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  • It's the 1960s Again
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 11:22 AM on Aug 05, 2010

    The USAF wants a bomber, but the Defense Secretary and joint-service leaders are opposed, so it's being rebranded as a reconnaissance-strike platform.  The SecDef's priority is pushing through a controversial joint-service fighter that does everything.

    Unmanned vehicles have rapidly emerged on the scene - resulting in a debate about the extent to which they will replace manned aircraft.

    A new UK government is ready to carry out sweeping defense cuts. The Royal Navy, anxious to protect its new aircraft carrier program, is reported to be ready to ditch a joint RAF/RN short take-off, vertical-landing jet in favor of a proven US catapult-arrest design.

    And Please Please Me is "number one, top of the pops" according to Alan Freeman.

    Looking back to the early 1960s, the parallels between some of the defense and aerospace decision-making of the day and what's going on now are almost eerie. What decisions were ultimately made, and how did they work out?

    Lt Gen Dave Deptula, in his final media briefing on Monday as the USAF's senior officer for ISR, said that one of the main tasks left undone in his tenure was the design of survivable ISR platforms - but went on to say that there is no clear boundary between ISR and strike. "The sensor platforms we build ought to have shooter capabilities and the shooters should have sensors." What he calls an ISR-strike aircraft, though, presents a fiscal challenge. "People say that we're trying to build Battlestar Galactica - but we need to judge the aircraft on the basis of value as opposed to its individual cost."

    Almost 50 years ago, the USAF rebranded the XB-70 Valkyrie bomber as the RS-70 - and when that effort failed pursued the development of an armed version of the CIA's A-12 Blackbird. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara ensured that the only new bomber the USAF got was the FB-111, a version of his pet joint-service project.

    One reason for McNamara's hostility to both the RS-70 and an armed A-12 had to do with unmanned vehicles - which in the 1960s flew one-way missions and were called missiles. Ballistic missiles were replacing bombers in their primary strike missions and McNamara's analysts were convinced that even 2000 mph bombers would be easily shot down by SAMs.

    They were wrong, as it turned out. High-fast penetrators turned out to be depressingly difficult to hit because it took only one lazy weave to send the incoming missile off track. The FB-111A's career with Strategic Air Command was relatively short.

    Today, while vice chief of staff Gen James Cartwright seems to be leading the anti-bomber resistance, he's a champion of the idea of an intercontinental, precision-guided ballistic missile. In the 1960s,
    missiles were the answer to everything - as some people see UAVs today.

    But what some advocates did not realize was that missiles designed for tough missions would be expensive:  although, in 1957, Britain's infamous Defence White Paper predicted a massive role for missiles, most of the ambitious guided weapons programs that were launched in that era were canceled by 1965. And today, Deptula is warning that UAVs are going to lose their low-cost label the moment that someone tries to shoot them down and jam them.

    Getting back to the Royal Navy:  in the early 1960s, STOVL fever (V/STOL as it was usually called then) had taken over in NATO, and everyone and their aunt was designing supersonic V/STOLs that could operate after the Soviets had rocketed and bombed the bejeesus out of German and Dutch airfields.

    Britain's candidate was the HS.1154, a supersonic version of what became the Harrier, and the MoD decided that it would meet the needs of the Royal Navy as well as the RAF.

    The RN was dubious. In fact, the Fleet Air Arm hankered after US-developed aircraft and had done so since WW2, when F4U Corsairs and F6F Hellcats had proven tougher and safer than the British Seafire.

    This sentiment had not been extinguished in the 1950s, when British industry and the MoD foisted some truly horrible deathtraps on the RN. (More than half the Supermarine Scimitars built, and almost 40 per cent of Sea Vixens, were lost in accidents.)

    Rather than going nose to nose against Whitehall, the RN simply took on the HS1154 and argued that it would be better if it had two seats, twin engines, a bigger radar and provision for catapult launch. In short, they thought it would be better if it was redesigned to look like an F-4, which was showing its potential in US Navy service and on which the RN gazed longingly.

    Result:  a new government (the 1964 Labour administration of Harold Wilson) won the RN's support by cancelling the HS1154 and ordering Phantoms. Also behind the change was Rolls-Royce whose rival, Bristol Siddeley, would have made the HS1154's engine: the UK Phantoms would have Rolls-Royce engines.

    This was a huge mistake. As one writer later observed, "nobody realized how much supersonic thrust the J79 put out until they put Speys in the Phantom". The UK jets were not only more expensive than the standard Toom, but were inferior in overall performance.

    So the other lesson from the 1960s is this:  If you do buy Super Hornets, don't mess with the engine. And if you must return to that era, please don't bring back Herman's Hermits.

    Tags: ar99, bomber, jsf, super-hornet, uk-defense-review

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