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The British Aircraft Corporation's TSR.2 (Tactical Strike and Reconnaissance aircraft 2) is a famous example of the lethality of politics and interservice friction as applied to the procurement process. For a miracle, it doesn't actually involve the United States Government until the end of the story; rather, the TSR.2 project was a major turning point for domestic weapons procurement in the United Kingdom between 1957 and April 1965, when it was summarily cancelled. Much like the XB-70A Valkyrie project, it produced two flyable prototypes, with only one ever to fly.

The Requirements

Perhaps the best place to start describing the TSR.2 process is with the requirements that officially birthed it. The late 1950s were witness to continued evolution in warfighting doctrine in most of the Western militaries. The U.K. faced a slightly different set of problems from the U.S. as far as bombers went, since it was looking at shorter ranges to most of its targets for nuclear strike missions, and because it already had a slower, high-altitude nuclear bomber in the Avro Vulcan. The problem was that, increasingly, the notion of the slow high-altitude bomber was being rethought even before the Powers Incident of 1960. In addition to the increased vulnerability of these aircraft to SAM systems, warfighting theory was gravitating towards the notion of 'tactical nuclear war.' This form of conflict, as envisioned, would require a platform that could deliver short to medium range nuclear strikes on battlefield targets as well as strategic missions against high-value targets.

A tactical nuclear bomber would need to be able to operate at low levels both due to the SAM threat and to its need to more precisely lay smaller weapons on fluid targets such as tank formations. The United States had tried to answer this requirement with the B-58 Hustler, which (due to its conception before the SAM threat really materialized) was never good at the low-altitude role; however, it was a supersonic (Mach 2+) tactical bomber. Due to its many problems, the B-58 was not widely adopted. The U.K. was presently operating the English Electric Canberra in the light jet bomber role; however, the Canberra had entered service in 1951 and was subsonic and high altitude. A new approach, it was thought, was required to survive and complete the mission in the new environment.

The Air Staff began to formally search for a replacement for the Canberra in 1956 with the issuance of 'General Operational Requirement 339 (GOR.339)'. This was the specification to which the replacement plane would need to perform. It included high and low-altitude operation, supersonic flight in both regimes (including a low-level attack speed of Mach 0.95), and the need to operate off rough and/or short fields with long range and high payload in order to carry the large nuclear weapons of the day. Finally, it needed to function as a high-tech electronic and photographic recon platform. This was an audacious set of wants, and virtually guaranteed that the resulting aircraft (if it could be built) would be complex and expensive.

Just to muddy the waters further, in 1957 Duncan Sandys, the Defense Minister, published a now-famous White Paper on the future of British Defense. This paper stated that the future belonged to unmanned aircraft as little as a decade hence, and that (more importantly) the British posture would be one of deterrence provided by ballistic missiles with guided missile systems used for air defense of the nation. This, as might be imagined, caused an enormous amount of hullabaloo. The RAF began to get increasingly uneasy about its ability to acquire new aircraft projects other than those already operating or quite advanced.

The Royal Navy, meanwhile, had issued its own requirements for a light bomber to operate from its carrier groups. This requirement was for a subsonic strike aircraft, relatively cheap, optimized for the naval deployment role. There began to be some pressure, most likely from the Ministry of Supply and the finance and procurement establishment, that the RAF 'piggyback' its new smaller strike aircraft onto the RN proposal so as to 'streamline' requirements - foreshadowing problems which would smack the U.S. F-111 Aardvark hard. The RAF, realizing (correctly) that to give in to this would dramatically lower their ability to define and acquire future aircraft, especially with the Sandys report emphasizing unmanned aircraft and missiles, fought the idea. They did so both directly in indirectly, by insisting on the requirements of GOR.339, which were incompatible with the RN aircraft (The RN program was the Blackburn NA.39, which would eventually become the highly successful Buccaneer, which in turn would remain in operation through the 1991 Gulf War).

In any case, GOR.339 remained in force, with a deadline for proposals of early 1958, and several manufacturers stepped up. Supermarine, the developers of the famous Supermarine Spitfire (who were by then a subsidiary of Vickers-Armstrong as a result of the partially-planned consolidation of British defense firms) offered a proposal for a Mach 2+ aircraft with an emphasis on the machine as a complete 'weapon system' - including support and ancillary gear required for the airplane's operation in the proposal. The front-runner proposal was put forth by English Electric, however - and as another move in the consolidation game, the contract for development was given to both companies, who merged their proposals and their firms into the British Aircraft Corporation. The newly formed BAC was awarded a 90 million pound contract for nine development (and, later, 11 operational) aircraft in late 1960, designated the TSR.2.

The Airplane

The TSR.2 came into being as a big, sleek design. It was a high-wing strike aircraft with a delta wing to support supersonic flight. It carried a crew of two (pilot and bombardier/navigator) seated in a tandem canopy. It had two Bristol Siddeley Olympus 22R Mark 320 turbojets in the main fuselage. These were derivatives of the engines already in service in the Avro Vulcan, with afterburners (reheat in British parlance) and other tweaks. A standard empennage with a single high vertical stabilizer completed the long, powerful frame. The inlets were semicircular and placed just ahead of and below the delta wing's leading edge.

Some specifications, from http://www.vectorsite.net/avtsr2.html:

  • Wingspan: 11.28 meters (37 ft)
  • Wing area: 65.03 meters2 (700 sq. ft)
  • Length: 27.13 meters (89 feet)
  • Height: 7.32 meters at tail (24 feet)
  • Empty weight: 20,345 kg (44,850 lb)
  • Maximum loaded weight: 43,545 kg (96,000 lb)
  • Max speed at altitude: Mach 2.25
  • Ceiling: 16,640 meters (54,000 ft)
  • Combat Radius: 1,850 km (1,150 miles / 1,000 nautical miles)

It wasn't, then, a small airplane. For comparison, the Boeing 737-100 (the first model of a common small jetliner) is 28.6 meters long, with a wingspan of 28.3 meters and a height of 11.3 meters. It weighs 28,120 kg empty and 49,190 kg fully loaded (Source; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_737).

The TSR.2 sure didn't look like a jetliner, though, with its long sharp frame and tight high-mounted delta wings. Those wings were mounted to the fuselage using jointed pins (as compared to the mainspar of conventional winged aircraft) in order to allow them to flex in flight. This not only improved the ride at low altitude and high speeds, but reduced the effects of vibration on the airframe's service life. It had hydraulic landing gear that could raise the aircraft's nose in order to reduce the likelihod of Foreign Object Damage to the engines on rough fields as well as increase the angle of attack for better short/rough field performance.

Despite several problems with the engines (mounted in an Avro Vulcan's mid bay for testing, the test engine not only could drive the Vulcan without any of its main engines in use but eventually blew up on the ground, destroying the Vulcan and several emergency vehicles) the TSR.2 eventually flew in late 1964 when Prototype XR219 took to the skies. It first flew supersonic in February 1965. However, despite the enthusiasm of the test pilots for the state of the aircraft, it was not to be.

The Cancellation

On April 6, 1965 the TSR.2 program was abruptly cancelled (as in, really abruptly - the employees of the program hadn't been told in order to preserve the 'budgetary secret' of the cancellation). The assembly line, all materials relating to the TSR.2 and the prototypes themselves were destroyed. The two flying prototypes and one nearly-complete one were taken to a gunnery range and used as targets. Why?

Cost has been cited. The program was estimated by this point to cost at least 200 million pounds - a lot of money in today's currency, but not that bad for a major weapon system at the time. The U.K. was under some pressure to purchase the U.S. F-111, a plane which was (ostensibly) designed to tackle many of the same roles as the TSR.2, and it was claimed that the F-111 buy would be cheaper due to lower unit costs since the U.S. Air Force and Navy were also customers. There were no foreign orders for the TSR.2, which not only increased the unit cost but made it politically easy to kill. There are (still) firmly held convictions that domestic politics contributed, with the TSR.2 seen as a Conservative government 'gold-plated' program.

The changing requirements may have played a part. By 1965, the slow retreat of the U.K. from imperial commitments was making for an increasingly tight military budget, and the missile deterrence position was still firmly in effect. The Vulcan could quite easily handle current strategic bombing duties (and, in fact, the Vulcan can operate at low altitudes, where it is an awesomely loud and stunningly beautiful aircraft...sorry, personal note).

Whatever the reasons, the way in which it was done attracted an enormous amount of scorn for the waste of destroying all the materials and terminating an already-funded flight test program, both of which could have contributed positively to future aircraft development.


In the end, the U.K. suffered from the cost overruns, delays and downsizing of capabilities that ended up plaguing the F-111 Aardvark program; their 'cheaper replacement planes' ended up being nothing of the sort. Still, hindsight is 20/20. The TSR.2 joined the XB-70A Valkyrie as 'one of those beautiful planes that might have been.' Ironically, the British Government later (much later) acquired a plane that looked a lot like the TSR.2 both in shape and role, when it began to operate the Panavia Tornado. Fortunately for enthusiasts, two prototypes of the TSR.2 were rescued from immolation; one is in the Cosford Aerospace Museum, and the other at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford (a highly recommended visit, that).

One of Jane's Fighting Nodes!

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