An Overlook of the Air Defense
of Great Britain: 1946-1985

With the end of World War II, there were a sense in most political and society circles inside Great Britain that the country could gradually scale down its high military alert status. Unfortunately for them, the Berlin crisis of 1948 and the Korean War just two years later, rekindle in the country the spectrum of Hitler’s Blitz of 1940. As a direct result of those two crises, the Royal Air Force (RAF) Fighter Command strength remained about the same levels of WW II thought much of the 1950s. Fighter Command achieved its pick in total air assets in 1957. Total inventory that summer topped 600 operational fighters augmented by a powerful network of airfields and radar arrays. That year also marked a major policy shift inside the Ministry of Defense. This “shift” would drain Great Britain of its air defense independency in a couple of decades.

In the autumn of 1957, policymakers began evaluation the Soviet Union’s nuclear missile capacity and the threat it actually represent to the U.K. At the time, the United States enjoyed an overwhelming nuclear deterrence force. This overwhelming arsenal will lead Britain’s leaders to adopt a new policy. A policy referred to as Trip-Wire. As part as of the policy review, it was decided that from 1957 onward, the biggest threat facing Britain was the vulnerability of its nuclear delivery force: the newly developed V-bomber fleet, to the USSR’s ever increasing nuclear ballistic missile force. It was suggested that a fighter shield, augmented by a powerful detection network ringing the V-bomber’s bases could provide the force enough time to take-off and to commence its retaliatory profile. The “trip-wire” strategy was coupled with Britain’s ability to deliver a massive nuclear strike deep inside the USSR. It was because of Britain’s leaders strong believes in trip-wire that Fighter Command did not proceed with many advance research and development projects. It also did not saw the necessity to invest high amounts of money into fighter concepts and/or procurement of new systems. But as the Soviet’s ballistic missile capacity grew, both policies began to show their flaws. Because of the projected parity between American and Soviet nuclear arsenals, leaders in the UK began to understand that the next conflict will most likely be fought on a mix (conventional and nuclear) environment. Britain’s whole defense posture will now be asked to operate in a non-nuclear environment as well as an atomic one. This change in position destroyed the operating assumption of the trip-wire strategy and, to a lesser extend, that of massive retaliation.

In the mid 1960s it was recognized by the MoD that a Soviet conventional air threat was larger than their nuclear one. Unfortunately for Britain, years of following “trip-wire” have reduced its operational air defense structure to a bare minimum. It was not just a matter of the numbers of available airplanes it was also the matter of the shortness of men and material. Years of budgetary constraints and of neglecting available systems left Britain’s once powerful radar and control network in a state of flux. Adding to this problem was the lack of operational airfields. By the end of 1945, the UK possessed one airfield per every twenty kilometers. A ratio that held true for most of the 1950s. But by the late 1960s there were only a handful of them. Most of the decommissioned airfields were handed over to municipalities for land development.

The arrival of the new air-deployed stand-off weapon platforms in the early seventies forced air defenses specialist to think on a wider band range. Air defenses operational ranges were now pushed out hundreds of kilometers in order to engage the launching aircraft in time. By now the British were assigned by the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT) and Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) a much wider air defense sector. Beside the Home Islands sector, the UK was now responsible for the vital Easter Atlantic area which extend from the Channel to the North Norwegian Sea in the north and out very nearly to the coast of Iceland in the west. This was a tall order for any country to assume. If NATO’s fears were ever to be realized then Britain’s air resources in the mid-seventies would prove inadequate for the task because as a rearward base for SACEUR and a forward base for SACANT, roles that were assigned to England because of its geographical position rather than by air defense strategies, they would be a prime target for the numerical superior Soviet Red Air Force.

SACLANT called for a British operational profile that beside air defense included anti-submarine warfare and air patrols in support of maritime shipping operations in the Eastern Atlantic and Channel areas. SACLANT’s command also viewed the UK as its home base for mounting flack support for its strike fleet in case it needed to fight its way against the Soviet sea and air assets deployed on the North Norwegian Sea. The other command, SACEUR planned to use the UK as a mounting base for much of the deeper air penetration effort just inside the forward edge of the Soviet’s battle sector in Continental Europe. In the case of war, the UK bases would have also served as the “world” largest air bridge. Much as it happened during World War II, Great Britain would act as a gigantic aircraft carrier. Heavy lift aircraft and jumbo commercial planes carrying thousand of troops and supplies would make the UK its staging area before deployment to the Continent. It was in this area where the British Air Defence Commander asserted its independence, because it was his Command that was assigned the task of defending the air bridge.

Thank God war never erupted in the mid to late 1960s because the RAF was woefully unprepared for it. Years of attrition and budgetary constraints have left the RAF Fighter Command a “shell of its former self”. Gone was the force that once could blank most of the sky above Europe. But the situation began to improve in the mid 1970s. By the fall of 1976, the RAF as a whole was beginning to rise from the ashes. That same year the RAF added two additional air defense squadrons fitted with upgraded Lighting interceptors. The RAF was also in the process of making the F-4 Phantoms the backbone of its air defense component. It had re-deployed the vaunted Bloodhound surface-to-air missile system (SAM) to the south east corner of the country for low level protection. Riper SAMs were deployed to the country’s northern areas to guard the vital bomber bases. If the present looked good to the RAF’s top brass, the future was looking even better. In the pipelines laid the much anticipated Tornado air superior platform which was schedule to replace the Phantom by the mid 1980s. The force was also expecting delivery of its coveted Nimrod Airborne Early Warning aircraft. Major improvements were also performed to the extremely important radar and communication network. The RAF was also planning the deployment of a new and flexible jamming resisting data link connecting the United Kingdom Air Defence Ground Environment (UKADGE) with fighter base control centers and early detection platforms. UKADGE was a control and communication interface system that worked through a mutually supporting hardened control centers and accepted digitized data from all sensors (ground, early warning stations, sea bases sensors and airborne radar platforms) British, French and NATO. The system gave Air Defense Commander an immediate profile of the air threat and resources available to counter it.

The mid 1970s also produce another, equally important, development; a shift in the political environment in Great Britain. The massive Soviet expansion of the early 1970s brought the threat of conventional destruction to the UK’s door step. In this climate, the RAF was able to find many influential allies inside the House of Commons who were able to push forward a very ambitious air expansion program. Of course, any major rearmament effort not only needs monetary support but a more boarder production base that not only include production lines, but also the training of thousand of skill workers and their support facilities. Nevertheless, rearmament began in the late 1970s at a frantic pace. By the summer of 1985 delivery of Tornado units were considerable thanks to the efforts of around-the-clock production lines. That same year, the Nimrod began entering front line service replacing the aged Shackleton (AEW). New SAM batteries were deployed to every operational airfield. New systems, such as the EUROSAM, a joint British-French venture, were also in the process of being incorporated into the RAF’s air defense structure. For air-to-air refueling, the RAF began to utilize the recently converted V-10 transport aircraft as well as a small number of converted Boeing jets.

Despite these and other measures taken by the RAF in during the first half of the 1980s, the force was still short of the skilled manpower needed to run its new and sophisticated systems. As the seventies gave way to the eighties, more and more RAF pilots and specialized ground personnel began to emigrate into the more profitable private sector. Despite several pay increased, such as the one of 1978, RAF retention rates began decrease dramatically. By the middle of the decade, turnover rates in the RAF began to stabilize and, in some areas (ground support personnel) it actually stopped. It’s safe to say that by 1985 the RAF’s operational capabilities were back to its immediate post WW II levels. Total number of available aircraft by 1985 fluctuated between 850 and 1,100 (including the Royal Navy) with more (around 200) on reserve alter status. Its once vaunted radar detection system was again one of the world’s top technological marvels and its active and reserve manpower was increasing in ratio with the country’s population for the first time in three decades. Not small feats considering the turmoil of the 1960s and 70s.

– Raul Colon

The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare, Editor Chris Bishop, Amber Books 2001
The Classic Book on Military Strategy, BH Liddell Hart, Penguin Book 1991
How to Make War, James F. Dunnigan, HarperCollins Books 1993

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