Mark Twain probably didn’t make the famous quip, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes,” but the phrase’s sentiment often feels right. In discussing British independence, U.S. nuclear policy, strategic-weapons upgrades and a fraying “special relationship,” we could be discussing current events—or those of a half-century ago.
In the late 1950s, Britain’s defense establishment faced some grim realities. The empire and its wealth were no more, and nuclear weapons were very costly. Although UK scientists played major roles in the Manhattan Project, postwar espionage and U.S. mistrust of the British led to a chill in collaboration and to the UK’s drive for an independent nuclear deterrent.
By 1958 the UK possessed manned bombers like the Avro Vulcan and Handley-Page Victor capable of delivering British thermonuclear bombs to the Soviet Union. However, the development of successful surface-to-air missiles (SAM) rendered World War II–style manned bomber fleets vulnerable and eventually obsolete.
Ballistic missiles arrived in the late 1950s, their promise of extreme speed and invulnerability hampered by the challenges of rocket science and concerns about control. Once fired, a land-based missile slips the bonds of its handlers and cannot be recalled. A manned bomber can loiter for hours awaiting the outcome of diplomacy.
By 1958, American defense firms determined that launching a ballistic missile from an aircraft was possible. The concept combined the loiter ability of a manned aircraft with the Sunday punch of an H-bomb on an rocket. New guidance systems employing star tracking to update inertial-guidance modules promised accuracy close to that of land-based ICBMs.
At the same time, Britain’s defense firms struggled with their homegrown ballistic missile project, Blue Streak. (The heirs of Shakespeare adopted the most colorful naming scheme for their nuclear projects: Violet Club, Red Beard, Black Prince.) Blue Streak was behind schedule and over budget, but faced the more daunting problem of geography. The British Isles lack vast sparsely populated areas suitable for missile silos, and such silos would be easy to target.
In May 1959 the U.S. Air Force issued a formal request for Weapon System 138A and selected Douglas Aircraft as prime contractor. The Skybolt, as it was known, was a hefty two-stage solid rocket mounting a one-megaton W-59 warhead. Four Skybolts would fit aboard the wing pylons of a B-52, giving the bomber a tremendous punch.
During wartime, B-52s approaching Soviet airspace would launch their Skybolts hundreds of miles away. Upon release, the big missiles would drop their aerodynamic tail cones and ignite their first stages. After soaring to three hundred miles’ altitude and 1100 miles downrange, the hydrogen bombs would destroy airbases, command centers and radar installations ahead of the U.S. bomber waves.
For the British, the Skybolt seemed ideal: a ballistic missile deterrent that fit within the British Isles, was invulnerable to attack and compatible with existing aircraft. In February 1960 the British cabinet decided to cancel Blue Streak and go all in with the Skybolt. Henceforth the UK’s only nuclear weapons platform would be an American missile.
In March 1960, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan met with President Eisenhower on a state visit; Eisenhower agreed to sell the UK 144 Skybolts, which would be fitted with British warheads. In return, the U.S. Navy got access to Britain’s submarine base at Holy Loch, Scotland, a concession that even now causes heartburn. In May 1961 an RAF Vulcan flew to Santa Monica, California for tests and fitting at Douglas’s facilities.
But in Washington, dark geopolitical storms were brewing. In an eerie echo of today’s concerns about allied nuclear proliferation in Asia, the incoming Kennedy administration viewed the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent with serious misgivings.
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in particular worried that, should another Suez Crisis occur and Britain face off against the Soviets, the UK’s nuclear forces would not be a credible deterrent. The United States might then be drawn into the conflict in order to back Britain.
Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson drove the point home in a famous speech at West Point: “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role—that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States . . . is about played out.”
Better, thought the Americans, if British nuclear forces were brought under a “multilateral-force” umbrella, with launch commands vetted by American commanders in “dual-key” authorizations. The British loathed the idea of joining a force that would allow the Germans to possess nuclear weapons.
And the United States now had an alternative to Skybolt, which failed all five of its first test launches. The remarkable success of the Navy’s Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) program ended the need for Skybolt in American eyes. Secretary McNamara informed Whitehall of Skybolt’s cancellation in December 1962, just a few weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
McNamara’s announcement caused a firestorm in the House of Commons. The British felt betrayed and manipulated; the Conservative government took a shellacking. Liberal MP Jo Grimond cried, “Does not this mark the absolute failure of the policy of the independent deterrent? Is it not the case that everybody else in the world knew this, except the Conservative Party in this country?”
But, in one of those oddities that litter the pages of history, the United Kingdom eventually came out ahead. The turnaround began in the Bahamas, where Prime Minister Macmillan and President Kennedy held urgent talks just before Christmas 1962. With more than 30 percent of his own party’s members demanding an independent deterrent, Macmillan reminded Kennedy of the key role Britain played in the Manhattan Project, and refused to give up atomic arms. No multilateral “umbrella” was acceptable.
But out of those talks on the beach in Nassau came an extraordinary agreement—one that cemented the “special relationship” for decades. The United States would sell the United Kingdom Polaris missiles, launch tubes and fire-control systems, which the British would put aboard British submarines and arm with British warheads. Faced with a humiliating unraveling of its closest alliance at the height of the Cold War, the United States offered its crown jewels.
For Kennedy, it was one of the more distressing moments of his presidency. When Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker joined him and Macmillan in Nassau, Kennedy quipped, “There we sat, like three whores at a christening.”
For Britain, it was an almost unbelievable coup—“the bargain of the century,” as one observer called it. Polaris was a far more effective weapons system that Skybolt—its loiter time measured in months rather than hours, and its support needs sustaining the British shipbuilding industry for decades. The Royal Navy eclipsed the RAF and resumed its centuries-old role as the guarantor of the nation’s safety.
The Polaris Sales Agreement proved so successful that it became the model for its successor involving the Trident SLBMs developed in the 1970s. Its impact continues today: both the U.S. and Royal Navies are codeveloping the Common Missile Compartment for both the U.S. Columbia-class and the British Successor-class missile subs.
The Skybolt lives on in a conceptual sort of way, but as a civilian project. Billionaire Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch venture aims to fire Skybolt-sized space boosters from a gigantic aircraft—bigger than the B-52s and Vulcans of yore. Skybolt may yet return in darker guise, as military powers face the same needs that created the air-launched ballistic missile. Skybolt-like missiles would seriously complicate the defense of Guam, for example. . . .
Steve Weintz, a frequent contributor to many publications such as WarIsBoring, is a writer, filmmaker, artist, animator.
Image: The Royal Navy ballistic missile submarine HMS Repulse in the Firth of Clyde, circa 1979. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy