Get any British aviation enthusiast drunk and they’ll inevitably bring up the TSR-2. This you will be told was a “world beating” British plane design of the 60’s that would have put British aviation on the map, if it hadn’t been shot down by its own government.
However in truth, had the TSR-2 programme not been cancelled in 1965, it would have probably crippled the UK aviation industry, becoming the hill on which it would have died on. As one aviation blogger contemplates, the likely outcome, if the programme had continued, would have been an RAF in the 2000’s entirely equipped with US made aircraft, with no indigenous aircraft manufacturing industry left in the UK.
The TSR-2 is merely an example of everything that was wrong with the UK, both in terms of its industry and politics, in the pre-EU days. Given that we’re on the verge of returning to those days it might be worth reviewing the project’s history, as it represents one of the founding myths of those prompting British Empire 2.0.
Certainly it is true that the proposed TSR-2 design was pretty innovative when it was first proposed…..in the 1950’s! However, over a decade later, with the first flights underway, it was a design that was already showing its age. Case in point, right behind the cockpit was an avionics bay which included a fridge freezer sized compartment for all of the planes electronics. Necessary, given how bulky electronic components were in the 1950’s.
But of course by the 1960’s it was a different story, as they’re been major advances in the miniaturisation of electronic components. And the aircraft’s overall performance was by now barely equal to that of a number of competitor aircraft that were either already in service or on the verge of entering service in the 1960’s, such as the F-111, Mirage IV or the Su-24.
And contrary to the myths, no the TSR-2 was nowhere near entering service in 1965. Only two prototypes had actually been completed and only one of them had actually flown by the time of cancellation. And those early flights had revealed a number of technical problems, ranging from dangerous vibrations, engine problems, landing gear issues (multiple issues actually), etc.
1969 is probably a more realistic date for entry into service, although it won’t be entirely delivering as promised by that date. One of the key elements of the TSR-2 was going to be its advanced terrain following radar system. But they never really got this to work properly. Indeed, they eventually used a Texas Instruments supplied set in the first generation of Tornado’s (its likely the TSR-2 would have had to do the same in the end). Meaning it won’t be until the mid-1970’s before it was in a position to deliver on its original design spec. At which point all TSR-2’s would have been completely obsolete and probably not really fit for purpose.
By contrast over the same period the Americans developed the aforementioned F-111, a similar but arguably more innovative aircraft (given its variable geometry wings and Crew escape capsule). It went from a sketch on the back of an envelope in 1961 to first flight in 1964 and an entry into service in 1967. This means the Americans (despite all the issues with US military procurement I highlighted in a prior post) were able to develop the F-111 about three times faster than the British could manage with the TSR-2.
The message was clear, there was no way the UK aviation industry could compete with the American aviation industry (or the Soviets for that matter). And this is merely one of dozens of examples one could point too. The failure of the Bristol Britannia against the Boeing 707, or the Blue streak missile program being others. All pointed to the fact that the one small island couldn’t take on the world. If Britain was to have any future making planes, it had to pool its resources with its European partners and work with them.
And in the wake of the TSR-2 cancellation that’s what happened. Firstly with the Jaguar, then with the Tornado, which is still in service to this day. Both not only ended up in the service of European air forces, but were sold to a number of foreign buyers (one of the reasons for cancelling TSR-2 was a lack of foreign orders). And more recently has come the Eurofighter. And on the civilian front co-operation with Europe led to Concorde and later on Airbus. One could argue that the cancellation of TSR-2 give the UK aviation industry the nudge it needed to modernise and thus in effect saved it from itself.
But was there a certain level of skulduggery by the 1965 labour government in the process of cancelling the TSR-2? Probably yes, that’s kind of how politics works! It is an unfortunate fact of history that British governments have a tendency to flog dead horses and pursue projects (defence projects in particular), well beyond the point where other governments would see sense and cancel them. And they also have a habit of then mishandling the cancellation badly. Often because one side or the other in parliament is trying to save face….or jam the knife in the back of the opposition, with the long term interests of the country coming pretty low on the list of priorities. The cancellation of the RAF Nimrod aircraft, which I previously covered, being a good example of this.
So TSR-2 is not an example of “world-beating” British innovation, but a cautionary tale of what happens when a small country gets in way over its head. The truth is the TSR-2 should have been cancelled much earlier and its cancellation probably saved thousands of aviation jobs in the UK, because it led to greater co-operation with Europe.