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Project Cancelled: The Disaster of Britain's Abandoned Aircraft Projects

by Derek Wood

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This classic book tells the story of how successive British governments of both political colours condemmed the British aviation industry to second place in the world, through a mixture of political interference, ignorance, stupidity, blind adherence to political dogma and appeasement of the United States of America. It tells how the British aircraft industry was hamstrung by timidity, a failure to understand the laws of physics and the realities of aviation and wild decisions by Ministers, such that the 1958 Defence White Paper declared that manned military aircraft were obsolete because the next war would be fought with missiles alone. That decision, by the Tory Minister of Defence Duncan Sandys, caused the cancellation of a number of projects that would have been world-beating aircraft had they made it to actual hardware, with many export sales in the pipeline.

An entire chapter is devoted to TSR.2, the advanced jet bomber cancelled by the incoming Wilson goverment in 1964. That decision was based on a combination of poor project planning (the RAF kept changing the specification and then moaning when the resultant delays continually pushed back the entry of the aircraft into service and caused the bill to rise), political infighting within the MoD (the Chief of Defence Staff at the time was Lord Louis Mountbatten, who went around publicly rubbishing TSR.2 because, as an Admiral of the Fleet, he had a vested interest in having the Navy become the sole custodian of Britain's nuclear deterrent, an interest he backed to the hilt), and Realpolitik, as the incoming Labour Government could happily scrap the aircraft because of the massive cost over-runs whilst not realising that not allowing the aircraft to enter service ensured that the whole project became a total waste of money instead of just a huge one. What they didn't mention at the time was the political pressure from the USA, which was concerned because they considered Wilson to be a dangerous Leftist and probably a Soviet spy, but more importantly because the US military-industrial complex considered TSR.2 to be a major threat to their business interests, so in the interests of "Free Trade" it had to be scrapped and the British would have to buy the General Dynamics F-111 (which was even more delayed and more expensive than finishing TSR.2 would ever have been). In the end, we never got either aircraft, but instead ended up with F-4 Phantoms with Rolls-Royce Spey engines at Wilson's insistence of some pay-back for British industry - thus saddling the RAF with the quickest variant of the Phantom but also the one with the most maintenance down-time. But that, like the political disaster in the States that was the F-111, is another story.

Reading this book can make one yearn for the smack of strong dictatorship, if only to ensure that real-world decisions are taken for clear reasons and other people's agendas can be safely ignored. It's cold comfort to think that that alternative has even greater drawbacks in the form of the dangers that such clarity of political vision can bring. (Think Hitler. Think Franco. Think Mussolini. Think Stalin. All Men with Clarity of Vision.) The only way to avoid such scandalous waste of human time, effort and expenditure is not to do militarism at all - or, given that the same sort of issues arose with civil aviaiton projects, not to do industrialisation either. Go far enough down this path of reasoning, and you end up wondering, as the late Douglas Adams put it, why we should have bothered emerging from the sea at all. Truly, too much progress can be a bad thing...

So this book is one of the best arguments for pacifism i can think of - probably not its intention, but the only real conclusion that can be drawn from it. But if only this story was restricted to military projects, then we could draw that sort of comfort from the book. However, as the Thatcher government's attitude to the potentially world-beating space launch system HOTOL showed, blind dogma and stupidity can be found anywhere in politics, at any time. ( )
  RobertDay | Sep 29, 2010 |
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