Skybolt Programme Cancellation – 22 December 1962

The UK was the third country, after the United States and the Soviet Union, to develop and test nuclear weapons. The research and development of such weapons began during World War II, with participation from Canada, in the classified ‘Tube Alloys’ programme. The programme eventually merged with the United States’ Manhattan Project. Despite some turbulence over the following years, the special relationship between the US and UK continued to grow. However, Britain soon became dependant on the US for its nuclear weapons.

Since the 1958 UK–US Mutual Defence Agreement, the UK and the US have cooperated extensively on nuclear security matters. The UK has not had a programme to develop an independent delivery system since 1960. Instead, it has purchased US delivery systems for UK use, fitting them with warheads designed and manufactured by the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment. The first of these delivery systems was to be a new American weapon, the Douglas GAM-87A Skybolt.

Skybolt was to replace the Avro Blue Steel – the British air-launched, rocket-propelled nuclear armed standoff missile, built to arm the V-bombers. The Avro Blue Steel allowed the bomber to launch the missile against its target while still outside the range of surface-to-air missiles.

The Blue Steel left a lot to be desired. The hydrogen peroxide oxidizer was extremely nasty, being both corrosive and toxic, requiring that crews handling it wear overall protective clothing and breathing apparatus. Getting a Blue Steel ready for a mission from a cold start was a time-consuming process, not exactly a good thing if Britain were under nuclear attack.

There was consideration of an improved Blue Steel Mark 2, but the RAF decided to rest its hopes on a new American weapon, the Douglas GAM-87A Skybolt.

The Douglas GAM-87 Skybolt was an air-launched ballistic missile developed by the United States during the late 1950s. The Skybolt was to be a marvel of sophistication, an air-launched ballistic missile with a range of at least 1,000 miles.

A Skybolt missile at RAF Museum Cosford, showing the RAF roundel and the manufacturer (Douglas Aircraft) logo

In March 1960, the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, met with President Dwight Eisenhower at Camp David near Washington. He secured permission to buy Skybolt without strings attached. In return the Americans were given permission to base the US Navy’s Polaris-equipped ballistic missile submarines at the Holy Loch in Scotland. The financial arrangement was particularly favourable to Britain as the US was absorbing all the research and development costs of Skybolt.

Vulcan XH537 was allocated for Skybolt and flown with dummy missiles | Peter March Collection

The UK joined the Skybolt program in 1960, intending to use it on the V-bombers. The development of the design meant the missile could only be carried externally and the requirement for adequate ground clearance on take-off limited it to the Vulcan. Testing began in 1962. Two Vulcan B.2s were fitted with a pylon under each wing to carry a Skybolt and participated in trials.

The first five test launches were failures. This was not unusual – the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile and the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile had similar problems. But the failures had highlighted that other new US nuclear assets, including the Minuteman, the Polaris and the supersonic Hound Dog air-launched cruise missile, could do the job and so there was no point in pumping more money into Skybolt.

On 7 November 1962, the US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, met with the American President at the time, John F. Kennedy, and recommended that Skybolt be cancelled.

The UK had decided to base its entire 1960s deterrent force on Skybolt, and its cancellation led to a major disagreement between the UK and US, known today as the ‘Skybolt Crisis’.

On 11 November 1962, Robert McNamara and Solly Zuckerman, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence, flew to London to meet with the Minister of Defence, Peter Thorneycroft. Thorneycroft had expected McNamara to offer Polaris instead, but found him unwilling. McNamara was willing to supply Hound Dog, or to allow the British to continue development of Skybolt.

The discussions with McNamara were reported to the House of Commons by Thorneycroft, leading to a storm of protest. Air Commodore Sir Arthur Vere Harvey pointed out that while Skybolt had suffered five test failures, Polaris had thirteen failures in its development. He went on to state:

“that some of us on this side, who want to see Britain retain a nuclear deterrent, are highly suspicious of some of the American motives… and say that the British people are tired of being pushed around”.

Over one hundred Conservative members of Parliament, nearly one third of the parliamentary party, signed a motion urging Macmillan to ensure that Britain remained an independent nuclear power.

As the Skybolt crisis came to the boil in the UK, an emergency meeting between Macmillan and Kennedy was arranged to take place in December 1962, in Nassau, Bahamas.

President Kennedy meets with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in Government House in Hamilton, Bermuda in 1961.
Left to right: US Secretary of State Dean Rusk; President Kennedy; Prime Minister Macmillan; British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Lord Home.

During the negotiations at Nassau, America offered Skybolt to Britain. They also offered to contribute a further $100 million (half the further development costs), with Britain paying the rest and having the missiles which she had ordered. Macmillan opened by detailing the history of the Anglo-American Special Relationship, going back to the Second World War. He rejected the deal that was offered for Skybolt. It would cost Britain $100 million, and was not politically viable in the wake of recent public comments about Skybolt.

Kennedy considered that he was making a very fair offer on Skybolt. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan thought otherwise, saying:

“while the proposed marriage with Skybolt was not exactly a shot-gun wedding, the virginity of the lady must now be regarded as doubtful. There had been too many remarks made about the unreliability of Skybolt for anyone to believe its effectiveness in the future.”

Kennedy then offered Hound Dog. Macmillan turned this down on technical grounds.

The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy (left) and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Harold Macmillan (right) in Bermuda on 21 December 1961

The Americans were pressing for the establishment of a multilateral North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nuclear force. Britain was opposed to this because of the cost, and its desire to prevent German access to nuclear weapons. President Kennedy believed Polaris should be dealt with, if at all, in a much more multilateral European atmosphere.

Macmillan investigated the President’s words of a “multilateral European” deterrent further. Manufactured by Europeans? Or consist of missiles which Europeans had been lent or sold? Macmillan felt the best solution would be to have a joint force with the United States.

Kennedy said that if the US gave Polaris to Britain it would cause difficulties in Europe. Polaris was not just another Skybolt. At the time it was believed Skybolt would not have been effective after 1970, whereas Polaris would last from 1968/69 until the Russians had an effective anti-missile missile, in maybe 1980.

Polaris A-1 on launch pad in Cape Canaveral

Mr Macmillan continued to push for Polaris. He said it would be regarded as supplying a substitute for Skybolt in order to honour a contract which the United States could not fulfil because Skybolt would not work.

On further discussion of the Multinational Force, Macmillan was emphatic that he would commit the submarines to NATO only if they could be withdrawn in case of a national emergency. When pressed by Kennedy as to what sort of emergencies he had in mind, Macmillan mentioned the Soviet threats at the time of the Suez crisis, Iraqi aggression against Kuwait, or a threat to Singapore.

The British nuclear deterrent was not just for deterring attacks on the UK, but to underwrite Britain’s role as a great power. In the end, Kennedy did not wish to see Macmillan’s government collapse, which would imperil Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC), so a face-saving compromise was found, which was released as a joint statement on 21 December 1962:

These forces, and at least equal US Forces, would be made available for inclusion in a NATO multilateral nuclear force. The Prime Minister made it clear that except where Her Majesty’s Government may decide that supreme national interests are at stake, these British forces will be used for the purposes of international defence of the Western Alliance in all circumstances.

Britain remained an independent nuclear deterrent. Polaris would go to sea as an American designed missile, in a British designed submarine, with a British warhead, under British control.

As a result, responsibility for Britain’s nuclear deterrent passed from the RAF V-bombers to the Royal Navy. At midnight on 30 June 1969, the V-bomber force Quick Reaction Alert terminated. UK-based V-Bombers transferred to tactical role and the strategic deterrent transferred to Royal Navy’s Polaris fleet.

The nuclear deterrent task meant maintaining, at all times throughout seven years, the highest state of readiness the RAF had known in peacetime. Lord Shackleton, the Leader of the House of Lords at the time, said:

“I have seen something of the V-Bomber crews and they were the most extraordinarily dedicated and efficient body of men, and no praise can be too high for their devotion to duty.”

A UGM-27 Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile is launched from the British nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine HMS REVENGE (S 27).

Another result of the agreement was France’s veto of Britain’s application for admission to the EEC on 14 January 1963. The President of France, Charles de Gaulle, cited the Nassau Agreement as one of the main reasons for his veto. He argued that Britain’s dependence on United States through the purchase of Polaris rendered it unfit to be a member of the EEC. De Gaulle saw British membership as a Trojan horse for U.S. influence. The UK joined the European Union in 1973, before eventually leaving the member state at 11pm (GMT) on 31 January 2020.

Did you know? – If Skybolt had been adopted, the proposed six-missile Vulcan B3 would have been developed to enable the RAF to undertake an alert deterrent with eighty-four Skybolts in the air at any one time.

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