The casual student of history might be forgiven for wondering what happened to the British aircraft industry. During the Second World War (which they won) the British gave us the Spitfire, the Avro Lancaster, the Hawker Tempest, the De Havilland Mosquito, and many other great airplanes. Now, they can barely collaborate with Germany, Spain, and Italy to produce an overpriced, overdue, tactical fighter that fails to win orders or live up to its own ad copy. But hey, at least the Eurofighter can beat a Bugatti an a drag race. So what happened?
Two words: Duncan. Sandys.
In 1957 he took the British aircraft industry out back behind the shed and shot1 it.
He wrote a white paper on defense2 that made two points. First, the British aircraft industry had to reorganize in big conglomerates, and only those conglomerates would get future contracts. Goodbye all of the companies that competed with each other, hello giant companies that are slow moving and risk averse. Also, the contraction in number of companies means there are fewer design-level engineering positions to go around. One big company needs fewer designers than two small ones. Nothing like encouraging all of that war-won design expertise to seek other work.
But wait, it got worse. Sandys posited that manned military aircraft were obsolete. Missiles were the way of the future. Missiles were all that was needed to win wars. Missiles could intercept bombers, so they didn’t need to build fighters or interceptors. Missiles could deliver big nuclear warheads, so bombers weren’t needed to deliver nukes. And everyone3 knew the massive power of nuclear bombs had made conventional weapons obsolete. On the off chance such things were needed, missiles could deliver conventional warheads too. Missiles could do it all, and do it cheaper than aircraft without risk to aircrews. Sounds great! And Britain had basically no money after the war. They stuck with rationing well into the fifties, and that fancy empire had fallen apart. Goodbye aircraft, goodbye aircraft industry, hello missiles and big savings!
Of course, history had other ideas. Nobody wanted to blow the world to tiny bits, since that means they’d die too, so nobody ended up using all of their big ICBMs. Or their big bad atomic bombs4 for that matter. Time and again, nations turned to conventional bombs, and yes Virginia, manned aircraft to deliver them. In the Linebacker and Linebacker II campaigns, the USAF showed that B-52Ds could bring the pain to Hanoi like their fathers in the Mighty Eighth. If you were ever wondering what heavy bombers can do that tactical fighters can’t, it starts with carrying one hundred and eight 500 pound bombs, and it ends with blowing the living daylights out of everything in a box about five eighths of a mile wide and two miles long. Yes, manned heavy bombers were darned useful in Vietnam. And this even during the Christmas Bombing of Hanoi, flying into the teeth of a massive air defense network supplied with the latest in Soviet-made hardware.
But it was not just the USAF that enjoyed success with manned aircraft. The Israeli air force has enjoyed great success with their fighters. In 1967, they executed a surprise attack that destroyed both the Syrian air force and the bigger Egyptian air force on the ground. Guderian may have been the first master of blitzkrieg, but he never did it as well as Rabin. In 1973, the Israelis had to deal with brand new SA-6 SAMs during the Yom Kippur war, and this reminded everyone that pilots, and by extension their manned aircraft are adaptable. Despite significant early losses, they managed to adapt and overcome, proving highly successful once again. Again in 1981, the Israelis succeeded in destroying the Osirak reactor in Iraq, despite the Iraqi air defense network.
Of course, Saddam’s embarrassment at this led him to beef up his air defenses again, but it would not stop (mostly) American airpower in 1991. Once again, B-52s were a big part of the strike package. Versatile manned aircraft carried improvised GBU-28 “Deep Throat” bombs to destroy heavily protected Iraqi aircraft shelters and command bunkers. And despite the large number of cruise missiles used, the opening blows were struck by Apache helicopters trashing an early warning radar, and only the stealthy F-117 was to operate over Baghdad.
Want more? Well, even England found a use for their old “obsolete” Vulcan bombers in the Falklands war. Operation Black Buck was a record setting 12,600 km bombing raid where Vulcans flew from Ascension Island to neutralize the runway on the Falkland islands and deny its use to the Argentinians. And during this time period, no Polaris missiles were used in anger.
It’s the versatility of manned aircraft during this time that has ensured their longevity. Lest you think other bombers are obsolete, all B-52Gs were destroyed as part of the START treaty. Even though they’ve been adapted for conventional missions and even close air support, they’re still an important enough strategic weapon to affect the nuclear calculus.
Of course, now people are at it again. Now drones are the future! Yay networking issues. Needless to say, keep pilots in the cockpit where they belong. Or else those terrorist Cylon bastards will win.
The only real Viper is a manned Viper. So say we all!
1.) Fun fact, people in England used to be able to own guns. Yes, real guns!
2.) He misspelled the topic, actually. One more thing he couldn’t get right.
3.) USAF included on this point. At least until Vietnam and “limited response”
4.) Singer Fred Kirby called them Hell Bombs in a 1950 song. Best name for them ever.