The TSR-2 project has a place in the historical development of UK defence procurement as a spin-off of the programme was the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) which eventually became the Tornado programme that included West Germany and Italy in the development and production consortium, Panavia. The project also had repercussions for the system of control over research and development and UK defence procurement decision-making, which are with us up to the present day.
From 1954 onwards the Air Staff began to look at the relationship between manned aircraft and unmanned missiles in the period from 1965 onwards. There were two lines of thought on this. The first was that up until 1962 guided weapons should not be given priority over manned aircraft and after 1965 manned aircraft would be of little use in a total war situation. While in many ways they were right, it is important to note that there have been many lesser conflicts fought across the world where the flexibility of the manned aircraft has been demonstrated time and again. It was within the context of total war that Duncan Sandys wrote his White Paper of 1957.
The 1957 White Paper set out that henceforth, the priority in procurement policy would be the defence of the UK through nuclear deterrence and that deterrence being through ballistic missiles, while the air defence of the UK would be centred on guided missiles. As a result there was a cancellation of a number of projects including the Avro 730 supersonic bomber (Operational Requirement (OR) 330) and a replacement interceptor (OR 329). These decisions received a mixed reception in the RAF. While none of their primary missions had been taken away, they feared a move away from a 'pilots' air force to one concentrated on the ground with missile technicians. While reference was made to developing the Vulcan bombers to cover the period up until the end of the 1960s, there was no mention of any other aircraft except transports. This was taken to mean that within Europe, the bombers would be replaced with tactical nuclear missiles. Outside Europe, the naval carrier task forces were assigned to providing air power in small-scale emergencies or limited hostilities, but in the event of a serious confrontation would be augmented by land based air power, the type and numbers of which was not properly defined.
Thus it was assumed, it would be appropriate to develop new aircraft in this role, as, even within Europe, "there are some jobs that which missiles cannot do. They cannot reconnoitre enemy positions and bring back accurate photographs. They cannot be rapidly moved from one theatre of operations to another. Nor can they be switched from one target to another. Only a manned vehicle can provide such flexibility." [note 1]1 It was therefore logical to deduce that it would be legitimate to develop a manned system to help pinpoint the targets for the tactical nuclear missiles but which also had the capability to attack them if necessary. Such a system would prove invaluable as it could be moved to dispersal airfields quickly and make a contribution to the continuation of conflict after a nuclear exchange ('broken-backed' warfare) as there was "a possibility that the nuclear battle might not prove immediately decisive". [note 2]
Defence procurement philosophy in the period up until 1957 had been examined in the White Paper on the Supply of Military Aircraft, Cmnd 9388. In the immediate post-war period procurement was governed by the assumption that no immediate re-equipment of the RAF was necessary as the threat of another war in the immediate future was very unlikely and the UK's economic situation made such a programme extremely difficult to implement. Attempts were therefore made to draw up a series of operational requirements that would still be valid in 1957 (also when the UK was expected to have a reasonable stockpile of nuclear weapons). Out of these came the Vulcan, Victor, Hunter and Javelin but only two aircraft were developed as a stopgap measure, the Canberra and Valiant. After 1950 and the outbreak of the Korean War had shattered this optimistic assumption, the public alarm over the conflict in the Far East had enabled the Government to increase defence spending considerably. Many of the 1957 projects were relabelled as high priority, and despite the cancellation of the Swift experimental fighter, were successful. This seemed to encourage the planning for a large and well-equipped air force for the 1960s. The programme began to come under pressure in the mid-1950s however, as the fear of war receded once it was seen that Korea had been a localised conflict, the cost of the programme had escalated greatly, and the aircraft industry was overloaded with new projects and production orders.
By 1955 the future for the aircraft industry in the UK was looking rather bleak. Firstly, there was the overloading as mentioned previously. Secondly, with the increasing emphasis being placed on the likelihood of a short and devastating nuclear exchange, it was questionable whether there was actually a need for a large number of aircraft manufacturers that presumably would form the basis of an expanded wartime industrial base. Thirdly, there seemed to be an indication that there would be a cutback in the number of aircraft projects being considered by the Government as there was "evidence that the industry is being asked to attempt too much". [note 3] Fourthly, while the last of the Korean War rearmament orders were being processed, there seemed to be a switch towards ballistic missile and guided missile development in defence thinking. The Select Committee recommended a re-evaluation of the aircraft programme as they felt that as aircraft grew more complicated, expensive and difficult to maintain there would be fewer of them and modern warfare was evolving in a way that it would be unlikely that manned fighters would be unable to provide complete protection. They did however suggest that a measure of coalescence (that is, industrial consolidation and mergers) be stimulated by the Air Ministry and Ministry of Supply but with a view to maintaining a reasonable amount of competition. Given the state of the industry and the defence environment at the time it is likely that such consolidation of the industry was inevitable anyway and that the use of selectively awarding Government contracts merely hastened the process.
The procurement process was coming under scrutiny as well, and some aspects do bear relevance to the TSR-2 programme. Firstly, the procedures for the close examination of the proposals for both service aircraft and research projects were far from adequate within the procurement process. The procurement process was started by a particular service through the issuing of an Operational Requirement (OR) which then consulted the Ministry of Supply whether such a project could be reasonably undertaken in the time-scale that was specified. The OR then went to the Defence Research Policy Committee (DPRC) which then graded it in priority with reference to the other projects that were going on at the time. The problem with this however was that the DPRC had no technical assistance attached to it and neither was the Treasury represented. The procedures for liaison and co-operation between the Ministry of Supply, Ministry of Defence (MoD) and industry were defective as well and it wasn't until the White Paper on the Supply of Military Aircraft was being prepared in 1955 that the MoD "became aware that the number of military aircraft projects was having an adverse affect on the resources of the industry." [note 4] Additionally, the Ministry of Supply felt it had little control over the starting and progress of projects so long as the services firmly stated a demand for such an item and those in Government agreed. While remedies to this lack of co-ordination were discussed, one of the main solutions put forward, that the RAF adopt the naval system of direct procurement and the intermediary role of the Ministry of Supply be abolished, was rejected on the grounds that the present system aided weapons standardisation among the services. There was also the question of the continual demands for modification that often impeded the developmental process. Many were suggested by the industry themselves and the service would often accept them as they feared rejection might lead to the equipment being obsolete as it entered service. Many of the changes in requirement stemmed, it was claimed, by the turnover in service personnel and the continual movement and the promotion and posting of officers acted against the demands of continuity within a project. While the Select Committee felt unable to recommend the setting up of a procurement branch within the RAF, it did recommend that officers in these positions should serve a longer term than was normal and have the technical qualifications to cope. There were three other recommendations in the White Paper: [note 5]
The Ministry of Supply had issued Specification B 126T that called for a series of design studies for a bomber that could carry a six-ton nuclear payload for a combat radius of 1,500 nautical miles at not less than 0.85M. Although a number firms responded, the technology wasn't available at the time and so the specification was shelved, but the contest for a low-level strike bomber for the Royal Navy remained open. This was covered under Specification M 148T and written around Naval Air Staff Target (NAST) 39 and the contest was won in 1955 by Blackburn with their B 103 aircraft which became the Buccaneer. While the Buccaneer might have seemed the ideal aircraft initially to fulfil the RAF's need for a low-level strike aircraft, the aircraft's systems were not fully up to the task, and it was considered too slow. Despite this, and rumours to the contrary, the RAF looked seriously at the Buccaneer but the Air Staff finally modified B 126T to include an over-the-target speed at low-level of 1.3M and the incorporation of an inertial navigation and attack system so that it could deliver conventional weapons accurately. The one thing that was becoming apparent for the Air Staff was that not only did the estimated costs have to fit in with the anticipated budget the RAF was going to receive but that additional funds for research and development would have to be fought for alongside the Army and Royal Navy as the RAF's ability to divert resources to such projects by cutting procurement programmes and support facilities was coming to an end. The selection of the airframe would depend on what the Royal Aircraft Establishment thought was a feasible design, and the actual choice lay with the Ministry of Supply and its view on the different capabilities of the aircraft industry. It was also likely that the Government would try and encourage industry restructuring with the promise of the contract for the new aircraft. "Thus it was clear at the outset that the TSR-2 project was to be used as a means of imposing an arbitrary and radically altered basic structure upon the industry. The structural policy may have been sound in itself, but the use of a massive and extraordinarily complicated contract to achieve it was another matter." [note 8]
The 1957 White Paper had implications for both the RAF and Royal Navy. In the event of total war, the Navy's role was uncertain, but the carrier task forces would be of use in the event of limited conflicts outside the European theatre. There was thus a debate between the two services about who was best suited to perform airborne strike and reconnaissance 'East of Suez' and this wasn't helped by the feeling both services had the future of each service was at stake. In the aftermath of the White Paper, the RAF's requirement for a new aircraft was formalised as General Operations Requirement (GOR) 339 in September 1957. Eight firms were invited to submit proposals. These included Vickers, who produced two submissions in conjunction with Bristol Aircraft (both fixed wing, one with a single engine, the other with two Rolls Royce engines known as the Type 571), and English Electric in combination with Shorts with their P 17 / P 17D combination which comprised a strike aircraft (P 17) and a Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) platform to recover it (P 17D). The P 17 was based upon English Electric's experience with the Canberra and the P 1 and called for an aircraft with a take-off weight of between 61,000 and 70,000 lbs. It would be powered by twin Rolls Royce or Bristol Olympus engines and be capable of speeds in excess of Mach 2. Hawker-Siddeley already had a submission in the form of its P 1121 interceptor / strike aircraft (developed from the P 1103 design submitted in response to Operational Requirement (OR) 329 of March 1954) which was not exactly what GOR 339 wanted, but what Hawker-Siddeley thought it should contain. A variant was produced however, which contained two crew and had a greater range and payload and which came closer to the requirements of GOR 339.
The Air Staff were coming down in favour of the P 17 but were sufficiently impressed by the Vickers submission that they included certain features of it in the form of a refined operational requirement, OR 343 in which the VTOL requirement was dropped, thus ending Shorts' participation. It also more or less demanded the amalgamation of English Electric and Vickers, who along with the Bristol Aeroplane Company formed the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) in February 1960. The experience of the companies was complimentary in meeting the requirement in that English Electric had concentrated on the low-level design work, had experience of Mach performance up to 2 and feasibility studies had shown that their design of wing was the better one. Vickers had conducted studies into Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) had done a lot of work in electronics and air-borne equipment. The project was formerly announced in the House of Commons in December 1958 by Mr George Ward and the new aircraft was to be capable of very high performance at all levels from 250 feet to above 50,000 feet and have an automatic terrain-following radar, and automatic navigation system based upon dead reckoning using Doppler and have inertial platform and air data computer information sources. In the reconnaissance role it was to be equipped with photographic cameras and a sideways looking radar, and be capable of operation from small airfields and rudimentary surfaces. "Here perhaps is the basic weakness of the TSR-2 concept, the attempt to meet too many new and complex specifications at the same time." [note 9]
On the 1st January 1959, the Ministry of Supply announced that "Vickers-Armstrong and English Electric had been awarded the contract to develop a new tactical strike and reconnaissance aircraft, known as TSR-2, to replace the Canberra." [note 10] The airframe would be developed from that of the P 17 from English Electric and would be powered by two afterburning Olympus engines (a variant of the 320 known as the 22R) from Bristol-Siddeley, an amalgamation of Armstrong Siddeley Motors and Bristol Aircraft Engines. There was concern from the design team as regards using the Bristol-Siddeley engine (the design team wanted a Rolls Royce engine) but the decision was pushed through so that the Government could achieve another industry consolidation. While there were other factors that pointed towards the desirability of Armstrong Siddeley Motors and Bristol Aircraft Engines merging (such as competing with Rolls Royce), "the scale was tipped by the Government making it clear that unless the merger took place the supersonic engine for TSR 2 would not be the Bristol Olympus 320 but an engine of R.R. origin." [note 11] This led to a situation that "should be avoided in aircraft development - a new design of aeroplane with a new design of engine right from flight one." [note 12] Given the problems that were to occur, it is interesting to speculate on the failure to choose a Rolls Royce powerplant, as it was "undoubtedly the development costs of the Olympus [that] were a big factor in the escalating costs" [note 13] and "the engines were to prove probably the biggest technical worry in the entire programme" [note 14] . But the Bristol engine was the only one available at the time for immediate development.
At the time, Government departments were continually reviewing the procedures they were using for the procurement of equipment. As such, these procedures were in a state of flux, and the TSR-2 project could be seen as a sort of experimental project where new methods were being tried out. TSR-2 was to be procured under the 'weapons system' procedure where a 'prime contractor' is chosen, agrees an overall price and then sub-contracts as much of the work as it deems necessary. BAC was directly responsible for the airframe and had some 1,800 factories under direct sub-contract to them. They were also directly responsible for some of the electronics suite on the aircraft and jointly responsible with the Ministry of Aviation for much of the remainder. It retained a close eye on what its sub-contractors were doing to ensure production standards and was responsible for the co-ordination of the whole project as specified in the main and all sub-contracts. Any firm that was not under a direct contract with the prime contractor (BAC) could appeal to the Ministry of Aviation if it didn't like what was happening. The Ministry of Aviation and Technology was responsible for the engine (with which it placed a contract with Bristol Siddeley), a number of electronic components, with which it placed contracts with firms such as EMI, and any work carried out at the Royal Aircraft Establishment and the Royal Radar Establishment and the use of existing RAF equipment. Taking the figure of £125 million that was spent up until cancellation, BAC was responsible for only 30 percent of it of which 17 percent was 'in-house' expenditure. Thus the 'prime' contractor (BAC) did not really have the contractual authority to control the whole project. "Many of the sub-contractors were working directly with the Ministry and not under the control of the central management organisation, that is, BAC." [note 15] It could also be argued that the Ministry failed to specify accurately what equipment was actually required and to keep a tight enough watch on how their contracts were being handled.
As a project, TSR-2 never went beyond the development stage due, in many ways to the use of the development batch procedure, which meant that the prototypes were built on an assembly line with production line jigs. The procedure was meant to reduce the development time in the aircraft's life cycle through ordering a number of prototypes. This procedure leads to rising research and development costs, which was undesirable with the British system of Treasury control. It also takes a long time for a prototype to get into the air, which can help in terms of the politics of defence procurement as it enables officials to show that public money is producing something that actually works. Under the prototype procedure, a machine is literally constructed from scratch and then displayed to encourage further investment. If the TSR-2 been constructed under that procedure and not intended to have the avionics immediately available for squadron service, Mark 1 TSR-2s might have been produced with COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) equipment and been in squadron service around 1966 - 7.
The aircraft was designed to fly fast at both high and low altitudes. This meant "changes in design" [note 19] that affected the aircraft's development as the aircraft was required to fly supersonically near to the ground. The TSR-2's wing was relatively small and used large blown flaps over the full span of the wing combined with a high thrust-to-weight ratio so that it could achieve good STOL performance. It was also reported to be completely stable while landing and in the clean configuration, good control with the transition to supersonic flight and little response to turbulence. The aircraft's electronics were complex and varied but almost completely new. The navigation system was based on a doppler / inertial system that was updated by the radar. The nose radar was for weapon delivery and terrain following, while the sideways-looking radars could be matched against maps to aid navigation. All data output was fed into the central computer which governed the flight of the aircraft via the automatic control system. The TSR-2 could also be equipped with a comprehensive reconnaissance set-up which could be aided by the sideways-looking radar. The engines were a pair of Olympus Siddeley 22R turbojets, each having a development potential of 33,000lbs of static thrust. It would be armed with air-to-ground missiles (such as the Matra HSD AS37/AJ, which was being developed for both the TSR-2 and Mirage IVA), conventional bombs or nuclear weapons. It may also have acted as a patrol fighter, and so could have been given air-to-air missiles. The aircraft as a whole had significant redundancy built-in in order to survive system failure and battle damage.
"I think it's the most shameful aspect of this sad story. There is no sort of reason whatsoever, except a, what you could really describe as, a selfish determination to ensure that that aeroplane would never be built under any other circumstances or in the future." [note 26]
"I never heard anybody connected with this project who was other than shocked by this decision." [note 27]
"I personally think it was a criminal act to get rid of it as it was done." [note 28]
"I called my book 'The Murder of TSR-2' and I believe that is exactly what happened." [note 29]
"An example of . . . British Governments not seeming to value the importance of a thriving aerospace industry." [note 30]
"This was fundamentally, lack of faith in the ability of our aircraft industry to produce those sort of goods - we were in fact leading the world at the time, but the actions of the politicians made sure we would never do it again." [note 31]
To what extent do changes in the strategic environment have an impact on defence procurement? Does this remain the case today?
Would the succeeding changes in the procurement cycle (either Downey or the Smart Procurement Initiative) have had any impact on the programme?
To what extent was the management structure to blame for the failure of the project? Has such a mistake been repeated in other programmes?
To what extent did international politics, domestic politics and inter-service rivalry have an impact on the programme? Did Labour have an agenda that they pursued even at great cost to the UK's aerospace industry?
Was cost really the issue it was made out to be?
What impact might the cancellation have had on the UK's image abroad?
What impact might the cancellation have had on the prospects for foreign sales of military hardware in the future?
TSR-2 Memories Project
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