one with a slope.

The Vulcan was landing quite low and the aircraft hit the undershoot and sheared off the undercarriage. It bounced back into the air some 20 feet or so and it then hit the runway again some 600 feet after the first impact. By this time the captain had taken over but instead of staying put and waiting for the fire engines to extinguish any possible fire, the captain decided to climb away again and attempt to do a circuit and crash land. It was an ill-fated judgment and, as, a few seconds later, fire broke out on one of the wings and the bomber exploded in mid-air.

The captain and co-pilot ejected at the last moment and descended by parachute.

The curse of the Vulcans was that the rear crew members didn’t have ejector seats. They had to open the crew door, lower a ladder and bale out with their parachutes on. The five crew members, for unclear reasons, never managed this.

The deadly explosion occurred over Żabbar at lunchtime, claiming the life of Vinċenza Zammit, 48, who was walking in the town’s main road at the time. About 20 others were injured, some seriously.
 

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Archibald

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On February 26, 1955, the Soviet CPSU Central Committee ordered the development of weapons system Uragan-5, for the automatic guidance interception of enemy supersonic bombers flying at 82,000 ft (25,000 m) and 1,234 mph (2,000 kph).

The system was to be formed by 59 early warning ground radar stations with P-14(5N84A) Tall King VHF radar sets and 400 km of detection range, digital control computer, IFF interrogation system, command data link and a point-defense interceptor with 120 km combat range fitted with TsKB Almaz fire-control radar.

On March 7, 1957, the Mikoyan-Gurevich bureau was charged with the design of the new interceptor, under the codename Ye-150. The prototype was flown on July 8, 1960 reaching a top speed of 2,816 kph (Mach 2.65) and 73,000 ft (22,500 m) ceiling.

The combat version Ye-152-1 was flown on May 16, 1961 reaching Mach 2.28 armed with two underwing air-to-air missiles MKB Raduga K-9-51.

On July 7, 1962, the aircraft established the absolute speed record flying at 1,666 mph (2,681 kph) under the fictitious designation Ye-166.

The K-9 (NATO AA-4 Awl) was a beam-riding air-to-air missile with 5.6 miles (9 km) operational range, 3,130 mph (5,040 kph) top speed and only 55 per cent estimated accuracy because its GOS guidance system was vulnerable to the electronic countermeasures of the SAC bombers.

In 1959 entered service the first Soviet strategic air defense system, deployed around Moscow with 56 launch sites of SA-1 Guild surface-to-air missiles.

The SA-1 had Mach 2.5 top speed, 23 miles (37 km) range, 60,000 ft (18,300 m) operational ceiling and high explosive warhead with 120 ft kill ratios. Their B-200 guidance system was type track-while-scan.

The new surface-to-air missile SA-2 Guideline was deployed in 600 launch sites around the Soviet Union between 1960 and 1964.

The SA-2 had Mach 4 top speed, 21.7 miles (35 km) range, 131,200 ft (40,000 m) ceiling and high explosive warhead with 200 ft kill ratio. Their VHF guidance system P-12 Spoon Rest was type semi-active radar command.

On May 1, 1960 six MiG-19 fighters failed when trying to intercept a high-altitude reconnaissance U-2 piloted by Gary Powers, but the spy plane was shot down little afterwards by two SA-2.

By 1964 the Soviets already possessed small nuclear warheads capable of extending the kill ratio of the SA-2 to 19,680 ft and the ceiling to 80,000 ft.

... and in 1964 the NRO refused the mach 4.5+ ISINGLASS proposal from Convair, saying "by 1970, anything slower than mach 9 will be vulnerable to Soviet air defenses".
 

Roland55

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The aircraft was not cheap, sadly a combination of lack of interest and money terminated their service, on the other side of things, the US, China and Russia saw potential in their bombers, upgrades, cruise missiles and more stuff was fitted on them (china recently fitted a massive missile to their Tu-16s).
It probably was for the best since idk how the Vulcan/Victor/Valiant would have faired in an engagement against an enemy with up to date SAM Batteries or a decent number of interceptors.
2 images of the Vulcan fitted with Martel ARM during the Falklands War, i wonder if it would have had a different result than the Shrikes.
 

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Wyvern

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Note that all B-52s not G nor H went away before 1980, McNamara again (C - D - E - F older BUFFs)
I guess he used the excuse of the F-111 entering service to justify their retirement. In all honesty, it could have been worse, look at the B-58s. With SRAM on the subject, would a V-Bomber or B-58 have been able to serve in the new Cold War environment of the Seventies and Eighties? One must remember that, for the V-Bombers at least, it all depended on whether the RAF would have operated strategically in this "new age".
 

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