Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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United Kingdom, Air Force

During the Cold War, Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) paralleled the narrowing in focus of Britain's overseas commitments and the reduction of its armed forces. Two predominant forces that shaped the RAF were sharp downsizing and spiraling technological sophistication, which combined to transform the 1945 great power air arm into the only second-tier air force capable of global operations by 1991.

The RAF's contraction from its World War II end strength of 1 million men to only 89,000 by 1991 had a number of important effects. Foremost, the end of conscription in 1960, coupled with ever more complex aircraft, accelerated the professionalization of the service. Additionally, fewer resources and Britain's narrowing strategic interests eliminated most overseas postings outside the United Kingdom after the withdrawal from east of the Suez in 1967.

The growing technological sophistication of airpower also decisively shaped the postwar RAF. The advent of jet technology and swept wings in the 1940s, supersonic flight, electronic warfare, British nuclear weapons and variable-geometry aircraft in the 1950s, and terrain-following flight in the 1960s presented too hostile an environment for most of the British aeronautical industry. Radical downsizing and consolidation reduced Britain's industry to a handful of companies. The cancellation of the TSR.2 in 1965 forced cooperation with allied powers in projects such as the Jaguar and Tornado or wholesale adoption of American weapon systems such as the F-111 and C-130. Despite the evisceration of Britain's aeronautical industry, the RAF remained capable of applying cutting-edge technology and by 1991 was one of only a handful of powers capable of worldwide operations with precision munitions.

The initial role of the RAF in the postwar world emanated from its heritage as a strategic bombing force. Following a 1947 decision to develop an independent nuclear program, the RAF engaged in a tortuous process of developing both usable weapons and the platforms capable of delivering them. Britain achieved the former in a test at the Monte Bello Islands in 1952, but the latter turned out to be more problematic. Although Lincolns (upgraded wartime Lancasters) and Washingtons (U.S.-loaned B-29s) provided an interim nuclear delivery capability, they were ultimately unsatisfactory in the long run. A ten-year development cycle resulted in a generation of swept-wing, all-jet V-bombers—the Valiant, Vulcan, and Victor—that by 1957 were only marginally capable of penetrating Soviet air defenses. An attempt to evade Soviet surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems by switching from high-to low-altitude penetration exceeded the design capacity of the V-bombers and mandated their phased withdrawal from frontline strategic service beginning in 1964. That together with the cancellation of the Anglo-American Skybolt tactical missile that was to extend the V-bomber's strike range and the offer of the U.S. Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) to the Royal Navy (RN) all but ended the RAF's strategic role.

As a result, in a general overhaul reflecting changed missions and resource constraints, the RAF drastically reorganized at the end of the 1960s. The dissolution of Bomber and Fighter Commands in 1968 and the creation of the Strike Command was followed by the RN's Polaris-equipped submarines formally assuming responsibility for the British nuclear deterrent in 1969.

Despite the eclipse of the RAF's strategic role, both before and after 1969 it played an active part in almost every British military operation. After teaming with the U.S. Air Force in the 1948–1949 Berlin Airlift, the RAF successfully aided in defeating insurgencies in Malaya, Cyprus, and Kenya. The strength required for the former precluded large-scale conventional involvement in the Korean War. While fighting instability in erstwhile colonies during the 1950s, the RAF also participated in Britain's military campaign during the 1956 Suez Crisis, effectively destroying the Egyptian Air Force in two days. Smaller conventional operations punctuated the 1960s, including the defense of Kuwait in 1961, extended deployments to contain Indonesia during 1963–1966, and the evacuation of Aden in 1967, a part of the overall withdrawal from east of the Suez.

The slow pace of the 1970s erupted into a major independent campaign in 1982 against Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Operation corporate, which featured joint RN-RAF operations more than 8,000 miles from Britain and required robust logistics, highlighted the RAF as the only European air force still capable of projecting force outside the region. During the 1991 Gulf War, the RAF again showed its prowess by adapting low-level, high-speed delivery techniques developed for the European theater to destroy Iraqi air defenses. Both the RAF's 6,000-plus sorties and extensive Special Air Service operations were a critical component of the Coalition's swift victory. The RAF's performance in the Gulf War underscored its role as a uniquely capable Cold War force that adroitly projected regional and global airpower to advance British and allied interests.

Edward Kaplan


Further Reading
James, A. E. Trevenen. The Royal Air Force: The Past 30 Years. London: Macdonald and Jane's, 1976.; Kaplan, Edward Andrew. "With a Bloody Union Jack on Top: The First Generation British Atomic Deterrent." Unpublished master's thesis, University of Calgary, 1995.; Taylor, John W. R., and Philip John Richard Moyes. Pictorial History of the R.A.F. London: Allan, 1968.; Taylor, N. E. A Short History of the Royal Air Force. London: Ministry of Defence, 1994.
 

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