Vulcan’s Hammer  [9781902109176]

Vulcan’s Hammer
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Date Added: Thursday 12. January, 2012
This book's sub-title, V-Force Projects and Weapons Since 1945, is so succinct that it rather sells itself short, because the content actually covers a much broader canvas than the V-Force. A good deal of space is devoted to ideas that never came to fruition, including the BLUE MOON project, which explored pilotless options in the style of the US Matador and Snark, and a variety of very high performance manned aircraft, like Avro's 730, the English Electric P.lO, the Vickers SP4 and a number of advanced designs from Bristol. A chapter is devoted to British free-fall nuclear weapons and several schemes that would have involved glide-bombs or stand-off weapons, like BLUE BOAR and GREEN CHEESE, which might have had nuclear options.

All of this serves as a background to the story of BLUE STEEL, which, in effect, provides the book's central theme. The trials and tribulations of this weapon, both technical and political, are examined, warts and all, and there were certainly some substantial warts. Gibson is able to see the project in perspective, however and his final judgement is that, 'The fact that it could be launched in mid-air and navigate at high speed to a target is a triumph of British technology that has gone uncelebrated and it is shameful that it is only remembered for its delays and development problems. The engineers and scientists who worked on Blue Steel deserve better.'

That said, I did spot one or two anomalies relating to BLUE STEEL. Training rounds were not painted blue. There was a blue one, probably only one, for early publicity purposes, but during the four years that I flew with the system I never saw one that wasn't white. There is a statement on page 86 to the effect that a BLUE STEEL had to be defuelled after only a week on standby - a tricky business, involving the handling of very volatile high test peroxide (HTP). Clearance for a fuelled BLUE STEEL to stall(t'QRA was not actually granted until July 1964 but when it was, it was for thirty days and in August 1965 this was extended to forty. I was also surprised to find no reference to Operation FRESNO which involved the launch, from low-level, of four missiles during 1966-67, two from Victors and two from Vulcans, to impact in the Aberporth Range. The most demanding trajectory involved a 67° angle-off launch at a range of 43 miles, resulting in an impact 1,055 yds from the target (which is close enough for a megaton warhead), but the fact that these eight-ton brutes were fired over the UK at all must surely say something about the degree of confidence that had been established by then.

The later chapters of the book go on to discuss Skybolt and the various projects associated with it, including the idea of maintaining an airborne deterrent, to which someone assigned the really annoying term 'poffler'. Victor- and Vulcan-based pofflers were schemed but the best option would have been a VClO packing as many as eight Skybolts, which, with the occasional top up from a tanker, could have 'poffled' about comfortably for twelve or fourteen hom:s at a time. Thereafter, the projects become increasingly 'what if and, while a lot of entirely new ground was being broken in terms of re-entry vehicles and exotic fuels, it is surprising how many of these schemes were fundamentally based on the BLUE STEEL project. By strapping supplementary rockets to it, installing ramjets, stretching the airframe (in various directions), altering the wings, and so on, Avros extrapolated the design for all they were worth to scheme satellite launchers, anti-satellite systems, ship-and ground-based bombardment missiles and even an X-15-style manned research vehicle.

Later chapters revert to more conventional ideas, including the Vulcan's being armed with Shrike and LGBs during the Falklands campaign. The latter were never actually used, but I doubt that it was ever envisaged that this would have involved a 'laser designator being operated by one of the crew in the bomb-aimer's position' – targets would actually have been marked by soldiers on the ground. More exotic (non Falklands) projects envisaged the Vulcan as, for instance, a 'fighter' fitted with a suitable radar, perhaps an AWG-9, and armed with an arsenal of missiles, like Sea Dart or the AIM-54 Phoenix, mounted under the wings. Other options considered included suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) using multiple TV Martels under a Vulcan, and maritime strike with half-a-dozen Sea Eagles tucked into the bomb bays of redundant Nimrod AEW 3 airframes or even A400 transports which could potentially dispense as many as twenty-seven from rotary launchers in the freight bay.

All of this just skims the surface of a book that provides details of scores of fascinating ideas and design concepts, most of which came to nought, vividly illustrating Gibson's point that 'for every piece of hardware that enters service, a thousand paper studies were conducted.' And 'illustrating' is the operative word, as the book is packed with pictures of hardware and mock-ups, artists impressions of selected projects that never made it and well over a hundred scale general arrangement drawings (all rendered by the author) of weapons and missiles and at least another fifty of aeroplanes. Many of these aircraft are actual types, mostly Vulcan’s, armed with a variety of potential weapons, the rest are of projected aeroplanes that never materialised. The whole 192-page A4 casebound package is very well presented. There is an index and the text, which contains a great deal of information that was new to this reviewer, is well written. The story that the book tells is, inevitably, more about what might have been than what actually was, but it is never less than interesting.

Royal Air Force Historical Society – Journal 51
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars! [5 of 5 Stars!]
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