Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis considers the degree to which the RAF succeeded in maintaining V-Force operational effectiveness in the 1960s. Its broad objective is to enhance understanding of the V-Force role.

The open literature contains no evaluation of Medium Bomber Force (MBF) operational effectiveness, focusing instead on general descriptions of the V-Force, V-bomber types, the evolution of the British deterrent and the Anglo-American nuclear relationship. There has been no assessment of V-Force vulnerabilities, on the ground and in the air, efforts made to reduce these exposures and the V-Force potential to deliver retaliation.

Ballistic missiles have dominated strategic deterrence since the 1960s. Beyond the relatively brief hosting of American Thor missiles, however, British deterrence relied on a small fleet of subsonic bombers. This thesis is the first comprehensive account of this force, its war planning and operational capabilities.

The thesis draws on Bomber Command Operational Research Branch (ORB) studies, other documentary evidence and extensive contact with V-Force veterans. This overview of operational effectiveness is based on realistic assumptions, notably the likelihood of very short warning. V-Force retaliation had three main elements: war scramble survival, successful penetration and accurate weapons delivery. Surviving a low trajectory IRBM strike was the starting point. This required part of the force to be held, round-the-clock, at Cockpit Readiness (to the point of engine start), as provided for under “Alert Condition 1” - introduced in 1961. This was the ultimate Ground Alert posture and the only option which would have allowed at least some bombers to escape and retaliate.

The V-Force’s primary role was deterrence – war prevention rather than war-fighting. Nevertheless, its core retaliatory threat amounted to a unilateral potential to destroy the Soviet Union’s first and second cities. Very few V-bombers would have survived a war scramble and penetration, yet there could be no guarantee that every single attacker could be destroyed, on the ground or in the air. The minimum retaliatory threat, the potential to destroy Moscow and Leningrad, was judged sufficient during the wait for Polaris. The British attack weight would have been negligible in the context of general war but catastrophic in the unilateral context - sufficient to undermine the balance between the superpowers.
Date of Award1 Jun 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorJohn Stone (Supervisor) & Chris Hobbs (Supervisor)

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