The destructive force of a nuclear explosion has been a part of shared human knowledge for generations now; since the US dropped ‘Fat Man’ (plutonium) and ‘Little Boy’ (uranium) on Nagasaki and Hiroshima respectively, there has been no doubt as to who’s likely to come off best in the ol’ ‘human being Vs atomic blast’ debate.
The unmatched, barely comprehendible destructive force of a nuclear bomb means that it’s distinctly odd that we hold several of the devices designed to deliver them in high regard, in some cases near devotion. The B52 is one example of this, a machine that’s been at the forefront of US defense for well over half a century and is expected to remain in service in some capacity until at least 2060 – which means it will celebrate its centenary in active, front-line service.
Britain, of course, had its own nuclear deterrent in the early portion of the Cold War, the ‘V-Force.’ The term became shorthand for the Valiant, the Vulcan and the Victor, three increasingly sophisticated jet bombers with one purpose and one purpose alone – to turn Moscow and other, largely civilian targets into a series of smoking craters. It says much about our ability to appreciate examples of impressive engineering that these planes, each designed to vaporize hundreds of thousands of civilians, are now held up as some of the finest the UK has ever developed.
All three of the V-Force bombers were built to the same 1947 Air Ministry specification, B.35/46. It was ambitious set of demands and capabilities, so much that even the mighty British aero industry, one which had emerged from WW2 as one of the most capable on the planet, was severely taxed. It called for a series of jet-powered bombers with the ability to deter Soviet aggression through their payload, a British designed and built nuclear bomb later called the Blue Danube. The bombers would need to be able to fly fast and high in orders to make it to their targets unmolested and so it was stipulated that they should fly near the speed of sound and at high altitude, as high as 50,000ft high and therefore out of reach of Russian surface-to-air missiles. Or so it was thought.
Vickers, Avro and Handley-Page (and Short, Armstrong Whitworth and English Electric) all submitted proposals to the Air Ministry, and the powers that be, alarmed by the speed with which the old WW2 truce between the Allies and the USSR was unravelling, signed off on all three. Such a vast commitment to one, single defence expenditure would be unheard of today but made a great deal of sense to the MOD of the day. Not only was it felt that the looming war with the USSR was pretty much inevitable (a view lent further credence by the Berlin airlift operation of 1948), it was thought that having the correct bomber for the correct nuclear strike was a matter of immense national security.
The Vickers Valiant is the most commonly overlooked of the V-Force trio, and this probably has much to do with its relatively conservative design and its drastically curtailed operational career. Yet the Valiant was still an immensely significant plane, both for the RAF and the UK in general, not least as it demonstrated the country’s willingness to commit a considerable percentage of its GDP to the development of a strategic nuclear deterrent, and to have said delivery system up, running and operational by the middle of the 1950s.
Delivering such a plane on such a tight timescale tested even Vickers, yet the company more than delivered. A pair of prototypes were flying by 1951, and though one was subsequently lost to engine failure they did at least prove the fundamental decency of the design. The very fact that it was so conservative rather underscored the urgency with which the MOD wanted the Valiant pressed into service, with a mere 27 months passing between the Vickers’ brief submission and the prototype’s maiden flight.
It was decided that the eventual, production Valiant would be powered by the Rolls Royce Avon in a succession of different variants, the most powerful of which was the RA28 205, each capable of generating a full 10,500lb of thrust, enough that initial fears about the need for the plane to have 6 engines proved unfounded. All four of these engines were to be mounted within specially created ‘pods’ located at the roots of the wings, a more aerodynamically efficient means of packing than that favoured by the Americans but one which attracted the ire of those charged with keeping the Valiant flying.
A less ambitious design than those submitted by either Handley-Page and Avro it might well have been, but the Valiant still had a number of innovative design traits, not least the manner in which it had been constructed. All of the Valiant’s spars, beams, braces and other load-bearing structural components had been constructed from an exotic zinc/magnesium/copper aluminium alloy called DTD683. This was considered to be something akin to a wonder material, being both lightweight and strong, at least strong enough to satisfy those charged with undertaking pre-production tests. It was a decision which was to have serious ramifications for the Valiant’s later service life.
The Valiant’s primary purpose was of course as a bomber, both conventional and nuclear, and while we can all be glad that it was never called upon to demonstrate its ability to do the latter, it did see active service in Operation Musketeer, part of the UK’s all-advised Suez adventure.
The Valiant’s career was always planned to be shorter than that of the Vulcan and the Victor by dint of its conservative design, but a number of events outside the RAF’s control conspired to make it even shorter than envisioned. The launch of the Soviet SA-2 missile, and the subsequent shooting down of Gary Powers and his Lockheed U-2, proved that high altitude was no longer protection enough from surface-to-air defence systems. The Soviets had also set about the development a new generation of more capable jet engines crowned by the Turmansky R-15, a pair of which would soon be found in the MIG 25 Foxbat, a high-altitude, mach 3.2 capable (admittedly for a short, once in a lifetime burst) interceptor intended to sweep Soviet skies of bombers.
The sheer pace of the Cold War arms race was breathtaking and also helps explain why Britain committed such a large percentage of its GDP to the V-Force programme. In this case the ever evolving nature of nuclear weapons delivery forced the Valiant, and in time the other V-Bombers, into a into a radical change of mission: from now on, evading the attention of SAMs, MIGs and radar would involve flying low, very, very low indeed
The trouble was that none of the V-Force had been designed to work at low level, certainly not the tree-skimming heights now demanded by their radically altered mission brief. The impact of such a change in mission was seen in the Valiant first of all, the most conservative of the trio in most respects yet a jet still nevertheless constructed from the aforementioned DTD683. The decision to use this alloy in the construction key parts of the Valiant was being scrutinised like never before come the early 1960s. It had been found that many of the 108 aircraft built were showing signs of metal fatigue, most notably cases of inter-crystalline corrosion in the wing spars and mountings, most likely caused by the increased turbulence and associated buffeting from flying so low.
Now, the Valiant was not alone in having key components constructed from DTD683, nor was it the only plane in the V-Force trio to suffer from the need to fly so low, but it was the first to have its career culled as a direct result. It didn’t help that the conservatively designed Valiant was being being made to look a tad old hat by its more advanced siblings now entering service, and the upshot was that all variants of the plane (both bomber and tanker) were pensioned it off in 1964.
The Valiant does have one unique claim to fame however, and that’s that it was the only V-Bomber to actually drop a nuclear weapon – in fact it dropped two of them. The first was the UK’s initial stab at a conventional nuclear weapon, the Blue Danube bomb, dropped in October 1956 on Maralinga, Australia. A Valiant also dropped the first British hydrogen bomb, the Short Granite, as part of Operation Grapple.
So, the Valiant: conservatively designed and rapidly overhauled by both technology and the wider political machinations of the Cold War, but an impressive and significant plane all the same. Watch out for similar pieces on the Vulcan and Victor in due course.