UK gets Skybolt revenge

While I was covering the NBAA convention in Atlanta last week — amongst other travels — my colleague Craig Hoyle in London covered the results of the UK strategic defence and security review, which you can read here.

In case you’ve been living on another planet (or, ahem, at NBAA), the big news is UK government’s decision to exchange the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing (STOVL) F-35Bs for F-35Cs.

Some may consider this a devastating blow to the US Marine Corps.

I consider it a very belated payback for Skybolt.

In December 1962, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara decided to unilaterally cancel the Douglas GAM-87A Skybolt, the first air-launched ballistic missile. The news was not well-received in Whitehall.

Only two years before, then-Minister of Defence Peter Thorneycroft had committed to Skybolt after canceling the British Blue Streak missile, resting the UK’s nuclear deterrent capability entirely in the hands of an unproven, developmental missile paid for almost completely by the Americans.

By canceling Skybolt — and, not least, for failing to adequately consult Thorneycroft about the decision — McNamara nearly destroyed the burgeoning UK-US alliance. A contemporary account of the diplomatic pickle is available here in the online archives of Flight International.

In both cases — F-35B and Skybolt cancellation decisions — good diplomacy was restored by a face-saving gesture from the offending party. Last week, the UK government exchanged F-35Cs for F-35Bs. In December 1962, the Kennedy Administration may have saved the Macmillan government by giving them the Polaris missile. Compared to Skybolt, that was indeed a bargain.

In the wake of the SDSR decision, I’m not sure the US Marine Corps made off so well.


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13 Responses to UK gets Skybolt revenge

  1. Solomon 25 October, 2010 at 12:21 am #


    Totally in the Sweetman/APA camp now…huh Trimble. Of all the possible posts you could have made about the decision you come up with this Sweetman-like drive down memory lane?


  2. Eric Palmer 25 October, 2010 at 12:35 am #

    Yeah!! What he said! Shame on you!!!!

    (hey, just trying to give my pal Sol some support)

    Cool historical reference!!!

  3. Royce 25 October, 2010 at 1:05 am #

    Does anyone in DC other than the Marines Corps care if F-35B goes away? Does even Lockheed Martin? If anything, this serves the Pentagon leadership’s interest in killing a portion of the F-35 program that is the most difficult and pricey to complete.

  4. SMSgt Mac 25 October, 2010 at 4:00 am #

    I was at the 28th Annual Hurley Military History Seminar yesterday, therefore am still in the History-lovin’ mode — so harkening back to yesteryear is cool. But honestly, if every stupid or thoughtless act that ‘Strange’ came up with had a ‘Karma’ whiplash associated with it, one would think a lot more worse things would have happened by now!

  5. Stephen Trimble 25 October, 2010 at 2:06 pm #

    You’re good, Solomon! It is kind of Sweetman-like, isn’t it? It certainly wasn’t written by my friend Bill, but it definitely has his influence. Bill and I live in the same town, and sort of bumped into each other Saturday night after I ventured into his neighborhood. We came up with the Skybolt analogy over a couple of beers. The comparison was my idea, but I couldn’t remember the name of the missile, which Bill helpfully supplied. So nice detective work!

  6. Dave 25 October, 2010 at 3:45 pm #

    It’s really too bad the Navy designed the LHA-6 class ship around the F-35. That ship would be borderline useless with out the B model, not to mention the fact the sunk costs of developing this thing already would be wasted. At this point, it’s just as well we complete development and let the Marine Corps have its new toy… cancellation at this point makes little sense.

  7. C. Reed 25 October, 2010 at 5:44 pm #

    There certainly are some parallels – both expensive programs with checkered histories…

  8. jetcal1 25 October, 2010 at 8:57 pm #

    Actually, I think the TSR cancellation for the F-111 is better. They even come from the same plant. ‘course like the ‘vark….Oz will buy ‘em.

  9. Carlos 25 October, 2010 at 10:43 pm #

    I wish it was just a case of us getting you yanks back for skybolt!
    Here in the UK although the defence review is a big deal, the issue of us picking the F-35C over the B is a very small one. We are losing the Harrier, the Nimrod, the Sentinel, all our Hercs and the Tornadoes are going to reduced to 60 active GR4s! Even those arent the big issue! Its the immediate retirement of the Ark and the lack of an active aircraft carrier for ten years that is creating a stir!

  10. Chris 26 October, 2010 at 5:24 am #

    jetcal1′s last sentence FTW! Great little comment thread here, from Solomon’s knee-jerk Lightning II defense, to the image of Steve and Bill dredging up aerospace analogies over some beers, to jetcal1 cracking on the Aussies. Thank you all, this made my night of internet cruising.

  11. jetcal1 26 October, 2010 at 2:36 pm #

    Thank you for the kind words. In a more serious vein, everytime we have convinced the UK to go with one of our programs there has been a resulting loss of capability within the country as the British companies were forced to lay-off or go out of business. However, while I have some concern, I don’t feel too bad since they have also allowed the French to do it them.

  12. Ron Smith 26 October, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

    “In both cases — F-35B and Skybolt cancellation decisions — good diplomacy was restored by a face-saving gesture from the offending party. Last week, the UK government exchanged F-35Cs for F-35Bs.”

    Shouldn’t that last sentence read exchanged F-35B’s for F-35Cs?

    Now that the Royal Navy is going with the F-35C, perhaps we could see a limited buy of Super Hornets? The RAAF did buy F models with wiring that would let them later be converted to Growlers, seems like a prudent move for the future to complement the JSF.

  13. Solomon 27 October, 2010 at 10:43 am #

    Stephen….i was just trying to poke you a little! I didn’t realize how close I came to the mark….cool….still love your site even though you hate my baby.

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