Blue Streak - Common Misconceptions.

There are a variety of misconceptions held about Blue Streak, and in particular why it was cancelled.

It took thirty minutes to prepare for launch, and there was only four minutes warning of a Russian attack. Hence it would have been destroyed before even leaving the ground.

If the missile had been based out in the open, this would have been true.

But it was always intended that Blue Streak should be deployed in underground silos. [The word 'silo' wasn't then in use, 'underground launcher' was used at the time.]

You can see the full specification for the launcher on this page. It states that the missile should be able to survive the attack and launch up 24 hours after the attack.

Much design work was done on the silo, and after the cancellation, details were passed to the United States. The influence of work done in Britain can be clearly seen in the Titan II silo.

It was liquid fuelled, and so obsolete.

The Titan II missile was liquid fuelled, and was in service for twenty years, only being withdrawn on the grounds of cost of maintaining the missile. Many Soviet ICBMs were liquid fuelled.

It used liquid oxygen, which was cryogenic, and so could not be left fuelled up for long periods.

If the missile survived the initial attack in the silo, how long it took to launch in retaliation was irrelevant. It didn't matter whether Moscow would be destroyed 5 minutes or 5 hours after the attack on Britain. The point of deterrence is to be able to threaten destruction - when the destruction occurs is not particularly important.

So why was it cancelled?

This is a more difficult question to answer.

Ballistic missiles are the most effective form of attack: they are extremely difficult to intercept and to defend against.

However, building large missile silos in the Home Counties of England is not quite like building missile silos in Arizona or Siberia.

Despite estimates from the Air Ministry and Ministry of Aviation, it seemed as though the silos would be extremely expensive.

There was considerable opposition from sections of the Navy, and in particular Mountbatten, First Sea Lord, then Chief of the Defence Staff, who wanted Polaris submarines.

The Air Force preferred flying bombers to manning holes in the ground.

Thus Blue Streak had support neither from Whitehall nor from the Services.

Why wasn't it cancelled earlier?

There was no alternative system available. Polaris was not yet operational.
However, an alternative did appear in 1959 with the American Skybolt missile, which could be launched from the British V bombers. Now an alternative had become available, the opponents of the system now saw their chance.

How did the Government go about cancelling it?

The usual bureaucratic ploy: a special study group, the BND (SG) or British Nuclear Deterrent (Study Group).

This was set up under the chairmanship of Sir Richard Powell, then Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence. It turned the silo concept on its head thus:
  No silo is completely invulnerable;
  If then the Russians launch enough missiles, concentrated on the UK alone, most of the silos could be destroyed.
  How many were enough? According to the report, 300 3 megaton warheads [the exact number depends on the accuracy of the missiles, and some very pessimistic assumptions were made].
  This is a destructive force of nearly 1000 megatons, directed at the UK alone. Would the Soviet Union do this just to take out the British deterrent, with no thought as to the effect on rest of the world?   There were a variety of other fallacies in the report which were glossed over. To ensure success, the missiles would have to arrive almost at once, otherwise there would be a chance some Blue Streaks could be launched in retaliation. Given that they would be coming from very different launch sites, this would be very difficult to achieve in practice. There would be further problems in that the first few explosions would disrupt further incoming missiles, and so on.   Although these fallacies were pointed out by the defenders of Blue Streak, it was too late. Once doubt had been cast, the opponents of the system could press for cancellation.

What was the alternative?

Bombers carrying missiles. These were 'mobile' and not confined to fixed sites, unlike Blue Streak.
So the R.A.F. were going to be flying airborne patrols with Skybolt?
No, that would cost too much. Instead the bombers would be sitting on the airfield waiting for the order to scramble.
But what about the four minute warning?
Would that give time for the orders to be passed to the airfield, and then to the pilots, who would then start up their engines, and taxi onto the runway, and take off, and get clear of the airfield?
Er ... well, some might get away ...

You now see why I think the Powell Report was deliberately slanted.

back to the Blue Streak page.