The term V bomber was used for the Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft during the 1950s and 1960s that composed the United Kingdom's strategic nuclear strike force known officially as the V-force or Bomber Command Main Force. The strategic bombers, whose names all started with the letter "V" and which were known collectively as the V-class, were the Vickers Valiant (first flew 1951, entered service 1955), Avro Vulcan (first flew 1952, in service 1956) and Handley Page Victor (first flew 1952, in service 1958). The V-Bomber force reached its peak in June 1964, with 50 Valiants, 70 Vulcans and 39 Victors in service.
For long-range operations, aerial refueling tanker variants of each were developed. When it became clear that Soviet surface-to-air missiles (S-75 Dvina) could successfully bring down high flying aircraft, the V bomber force changed to low-level attack methods. As a result, the Valiants were removed from service after problems with fatigue in their wings became apparent; a planned low-level variant of the Valiant did not progress beyond the prototype.
The V bombers were to carry the GAM-87 Skybolt, an air-launched ballistic missile, to update their strike potential as new innovations in the Cold War made their early style of operation less viable; however Skybolt was cancelled by the US and the Royal Navy became Britain's main provider of the nuclear deterrent, using UGM-27 Polaris intercontinental ballistic missiles from nuclear submarines in the 1970s. While the V bombers no longer held precedence in Britain's nuclear strategic planning, superseded by aircraft such as the SEPECAT Jaguar and Panavia Tornado, which carried smaller tactical nuclear weapons, the Avro Vulcan would be perhaps best remembered for its conventional long range bombing raids during the 1982 Falklands War. The Valiants had been used during the Suez Crisis as conventional bombers. Victors had been deployed to the Malay Archipelago as a deterrent during the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation but were not used in missions. Usage of all V bombers as weapons platforms, nuclear or conventional, ended in 1982.
RAF Bomber Command ended the Second World War with a policy of using heavy four-piston-engined bombers for massed raids and remained committed to this policy in the immediate post-war period. The RAF adopted the Avro Lincoln, an updated version of the Lancaster, as their standard bomber for this purpose. However, there were elements within the RAF and the government that sought to adopt the new nuclear weaponry and advances in aviation technology to introduce more potent and effective means of conducting warfare. In November 1944, the UK Chiefs of Staff had requested a report from Sir Henry Tizard on potential future means of warfare. Reporting without knowledge of the Allied effort to produce an atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project, in July 1945 the Tizard Committee urged the encouragement of large-scale atomic energy research. It foresaw the devastating effects of atomic weapons and envisaged high-flying jet bombers cruising at 500 mph (800 km/h) at 40,000 ft (12,000 m). It was thought that potential aggressors may be deterred by the knowledge that Britain would retaliate with atomic weapons if attacked.
Even at the time there were those who could see that guided missiles would eventually make such aircraft vulnerable, but development of such missiles was proving difficult, and fast and high-flying bombers were likely to serve for years before there was a need for something better. Massed bombers were unnecessary if a single bomber could destroy an entire city or military installation with a nuclear weapon. It would have to be a large bomber, since the first generation of nuclear weapons were big and heavy. Such a large and advanced bomber would be expensive on a unit basis, but would also be produced in much smaller quantities. The arrival of the Cold War also emphasised to British military planners the need to modernise UK forces. Furthermore, the United Kingdom's uncertain military relationship with the United States, particularly in the immediate postwar years when American isolationism made a short-lived comeback, led the UK to decide it needed its own strategic nuclear strike force.
After considering various specifications for such an advanced jet bomber in late 1946, the Air Ministry issued a request in January 1947 for an advanced jet bomber that would be at least the equal of anything the U.S. or the USSR had. The request followed the guidelines of the earlier Air Ministry Specification B.35/46, which proposed a "medium-range bomber landplane, capable of carrying one 10,000 pound (4,535 kg) bomb to a target 1,500 nautical miles (2,775 km) from a base which may be anywhere in the world." The request also indicated that the fully loaded weight should not exceed 100,000 pounds (45,400 kg), though this would be adjusted upward in practice; that the bomber have a cruise speed of 500 knots (925 km/h); and that it have a service ceiling of 50,000 feet (15,200 m). The RAF's then-current jet bomber the English Electric Canberra, introduced in May 1951 and designed during the war, could only have reached the Soviet border and had a capacity of 6,000 lb (2,720 kg).
This request went to most of the United Kingdom's major aircraft manufacturers. Handley Page and Avro came up with very advanced designs for the bomber competition, which would become the crescent-wing Victor and the delta-wing Vulcan respectively, and the Air Staff decided to award contracts to both companies as insurance against one of the designs being a failure. A third design was put forward by Shorts, based on the work of Geoffrey T. R. Hill. Work on the Victor began in November 1947 and the Vulcan in January 1948. As a further insurance measure against both radical designs failing, in July 1947 the Air Ministry issued Specification B.9/48 written around Vickers-Armstrongs' more conservative design, later named Valiant; work began in April 1948. In August 1947 Short Brothers received a contract for the Short Sperrin SA.4 based on the earlier less-stringent Specification B.14/46; work began in November 1947.
The Sperrin was cancelled in late 1949, but work on the three V bombers continued. While more expensive than the American approach of building one bomber design per category, the RAF insisted on having multiple choices. Air Chief Marshal Sir John Slessor believed that had the air force been forced to choose among the three British bombers under development in the late 1930s—the Avro Manchester, Short Stirling, and Handley Page Halifax—it would have chosen the wrong one.
The three V-bombers were so called because of being given names starting with the letter 'V'. During World War II, Churchill had popularized the V-sign as a symbol for victory over the axis powers.
The Valiant went into production as the first V-bomber in 1955. The Valiant entered service in 1955, the Vulcan in 1956 and the Victor in April 1958, with the first Valiant squadron, No. 138 Squadron RAF forming at RAF Gaydon in 1955, and the first Vulcan squadron, No. 83, at RAF Waddington in May 1957. The first operational Victor squadron was No. 10 Squadron RAF The Valiant arrived in service first, equipped with nuclear weapons supplied by the U.S. under Project E that supplemented the British Blue Danube and later Red Beard. The American weapons supplied under Project E were not available for the RAF to use as part of the UK's national nuclear deterrent; only British-owned weapons could be used for that purpose. Although often referred-to as part of the V-force, the Valiants were actually assigned to SACEUR as part of the TBF (Tactical Bomber Force), although remaining nominally part of Bomber Command. The Vulcan and Victor were armed with British-built bombs Blue Danube, Red Beard, Violet Club, and Yellow Sun of both versions, the Mk1 and Mk.2.
Particular attention was paid to quick reaction and high manoeuvrability of the V force aircraft, especially the Vulcan B.2. Those who have seen a high speed Vulcan take-off from a short runway marvel at how quickly the Vulcan leaves the runway and climbs steeply at a 45 to 50 degree angle, gaining both altitude and speed.
Vulcan was designed for quick-reaction response. The bomber could start all four Bristol-Siddeley Olympus turbojet engines simultaneously with little ground support equipment when remotely deployed to one of its dispersal airfields; and, at readiness state (fifteen-minute alert), it would be airborne in less than 5000 feet of runway.
The Vulcan also did not need immediate or intermediate aerial refueling after a fully loaded take off. From the day of its deployment in the deterrent force, an on-alert Vulcan was ready to launch, and strike, limited only by the readiness state established for her crew.
In service the V-Force would have been capable of destroying both area and high-value point targets (air bases, command centers, ground forces staging areas) hours before they could be attacked by NATO or SAC’s, long-range bomber forces. RAF Bomber Command attrition attacks against air defense targets in Warsaw Pact and European Russia alone by the V-Force (in prosecuting their initial attacks upon the Soviet Union) would be decisive in ensuring that NATO and SAC follow-on forces attacks would be successful in achieving the destruction of Soviet and Warsaw Pact targets. This “one-two-punch” by the UK’s RAF Bomber Command first; and then, NATO/SAC second; was the heart of the nuclear retaliatory attack strategy for the west in the early to mid-Cold War period.
The prompt destruction of these targets, at the outset of a campaign in the west would have had a two-fold benefit to NATO and west in the defense of Western Europe. First, no Soviet/Warsaw Pact tactical follow-on land-force reserves (at Corps or Army-Group strength) would have survived the RAF V-Force tactical strikes in European Russia and the Warsaw Pact border states. Therefore, a Soviet “rush to the Channel” (from Western Poland/East German starting points) would have been denied the follow-on forces (having been destroyed by V-Force tactical air) which would have made the success of such an armored thrust possible. V-Force tactical air would have destroyed both the forces in being, and the communications infrastructure (bridges, roads, railways, air bases) which would be necessary to support such a tactical movement.
Therefore, the V-Force (by having the capability of precision tactical air medium bombardment) effectively deterred the armored overrun strategy, of the massed and massive Soviet & Warsaw Pact armies, which (in theory), could have overwhelmed the vastly outnumbered NATO ground forces of central Europe in a surprise ground attack (which did not give away tactical surprise, by use of organic tactical air support).
This is why the V-force was so dedicated to radar-navigation bombing and precision strike. In a general nuclear war environment the V-Force would attrit itself against the air defenses of high value point target complexes in European Russia. It would expend itself against air defense radar installallations, command & control centers; and air defense missile and aircraft bases. Once these targets had been identified, they would have been subject to what in essence would have been combined tactical nuclear weapons attacks by the V-Force until they had all been identified and/or destroyed.
V-Force assets at the end of 1958:
A white paper produced by the Royal Air Force for the British government in 1961 claimed that the RAF's nuclear force was capable of destroying key Soviet cities such as Moscow and Kiev before bomber aircraft from the United States' Strategic Air Command had entered Soviet airspace, "taking into account Bomber Command’s ability to be on target in the first wave several hours in advance of the main SAC force operating from bases in the United States.". Throughout the early stages of the Cold War, NATO relied on the Royal Air Force to threaten key cities in European Russia. The RAF concluded that the V-Bomber force was capable of killing eight million Soviet citizens and wounding another eight million before American bombers reached their targets. At the time they entered service all three V bombers were capable of altitudes that put them effectively out of reach of the then contemporary gun-armed Soviet interceptors such as the MiG 15, MiG 17, and later MiG 19.
All of the V-bombers saw active service at least once with conventional bombs; the Valiant in the Suez Crisis in 1956, the Victor in the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation of 1962–66, and the Vulcan in the Falklands War long after the strategic nuclear role had been passed over to the Royal Navy. The Valiant was the only one to drop a nuclear device, as part of British tests.
During the Cuban missile crisis, bombers of the V-Force were brought to readiness on 15-minute notice with the aircraft armed and crews ready beside them.
V-Force assets at the end of 1962:
Although by the mid-1960s Canberras and the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm were able to deliver nuclear weapons, their carrying power was insignificant compared with that of the 180 Victor and Vulcan bombers. The development of effective anti-aircraft missiles, however, made the deterrent threat delivered from bombers flying at high altitudes increasingly ineffective. In 1963 the British government decided to use V bombers at low altitude instead. After the cancellation of the Blue Streak missile program and the cancellation of the American Skybolt and with the Blue Steel missile already in service, six squadrons of Vulcan B2s were reassigned to the low-level (200 ft and lower) penetration role and were re-equipped with the WE.177B strategic laydown bomb from 1966 until being replaced in the strategic role in 1969 by the Polaris missile launched from nuclear submarines of the Royal Navy. The WE.177 equipped Vulcans were supplemented by the two Victor squadrons equipped with Blue Steel (modified for low-level launch) that continued to serve in the strategic delivery role until 1968 ended. In the low-level role, which had originally been intended to be performed by the cancelled BAC TSR-2, the V Force were considered by Air Staff planners to be largely immune from interception, the Soviet air defences being assessed as having no significant interception capability below 1,500 ft, any remaining threat coming from the SA-3 low-level surface-to-air missile, flight planners taking care to route aircraft around known SA-3 sites. As a result of this individual aircraft were calculated by operation planners to have a 90-95% chance of successfully delivering their weapon on the assigned targets. Although subsequently relieved of their role as the deliverer of the UK strategic nuclear deterrent, the Vulcan squadrons continued to serve with the same WE.177B weapon in a low-level penetration role assigned to SACEUR for use in a tactical role in Europe. Six squadrons of Vulcans were still assigned this role with the WE.177 weapon in 1981. The last four remaining squadrons were about to disband in 1982 when called upon to assist in the Falklands.
The Valiant was removed from service as a nuclear bomber first; taking on roles as a tanker, low level attack and photo-reconnaissance. Fatigue problems due to the transfer to low-level operations meant they were removed from service completely by 1965. Victors were converted to replace the Valiant tankers. The Vulcan alone of the threesome, retained a nuclear delivery role until the end of their planned service life scheduled for 1982. The short extension as tankers until 1984 was an unexpected extension to meet operational emergencies.
In addition to the roles for which they were designed, all three V-Bombers served as air-to-air refuelling tankers at one time or another; the Valiant was the RAF's first large-scale tanker. As a means of replacing the loss of the Valiant, Victor B.1s were converted into the AAR role. When the Victor was withdrawn from service as a bomber, twenty four B.2s and SR.2s were then converted into tankers. Finally, due to delays in the entry into service of the TriStar, six Vulcan B.2s were converted into tankers, and served from 1982 to 1984.
Upon entering service all three V bombers were initially painted in an overall silver finish, with the prominent under-nose H2S radomes on the Valiant and Vulcan left in black, however, this silver finish was later changed to anti-flash white, the RAF roundels being made paler, to minimise the absorption of energy from the flash of detonating nuclear weapons. This finish remained in use until the change of role to a low-level one, whereupon the scheme was altered to a disruptive pattern of grey/green upper surfaces, with light grey under surfaces. After reports from the Red Flag exercises in Nevada in the late 1970s that the light grey under surfaces became highly visible against the ground when the aircraft banked steeply at the low altitudes it was assigned to, the disruptive pattern was later continued to include the under surfaces as well on all Vulcans.
A number of V-bombers of the three different types are preserved and open to the public at various locations.
On February 8, 2007, the Royal Air Force Museum Cosford opened the National Cold War Exhibition at RAF Cosford in Shropshire to tell the story of the Cold War. This exhibition brought together static displays of all three types of V-bomber in one location for the first time. The museum's director general, Dr Michael Fopp, stated the goal was "people will leave feeling better informed about what happened in the second half of the 20th Century."
One Vulcan bomber, registration XH558 (Civil Registration G-VLCN), flew until October 2015, funded entirely by public donations. The organisation that owns and maintains it on behalf of the nation uses it to "Honour the Past and to Inspire the Future". It was displayed at airshows and events. It will be used as a centrepiece for engineering excellence, clearly showing what a leading design it was for the period.