The Resolution-class submarine armed with the Polaris missile was the United Kingdom's primary nuclear deterrent from the late 1960s to 1994, when they were replaced by the Vanguard-class submarine carrying the Trident II.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent was through the RAF's V-bombers. But developments in radar and surface-to-air missiles made it clear that bombers were becoming vulnerable, and would be unlikely to penetrate Soviet airspace by the early 1960s. Free-fall nuclear weapons would no longer be a credible deterrent.
To address this problem, in May 1960 Prime Minister Macmillan arranged a deal with President Eisenhower to equip the V-bombers with the US-designed AGM-48 Skybolt. The Skybolt was a 1,000-mile (1,600 km) range ballistic missile that allowed the launching bombers to remain well away from Soviet defences and launch attacks that would be basically invulnerable. With this range, the V-bombers would have to fly only a few hundred miles from their bases before being in range of an attack on Moscow.
Under the agreement, the UK's contribution to the program was limited to developing suitable mounting points on the Avro Vulcan bomber, installing the required guidance systems that fed the missiles updated positioning information, and development of their own version of the US W47 warhead to arm it, the RE.179 .
The Skybolt crisis
The incoming Kennedy administration expressed serious doubts with both Skybolt and the UK deterrent force in general. Robert McNamara was highly critical of the US bomber fleet, which he saw as obsolete in an age of ICBMs. Skybolt was seen simply as a way to continue the existence of a system he no longer considered credible, and given the rapidly improving capabilities of inertial guidance systems, their precision strike capability with free-fall bombs would no longer be needed. McNamara was equally concerned about the UK retaining an independent nuclear force, and worried that the US could be drawn into a war by the UK, or using the UK as a proxy hostage by the Soviets. He wanted to draw the UK into a dual-key arrangement.
Full article ▸