These short newsreels depict the TSR.2, a revolutionary warplane that was quietly taken out and shot (literally; the protype ended up on a tank range as a target) by a declining Britain in 1966.
(You need a .mkv video player to play this. We recommend VLC).
The TSR-2 had planned capabilities than nothing in RAF service quite matches today. These inclue a design speed of Mach 1.1 at 200 feet, and Mach 2 at altitude, with a combat radius of over 1,000 nautical miles. It was designed for nuclear and conventional strikes. It had a precision strike capability 10 to 20 years ahead of the US’s developments in that genre, including capability to deliver television-guided smart weapons. It had modular reconnaissance capability, including live datalink. It was, militarily speaking, a revolution in the air.
So why did it die so early, and so hard? What killed the TSR-2?
- British politics, in part. It became a football contested by the Labor and Conservative parties of the time, not on its merits but as a way to score points on the other side. It didn’t help that the plane was designed with a potential war with the USSR in mind, and Harold Wilson just couldn’t see the Soviet Union as an enemy.
- Galactically bad judgment by British MOD and parliamentary leaders, going back to Sir Duncan Sandys (pronounced “Sands”) and his 1957 Defence White Paper which concluded that the manned aircraft was obsolete, and Britain henceforth would place its faith entirely in missiles and other robotic systems. Was this decision the dumbest in the history of air war — dumber than Hitler’s 1942 decision not to produce jet fighters? Unlike Hitler, Sandys was a man of generally good judgment; he had been deeply involved in the nation-saving development of Radar, and many other British technical coups of WWII. But unlike England, Germany’s aeronautical industry recovered (until pan-European consolidation, but that’s another complaint). The British leaders who actually killed off the jet, Secretary of State for Defence Denis Healey and Minister of Aviation Roy Jenkins (who later, as Home Secretary, would do his best to decriminalize crime),
- Britain’s Soviet-inspired postwar industrial policy, which relied on central planning and forced consolidations in the thriving and innovative British aeronautical industry. (The one holdout against forced consolidation, Handley-Page, was forced into bankruptcy instead, and the planners counted this a victory). Thousands of aeronautical engineers and tens of thousands of skilled workers lost their jobs (perhaps a third to a half of them found new jobs in Canada or the USA. The guys who went to Canada wound up in the USA when Canada had a similar brainstroke vis-a-vis the CF-105).
- The inability of the consolidated firms, wracked by personnel turbulence and culture clashes, to perform at the level of the previous, private industry. This led to the actual TSR.2 failing to meet many of its optimistic performance goals.
- Further bad judgment in assigning responsibility, which left the stumbling Vickers firm (descendant, in part, of Hiram Maxim’s machine gun enterprise) in charge over the capable, proven (they designed and built the successful Canberra and Lightning jets), team from English Electric.
- Still further bad judgment, in the political assignment of the untried Bristol Olympus design. All the delays, and most of the cost overruns, came from the immaturity of this powerplant.
- Even further bad judgment, in making the subcontractors report to the Ministry, rather than to the prime contractor, which had no control whatsoever. This was symptomatic of Ministry micromanagement, which included delaying the project so that non-pilots could haggle over the position and labeling of instruments and switches.
- Failure to plan for the normal problems found between drafting board and first flight, including engines that fell short of spec and weight gain. This left the design team and the MOD managers facing new decisions, one option of which was always to cancel the whole project.
In the end, they canceled the TSR.2, and they scrapped, burned, and shot up the airframes, tools and tooling, and burnt and shredded most of the paperwork, to make sure it did not rise from the dead to embarrass Whitehall. They also ordered that the scrapping and burning be as well publicized as possible — the broke British government managed to film the arson with color film.
And when they canceled the plane, they initially required industrial managers to keep the decision secret from their own, doomed-to-layoffs, workforces.
Why were these extreme measures taken? As with other instances where this has happened, like the cancellation of the Avro Arrow CF-105 in Canada, and the cancellation for further Republic F-105 Thunderchief acquisitions in the USA in favor of the on-paper TFX, the decisionmakers probably knew that they were screwing up. Hence, the seemingly vindictive destruction of the ability to reverse the decision — a reversal which might ding the decision-maker’s “legacy.”
Healey and Jenkins, the only men who could have issued these orders of vandalism, have made pro-forma denials ever since the initial British public reaction to the cancellation and destruction of the TSR turned out to be negative. Neither is a man of any particular demonstrated integrity (quite the contrary), but it’s anyone’s guess whether the vandal was one or both. They also canceled the nascent Harrier project (then called P.1154) on the grounds it would never fly, and canceled a transport plane. Healey would scrap new (and renewed) aircraft carriers and preside over the greatest unilateral disarmament of an undefeated nation in world history.
Had Denis Healey been in the pay of the KGB he could have done no more damage to British defense policy and strength. (The same is true of Jenkins; his junior position meant he could do less damage than Healey). The TSR cancellation, especially when coupled with the many other cancellations that came out of the 1964 Labour government, fundamentally ended a half-century of British aeronautical industry leadership, and ultimately led to the near-dissolution of the British aerospace industry.
The TSR.2 cancellation continues to have repercussions. Britain and its European defense partners are looking for a replacement for the aging Panavia Tornado jet. Rumor is they’re looking for a plane that’s supersonic on the deck, and with a 1000 nautical mile radius of action….