The Avro Vulcan: Part 2

In my previous blog post I went over the early career of the Avro Vulcan. Designed as a high-altitude bomber with a nuclear payload, the Vulcan B1 was a magnificent weapon. However, technology of the 1950s and 1960s advanced rapidly and the Vulcan became too vulnerable against the latest Soviet air defences. This became painfully clear on Labour Day in 1960 when an American U-2 high-altitude spy plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. The Soviets also operated the supersonic MiG-21 interceptor which would have made the Avro Vulcan an easy target.


The MiG-21 supersonic Soviet fighter jet

Various ways were devised to increase the survivability of the Vulcan. The improved B2 version had already received more powerful engines, a modified wing, inflight refuelling, and electronic jamming equipment. The latter would disrupt the Soviet air defences and increase its chances in hostile airspace. It was equipped with a Blue Diver low-band jammer, a Red Shrimp high-band jammer, a Green Palm VHF voice communications jammer, a Blue Saga radar warning receiver, chaff dispensers and a Red Steer tail-warning radar, derived from the radar used on Meteor night-fighters. The Divers would deny the Soviets early warning, the Shrimps negate their antiaircraft missiles and guns and Green Palm disrupt the Soviet VHF-based air defence network.

Most importantly was the Blue Steel stand-off weapon. This missile could be launched at 100 nautical miles from a heavily defended target and it could independently fly towards it at an altitude of 70,000 feet and a speed of Mach 2.5. It carried a 2-megaton bomb, capable of obliterating several Hiroshimas in a single strike. Blue Steel became the spearhead of the RAF’s Quick Reaction Alert concept. This QRA meant that there were always Vulcan crews and nuclear-armed aircraft on standby, ready to get into the air in minutes when the alarm sounded. Together they formed Britain’s primary nuclear deterrent.

Avro Vulcan with Blue Steel

Vulcan B2 with Blue Steel at RAF Scampton

The next step was to be the adoption of a longer-range standoff weapon, again increasing the survivability of the Vulcan. The UK joined the American Skybolt program in 1960 for a ballistic missile to be carried by the Avro Vulcan bomber. Armed with Britain’s own Red Snow warhead, it could be launched 970 km (600 miles) from the target. When the Americans unilaterally cancelled the programme, the Vulcan was left without an alternative upgrade. This led to a diplomatic rift within the Special Alliance, known today as the Skybolt Crisis.  An emergency meeting between parties from the US and UK was called, leading to the Nassau agreement in which Britain was offered the advanced Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile.

Although Britain’s nuclear deterrence had its credibility restored, this role would go from the Royal Air Force to the Royal Navy. This remains the situation today as the Royal Navy has four submarines armed with Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles, each with up to 14 nuclear warheads, and able to be fired underwater. A recent political decision has been taken to continue this weapon system although this author wonders if spending £200 billion on building new nuclear-armed submarines in a post-Cold War era is a viable alternative to using this money on increasing the living standards of Britain’s population, funding the NHS and tackling global warming.

A Trident II D5 Missile breaking the surface, having been fired from HMS Vanguard a Strategic Missile Submarine.

The Vulcan re-invented

While awaiting the introduction of the Polaris missile system the Vulcan flew on… at lower altitude. Soviet missile defences had become so effective that in 1966, despite the improvements of the B2, Vulcans switched from high-to-low-level penetration. Flying at low level through the European valleys would allow the Vulcan to remain undetected by Soviet radar. Although the Vulcan was capable of doing so, it was not a comfortable ride for its crews. The large wing gave the Vulcan excellent performance at high altitude but at low altitude it was a bumpy ride. Speed was also reduced to a mere 650 km/h (400 mph).

While Polaris was to be attack targets deep within the Soviet Union, the Vulcan crews of the eight operational squadrons were tasked with attacking military targets closer to the frontline. It would then attack them with a brand-new weapon, the WE177 nuclear bomb. Individual targets for WE177s were soft missile sites, rail facilities, bridges, runways and railway lines, whilst area targets were aircraft on airfields, airfield buildings, airfield fuel installations and bomb stores, supply dumps and armoured fighting vehicle concentrations.

Interestingly, the RAF considered the 10-kiloton bomb, although of a similar strength to what was dropped over Japan in 1945, insufficient to destroy such targets. It was only adequate if used against soft pinpoint targets such as unhardened missile sites. Indeed, the fatal radius of such a bomb was less than a mile in diameter. Dropping a bomb just a handful of seconds too late would mean the target would probably remain operational. If you are interested in finding out more about the WE177, I can recommend the upcoming virtual lecture by Dr Thomas Withington.

The Vulcan had found a new breath of fresh air, albeit with a slight nuclear taste. For the duration of the 1970s the Vulcan crews trained in their aircraft while new aircraft, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, were brought into service. The Blackburn Buccaneer, McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II and the Sepecat Jaguar were more advanced strike aircraft. And yet, the Vulcan crews were sent across the world to participate in prestigious training and competitions.

None were most prestigious than Giant Voice in which they competed with their American colleagues. Four aircraft with crews were invited to compete. In 1978 they were tasked to fly across most of the Southern States at night, find the target and bomb it as accurately as possible. Using radar navigation and bombing technology derived from that used in the Avro Lancasters of the Second World War and even using celestial sextants, they were up against the most modern fighting force in the world. The RAF has a long history of making do with what they had, and the crews rose to the occasion in these competitions.

Vulcan cockpit

Following their experiences in Vietnam, the Americans developed a realistic operational training programme in which air defence fighters, radars, electronic counter measures, guns and missiles simulated Soviet air defences and used their operating procedures. The concept became known as Red Flag and was conducted over the Nevada desert. The RAF was invited to participate. It selected the best crews to participate. It was then no surprise that when the Vulcan were sent to war in 1982, these were the crews sent to the Falklands.

The Falklands crisis happened at a time when the Vulcan was only weeks away from retirement, while awaiting the new Panavia Tornados. Realising that it was the only bomber capable of reaching the occupied Falkland Islands from the nearest British airfield, the Vulcans were hurried into combat. Incidentally, it was the first and last time the Vulcan was to be used operationally. But that is a story for the next blog post, which will appear as part of our online Falklands 40 campaign.

Avro Vulcan from below Cosford

About the Author

Kris Hendrix: Researcher

As researcher at the RAF Museum I feel privileged to be allowed to explore the Museum’s archives and find information for public and media enquiries, exhibitions, blogs and vlogs. I love the stories of a 100 years of RAF history and I am passionate about sharing these inspiring stories to a wider audience.