Some time ago 13th Spitfire wrote an article for Think Defence on the TSR2 and it would seem to be a popular topic. Chris has penned another, below.
When I was but a wee boy, my Father started taking me to air shows, which incidentally kicked off my interest in matters of defence. An early visit, possibly the first, was to the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, Cambridgeshire. One of the exhibits on display was the Bristol Bloodhound Surface-to-Air-Missile (SAM).
As I looked on in awe at it’s shiny, missile-y-ness, I was regaled with an improbable tale about how a reliance on the Bloodhound killed off something called the “TSR.2”.
As the years past I grew older (funnily enough). My tally of air shows grew, as did the tally of all the different aircraft I’d seen. My collection of Matchbox™ toy aircraft grew. The number of car stickers from air shows pasted on to the back of our “Golden Brown” Ford Fiesta grew. And with each passing year, so the mythical properties of the fabled TSR.2 grew. As did the maniacal and blood thirsty portrayal of the Labour Government under Harold Wilson. The amount of swear words used in the story also steadily increased.
Against this back drop, I recently spotted a book “TSR.2: Britain’s Lost Cold War Strike Aircraft” by Tim McLelland (available from Amazon for just over £12). An excellent book which I would highly recommend, it tells the tale of the TSR.2 from conception, to design, testing, and finally, to cancellation. The book then provides an immense amount of technical data and anticipated mission profiles, which I found to be a nice touch.
What struck me most however was how different the true tale of TSR.2 was to the yarn I’d been spun over the years by an over enthusiastic parent. Far from being an evil and unnecessary exercise in budgetary bloodletting by a crass government hell bent on saving money, it turns out TSR.2 was a failure of many things. It was a victim of politics, industrial strategy, government interference and mismanagement, requirement creep, manufacturer mishandling, and inter-service rivalries.
Sound familiar to anyone?
No sooner had the English Electric Canberra taken off into RAF service than its replacement was being planned. Two of the leading companies in this push were English Electric, and Vickers (specifically through their subsidiary Supermarine). When the operational requirement finally came around, both companies were well placed to meet it and the government was keen on both proposals.
At this stage the plot begins to thicken and the inevitable fate of TSR.2 was already being sealed.
The government was not happy with so many companies fighting over the rather limited number of contracts available and had made their intentions clear in private; merge or go bust. It was with this in mind that English Electric and Vickers came together. It seemed like a marriage made in heaven.
Both of their designs had merit, but it was felt that the Vickers design was more complete, including as it did plans for the navigation systems and weapons delivery. It would seem reasonable then that the Vickers team were to take the lead with this project, but this completely overlooks the fact that English Electric had the experience of not just the Canberra but also their extensive supersonic work related to the lightning.
The merger threw up other problems along the way. One of the major issues that occurred during the early stages of the flight testing program was related to the under carriage. Vickers felt a larger and more complex system was better, the team from English Electric preferring something a little simpler. Ultimately issues with braking and later a gear down failure in flight brought on tough delays to the schedule, setting the program back and adding to the rising costs.
Part of this though had to do with…
Or rather – in the case of the under carriage – a completely bonkers specification from the start. It was believed at the time that a war with the Soviet Union would render normal airfields unusable. Thus, it was expounded, aircraft such as the TSR.2 would need to be scattered to less obvious launch sites, namely fields ala WW2. With this in mind, the TSR.2 would need Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) capability.
This requirement lead directly to a gross over engineering of both the main landing gear and the nose gear.
At no point it seems did anyone stop to think about the logic of such a plan. Namely that an aircraft as complex as the TSR.2, eventually designed to carry nuclear warheads along with a large payload of fuel, and fitted out with the then state of the art in navigational and bombing computers, would need a support structure in place that was the complete antithesis of the word “austere”.
That’s before we get on to the requirement creep itself.
What started as a simple replacement for the Canberra, morphed into a low level tactical strike and reconnaissance aircraft, then into a nuclear weapons delivery platform. The range gradually increased. The airspeed – both at altitude and low level – soared. The final specification called for top end speed in excess of Mach 2, something which test pilot “Rolly” Beaumont later described as excessive.
There are many reasons why this happened, including greater fear of the capabilities of Soviet air defences, but some of the blame has to be laid at the feet of the RAF…
Inter Service Rivalry
It was no secret that the RAF and the Royal Navy didn’t get along. Over forty years later, the coldness displayed by each service for the other has progressed from “Arctic” to merely “Glacial”. That rivalry would come to have an important impact on the specifications for TSR.2.
The Navy’s argument was simple; that the RAF and RN should share the Naval Staff Requirement NA.39, what would eventually become the Blackburn Buccaneer S.2 (the S.1 being underpowered). As most of you have probably guessed by now, the Air Staffs response to this was not a happy one and doubtless the language used behind closed doors would have been blue enough to make even the Navy’s pullovers look bright and summery.
Determined not to be saddled with an aircraft designed to meet the inferior specifications of “that other service”, the RAF went about gleefully explaining why exactly it was that they needed a bomber that could race along at low level at more than Mach 1 and could also hit beyond Mach 2 at altitude. It was clear that the Air Staff were making themselves their own worse enemy, as they pushed the newly formed manufacturer BAC to produce a wonder plane that had no hope of coming in on time and on budget.
Not that the Royal Navy was going to sit there and take the argument lying down. There is a widely circulated story – that may be somewhat apocryphal – that the then Lord Mountbatten had a number of business cards printed, of both the TSR.2 and the Buccaneer. So the story goes he would lay down one card of the TSR.2 and five of the Buccaneers, before exclaiming that you could get “five of these for one of them”.
Of course all this inter service nonsense was eventually proved mute and the Royal Navy finally got it’s wish many years later when the RAF took the Buccaneer S.2 into service, though to an extent the RAF also got its wish; with the Tornado. Perhaps as damaging though to the whole process as inter service bickering and the resulting adjustment of specifications was…
For one, nobody in government seemed inclined to question the need for such high specifications for what was essentially just supposed to be a tactical bomber aircraft. But the government went along with it all, willingly playing its part in pushing the design beyond all sane boundaries.
It was, however, to have a much more insipid influence on the whole project. As has already been touched on, it was the insistence of the government that companies should merge in order to win the project, that lead to some of the early troubles. What came next was a damning indictment of the involved ministries.
Keen to make sure the project didn’t run over time or budget, and that the involved companies came together seamlessly, it was decided that a strong committee based approach would be used. The fact that this would produce precisely the opposite result should have been apparent from the start.
Sadly this wasn’t the case.
A perfect example was produced when the overall management committee came together one time and a head count was taken.
There were fifty-one people present, which was deemed rightly to be excessive. It was decided that action should be taken and the size of the committee reduced ahead of the next meeting. When that meeting came around, another head count was taken. Sixty-one.
Again “Rolly” Beaumont provides us with further insight on the matter, explaining later how the committee would often spend inordinate amounts of time debating on small things that either a) had little bearing on the overall success of the project, or b) were destined to be redesigned at a later date to meet the demands of that unbending old mistress, “practicality”.
An example was the cockpit layout, the end design of which was ultimately decided upon by input from the test pilots, as it should be.
All that was left now was for the political winds to blow up a storm…
Originally it was thought that TSR.2 could be marketed abroad. The primary customer was thought to be Australia, but the British government were in for an upset. Not surprisingly, the Australian government was reassessing its place in the world and had concluded that building ties with America would be more beneficial in the long run than remaining dependent on the UK. On this basis the Australians decided to meet their future needs for a low level strike aircraft by going after the American F-111.
With their only realistic overseas buyer out of the picture, it quickly became obvious that the UK would have to shoulder the ever growing bill for TSR.2 by herself. With the budgetary axe waiting to fall, TSR.2 became an increasingly likely target. The Royal Navy was murmuring still about the Buccaneer. The Americans were keen to find additional customers for the F-111. And day by day the cost expectations for TSR.2 were rising to alarming proportions.
The result was inevitable.
When Harold Wilson was able to secure a fixed cost price at a very generous level for the F-111, coupled with a deal for the Americans to buy certain British products as a form of trade offsetting, the TSR.2 was effectively toast. The program was stopped and the wind down began.
It’s here that some political conspiracy theorising should be finally put to bed. The halting of the program mean the destruction of the current test aircraft, along with all the jigs, plans, and anything else associated with the project. But this was not some devious government drive to erase all trace of TSR.2. In fact, BAC had been offered the chance to keep flying and testing the aircraft, but all expenses would have to be met by the company themselves.
They opted instead to shut it down.
The process followed was one that had been agreed well in advance. One aircraft was kept running for a short while, serving as a ground based test bed for studying engine noise and how this would effect local communities living around airfields, primarily with a view to the new Olympus engines being used on Concorde. XR219, the sole TSR.2 to take to the skies, was used to test the effect of gunfire on modern aircraft.
A Sad Ending for a Superb Machine
Ultimately, Dad was right to a degree. TSR.2 was a beauty. With her powerful engines she once broke the sound barrier in level flight without the aid of reheat; a feat that we now hail in “modern” aircraft, while foaming at the mouth, as Supercruise.
Her advanced navigational systems – terrain following radar, sideways looking radar, and moving map displays – would become a widely held standard on modern combat aircraft for many years after her sad demise.
There is little doubt that TSR.2 would have been a sterling aircraft had she made it all the way into production. But Dad was wrong to heap the blame solely at the feet of the Labour government that finally shot her down. They were merely a cog in the system, one of the many problems that brought about the ultimate failure of the project.
What stings me most about the tragic story of TSR.2 though, is not that we missed out on such a world leading capability. It’s that we are still making the same mistakes when it comes to defence procurement. Even now, nearly fifty years later, politics, MoD mismanagement, inter service rivalries and mission/requirement creep are crippling otherwise promising defence projects.
The question is, which project will be next to enter the annals of history as “the one that got away”?
Which project will be next find itself the subject of bitter arguments and spiteful rhetoric for the next fifty years?
Which project will be next to have many tomes committed to paper about its lost potential?
When I take my (future) children to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, what object, what empty hulk will rekindle in me that angry fire that burns fiercely for another 30 years, just like it did for my Father?
[ed: Snafu has some great posts on aircraft that might have been]