The BAC TSR.2: Bombing the myth

ImageGive a British aviation enthusiast more than two pints and he will invariably tell you the story of TSR.2. This tale of an axed nuclear bomber will be told to you in a far more tender tone than he used to talk about his family. This bar room lecture will climax in an angry rant at the crass, penny-pinching government that killed Britain’s flying dreams. 

The story goes: Britain produces a world-beating aircraft, technologically superior to anything else- a fast, long ranged, survivable strike aircraft. A foolishly short-sighted Labour government cancel it. The British aircraft industry was already in terminal decline from Duncan Sandys’ mad announcement of the end of manned aircraft in 1957. The killing of TSR.2 was the final act of vandalism, leaving the industry that had given the world the Spitfire, the Hurricane and Hunter to wither and die.

This idea was fed to me from the rather good Take-Off magazines I read as a child. The story is a compelling one, it reaches into the recesses of the British psyche. It plays to the heart of a faded colonial superpower and affectionately pats the chip that sits on many British (particularly English) men’s shoulder.

‘You could have been the best, if only…’ is a powerful sentiment, and always reassuring, as it can’t be disproved. The only problem with the TSR.2 story is the foundations it rests upon are very shaky. Let’s imagine a world where TSR.2 was not cancelled in 1965….

 A World where TSR-2 was not cancelled

Several events conspired to save the TSR.2 from cancellation. The replacement of the MoD chief scientific advisor Solly Zuckerman (inventor of both the helmet and ‘folly’ of the same name’) certainly helped. Zuckerman, a fierce opponent of TSR.2, quit in 1964 amid allegations that his personal beliefs regarding nuclear weapons were affecting his professional decisions. With the appointment of a new, pro-TSR.2 advisor, things were looking brighter for the ‘white bomber’, which took to the air on 27 September 1964 confounding the critics with its superb performance.

Meanwhile, backroom dealings between the Royal Navy and the RAF were taking place. This unusually cordial discourse took place amid fears that inter-service squabbling could see the end of funding to both air carriers and manned land-based bombers. Though by this time RAF fears that the subsonic Buccaneer would be forced on them in place of TSR.2 were dispelled, it was clear to both services that the effectiveness of future nuclear-armed submarines threatened traditional ideas of how big air forces and navies needed to be.

Click here for the story of the Hawker P.1154, Britain’s cancelled superfighter

The Ferranti company was found to be grossly overcharging for  Bloodhound missiles (surface-to-air missiles designed to defend V-bomber and Thor missile bases) and this scandal led to big questions being asked about the survivability of V-bombers in a full-scale war and lead to further support of the TSR.2. Meanwhile Prime Minister Wilson’s commitment to ‘ the White Heat’ of technology, saw R&D investment increase (though initially only for civil aircraft projects). As money poured into Concorde, the coffers were also opened for TSR.2.

However, the development of TSR.2 was proving to be a nightmare.  The highly advanced avionics system caused huge delays and saw the price of the project sky-rocket. To survive against the world’s biggest integrated air defence network, the bomber would use a combination of speed, electronic counter-measures and flight profiles below enemy radar. To safely fly at speeds approaching Mach 1 at 200 ft,  in the murk of Northern European weather or at night would require a new technology.

UK electronics giant Ferranti was charged with developing the world’s first terrain following radar (TFR) for TSR.2, which it had been working on since 1958. It initially made excellent progress, flying successful trials in its test Dakota and Canberra (WT327). The radar was first fitted to a TSR.2 in late 1965. Initial tests concentrated on testing the radar at low level (200 ft) at speeds approaching the speed of sound, it been flown this low before, but not at these speeds.

The severe vibration proved too much for the pioneering radar and Ferranti went to back the lab to start a virtual redesign. This meant that TSR.2 entered service without its most vital sensor- the radar. After soaking up millions of pounds in, the Ferranti TFR was eventually cancelled, and the UK turned to the US company Texas Instruments to provide the TFR.

It wasn’t just the avionics that were causing problems, BAC itself had issues. The British Aircraft Corporation, formed in 1960, was a forced merger of English Electric Aviation Ltd., Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft), the Bristol Aeroplane Company and Hunting Aircraft. Though the company had one name, BAC was still a patchwork quilt of different, often incompatible cultures. The pressure of TSR.2 development made the already fragmented world of BAC even worse, with arguments over factory work-share and work practice leading to drawn-out industrial debates, and in early 1968, the infamous strike.

The USA strikes back

The RAF had ordered 300 TSR-2s, and the type entered service in 1969. Confident in the aircraft’s abilities, Britain was actively marketing the aircraft to several nations including Australia and Iran. This alarmed the US aerospace industry, fearful of a new contender in the fiercely competitive export market. The closest US aircraft was the F-111, which was not receiving much export interest, being seen as too expensive and complex (many air arms were also put off by its initially poor performance over Vietnam), others saw it as inflexible, as it could not perform the fighter mission. Due to its advanced nature, export limitations where also in place. McDonnell Douglas responded with a ground attack optimised F-4 Phantom II in the early 1970s. Primarily aimed at the European market, this impressive aircraft was fitted with TFR, FLIR and a laser target designator. A fuselage ‘plug’ and uprated engines gave the new Phantom impressive range/payload performance. The aircraft was dubbed ‘Strike Phantom’. The US mounted a covert anti-TSR.2 campaign, sowing doubt on the type’s maturity and highlighting the growing cost. Strike Phantom were sold to Italy, West Germany and Iran (which used them to great effect in the Iran-Iraq War). Meanwhile the TSR.2 was struggling to achieve its first export sale. Compared to the Strike Phantom, TSR.2 was big, very expensive, hard to maintain and lacking a laser-guided bombing capability.

The big tree that took all the sunlight

With TSR.2 going ahead the Anglo-French AFVG (Anglo-French Variable Geometry) aircraft, a swing-wing carrier compatible fighter (for interceptor, tactical strike and reconnaissance roles), was discontinued. In turn the UKVG was also not proposed and so did not lead to MRCA, which would have grown into Tornado. With the future of  the ground attack mission safely in TSR.2’s hands, the Anglo-French Jaguar went back towards its Taon roots, becoming a small (marginally supersonic) trainer with next to no offensive capability. The Jaguar’s success as a trainer meant the Hawk was never built. Without the collaborative base of Panavia, attempts by various European companies to start work on a new fighter in the 1980s failed to gain momentum, and the Typhoon never was.

Though in many ways a capable aircraft, TSR.2 was ultimately the aircraft that killed both Britain and Europe’s warplane industry and left it dependent on the United States.


TSR.2 Timeline

First flight 27th September 1964.

In 1968 TSR.2 was named ‘Tornado’

The TSR.2 entered service on April 1st 1969 in interim TSR.Mk 1 standard.

Upgraded to definitive Tornado TSR.Mk 2 standard with fully functioning Texas Instruments TFR in 1978.

Two TSR.2s crashed on the infamous failed ‘White Buck’ mission against Argentina in 1982.

TSR.2s were suggested for US attacks on Libya 1986, but declined for political reasons. Upgraded in 1986 to Tornado TSR.Mk.3, TSR.Mk.3A (recce) and TSR Mk.3B (anti-shipping with Sea Eagles) standard. UK buys 165 F-15F Eagle (enhanced two-seat F-15C fitted with Sky Flash and radar upgrade) in 1986 to replace Lightning and complement F-4 fleet.

During Desert Storm the large low-flying TSR.2 (with its significant IR signature) proved vulnerable to SAMs, 8 lost (of 30 sent) to enemy, 4 lost in accidents.

Fatigue problems and increased attrition rate causes a search for a replacement.The US offered F-15E and second-hand F-111s, France offered Mirage 2000D/N derivative with UK systems, Sweden offered upgraded AJ 37 Viggens. After prolonged procurement assessment the F-15G was chosen in 1994 (124 ordered). The F-15G features UK ECM equipment, weapons and Martin-Baker ejection seats.  The F-15G entered service in 1998, Tornado TSR.2 was withdrawn from attack role in 2000 (after Balkans deployment). 12 recce versions upgraded to TSR.2.Mk 4As standard and remained in service until 2004, used in Afghanistan.

2012 RAF fast jet fleet: 110 F-15Fs, 100 F-15G(UK).

If you enjoyed this, check out our exclusive article on Britain’s P.1154 STOVL fighter: and remember to donate if you’d like to.



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  6. Ivan

    WoW …. this is wrong.

    1) The TSR2 was not the Tornado, you are mistaking the TSR2 with the “GSR” designation of the panavia Tornado
    2) There was no “white buck” missions (i cannot find any evidence to say that there was)
    3) The UK has no F-15’s (though we will have some F-35’s soon)
    4) The typhoon WAS (as IS) 😉
    5) Your time line is wayyyyy off/wrong (2 different planes etc)

    • Hush Kit

      Hi Ivan,

      Thanks for your feedback.

      I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood this article completely, it is a ‘what-if’.

      Note the line “Let’s imagine a world where TSR.2 was not cancelled in 1965.”.

      Good to hear from you. Have fun looking through our archives.


    • Stuart Williamson

      This is a bizarre article. Firstly, there was a full squadron of TSR2 s built, not just 3 prototypes, and the only reason they were scrapped was because of pressure from the US. They reckoned we still owed them. This allowed the US to push its F111. My Father was in the RAF at the time and his old Navigator was an aircraft buff, and followed every fine shift in the aircraft industry. He even had a beautiful model of the TSR2.

      • B. Ridehalgh

        I worked on the TSR2. There are some many twists to this “tale” that I doubt that anyone knows the truth. I remember one, unknown to me, old Labour activist being on TV a few years ago. He said they got it wrong. “We scrapped it because it was a nuclear bomber but, of course, we were wrong. It was the bombs that were nuclear not the plane. We did it to keep the CND voters on board.” He thought this was funny and laughed. My friends who lost their jobs would not have joined in his laughter.

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  8. Graham Cox

    Interesting thinking. History shows that big complex projects, especially in peacetime, always blow out and suffer many technical problems. Do I think you have a good point here. However, starting off with the TFR unworkable due to vibration is a bit unlikely because the whole point of the TSR2’s high wing loading was to remain smooth at low level. On balance it was probably right that TSR2 was cancelled when it was, but the lamentation is due to a) the apparent ruthlessness with which it was done, and b) the fact that despite design by commitee, it was a rather nice aeroplane. I wish the same could be said of the F35- now there’s one that really should be axed.

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  10. Harold Smith

    The killer problem with TSR.2 wasn’t the TFR but the computers. It was designed to run on one American ‘Verdan’ unit. Eventually, after the RAF had shaved 60% off the performance critieria, they got it running on two. Expert opinion was that meeting the full spec would have taken six Verdans. This would mean the aircraft would be running right at the limit of capability from the moment they entered service, with no growth capability to deal with other problems and requirements. I suspect they’d have been hangar queens for many years and only come good after a near total refit with a later generation of electronics.

    I’m not sure that the continued existence of the TSR.2 would have doomed the Jaguar to trainerdom. The Jaguar orders were switched from mostly trainer to mostly strike primarily because of NATO’s adoption of the Flexible Response strategy, which meant that many more CAS/BAI aircraft would be needed to fight an extended conventional battle to defeat the hoardes of Soviet armour. Numbers mattered in this game, and there’s no way the TSR.2 could have been afforded in anything like the required quantities. The new, cheap and politically favoured (because it was multi-national) Jaguar on the other hand, was the right plane at the right time. TSR.2 plus Jaguar would have presented much the same high/low mix as Tornado plus Jaguar did in real life.

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  19. Ari

    TSR.2 is a nice design but it was certainly not a wonder plane as sometimes made out to be .Its alleged superiority over the F-111 is also pure speculation and has never been proven since TSR2 never saw action in any war and remained as prototype until its cancellation . In the end, the F-111 became a superb bomber which outperformed TSR2’s theoretical performance parameters by a long distance, it flew faster, had a longer range and bigger combat radius and most important of all, delivered 40% more payload and much more economical to fly with its state of the art Turbofan jet engines which TSR2 didn’t have.. Furthermore ,the alleged US pressure or interference is another fiction very few people believe .. Both TSR.2 and F-111 had very poor export potential, they were designed for a very specific purpose so Americans never worried about the sales potential of TSR.2 .. The only country who would have bought them was France ,a country with nuclear strike capability , but they had their own Mirage IV . So Americans were not worried about TSR2’s export potential ! this is a pure fantasy. Sorry for making some comments which our British friends might not like very much but fact is a fact.. Actually, the main reason why it was cancelled was a secret paper issued by Air Staff Target in 1961 which revealed that it would have a lifetime of 10 years only before its operational effectiveness will start to depreciate and its obvious that TSR2 engineers have failed to find a solution to this vital problem,leaving the British government no other chance than cancelling it 10 years is simply not enough for such an expensive and costly plane Source: Facebook .. TSR2-Britains lost bomber

  20. Peter Sharpe

    Hrrmm. This is fun, a bit like a ‘what would uncle steve have become, had he not died in a car crash in the 60s’.

    The hereditary role of TSR2 in subsequent aircraft roles is kind of missed though – the fall out of TSR2 cancellation ultimately led to several things, as the technology developed for it was cannibalised onto other programs. Spin off’s included, obviously, the development of Concorde, which inherited TSR2’s engines on the Avro Vulcan’s general planform(and I am convinced, to this day, that this was a wolf-in-sheeps clothing way of developing a long range supersonic nuclear bomber capability in plain sight), the protracted retirement of the Vulcan (Failed ‘white buck’ raids is imaginative), development of the MRCA in the 70s (later to become Tornado F3, GR1), and ultimate Anglo-Euro cooperation that resulted in creation of Airbus.

    In my imagination at least, a world where TSR2 was allowed to blossom would have made UK aerospace industry look very different. The TSR2 would have won the export markets over and above American rivals easily, Concorde would not have been developed as resources would have not been available, MRCA/Tornado would have never been born. As for Argentina? With a Mach 2 capable long range strategic nuclear capability, the Falklands may have never been invaded. With no competition and no protectionist fear mongering about sonic booms in the US, Boeing would have proceeded to build the 2707. Russia would have developed the Tu-2000 in response to TSR-2. With no Concorde, the Anglo-French cooperation which laid the bedrock for Airbus would never have occurred. The BAC Vickers Super VC-10 would have been built to capture the low-cost transatlantic market, while the Boeing 2707 served the rich elite. The UK ultimately would ban supersonic overflight by civilian aircraft, followed by numerous other nations, ultimately handing the transatlantic monopoly to the Super VC-10. In the US, with no government money left after Boeing 2707, the space shuttle is not developed. The 747 is never built/ The Apollo program heralds the end of US human spaceflight. Russia never develops the Buran – as a result the Soviet Union remains economically viable for years to come.
    Meanwhile, Australia has bought the TSR2, the F111 production line shuts down. Canada, bitter after cancellation of the Avro Arrow, buys the TSR2.

    How do you like my version??

    • Stewart

      The TSR2 is not the equal, or even close competitor to the F-111 and can not replace any of the planes you mention. The TSR2 is a single mission plane that can carry one bomb, which was about an 100-200 KT derivative of the B-61, IIRC. As a strike bomber, one skinny cluster bomb is not a significant payload. On the other hand, 50 iron bombs is a significant bomb load, not to mention up to ten B83 at 1.2 MT each.
      As to the rest, we had enough money to do ALL of those projects and more too, not to forget going to the moon!

      • Carl Harris

        The TSR 2 was a country mile ahead of the F-111. Watch the video that includes Roland Beamont, the Test Pilot and listen to his comments. The F-111 failed to live up to expectations in Vietnam, it underperformed it’s specifications and the cost overruns were immense. Only one TSR-2 flew and by Flight 14 they had ironed out the undercarriage problems by the addition of lateral struts as it was a long travel system. Someone said it would only carry one bomb, where, in fact, it could carry four medium kiloton nuclear weapons and four external HE weapons. The level of avionics development was in it’s infancy but was accelerating rapidly and almost certainly would have provided the level required before the aircraft entered service.
        It was killed by bureaucracy and politics. Sidney Camm quote.. “Any aircraft has four dimensions, length width, height and politic. The TSR2 excelled at the first three but lost on the fourth”. It was also killed by American interference who pretended to show interest and the possibility of purchase, but, in reality were concerned at ceding air superiority to another power and were desperate to sell the inferior F-111.

  21. Paul Biddles

    I do love your work but having read the historical time lines in BAE Systems book about EAP what would have stopped the industry seeking suitable 3rd and 4th gen home grown airframes for secific requirements? Such as the GR4 4role?

  22. Christopher Dixon

    The TSR2 was cancelled after a ridiculous amount of money was spent on it and it would have been cheaper to complete it. I agree that the avionics were a bit ambitious initially so why could it not have been to fit it with Blue Parrot and then upgraded with the Texas Instruments TFR-which ironically is the radar that was fitted to the Tornado some 15 years later! I do not believe that it had a 10 year life as upgrades would have been made a la Harrier, Jaguar and Tornado and TSR2 would have scared the faeces out of the Argentinians and the Iraqis. The TSR2 could have been superceded by a VG variant and better engines which could have produced a better aircraft than the Tornado IDS and ADV. With regards to references to the F35 it is strange that the Royal Navy is now happy to accept a single seat single engined aircraft when 50 years ago it wouldn’t accept a 2 seat single engined supersonic V/STOL aircraft-if it had perhaps the P1154 would have survived too. Ultimately the decision to cancel both the TSR2 and the P1154 was down to 4 people, Wilson, Callaghan, Jenkins and Healey, despite Wilson’s promise to workers in Preston that their jobs would be safe. Moral: Never believe anything Labour say.

  23. Mike Bannister

    I agree the TSR2 would probably have been a flop, but there area couple of other aspects you’ve overlooked. One are the TSR2s the Bristol Olympus engines. These were massive, thirsty Turbojets, that were first run in 1951! While ideal for the Concorde, which needed TJs for high-altitude Mach2 cruise, they would have been hopeless at low-altitude. LBR turbofans would have been a far better option (compare the flight performance of the TJ powered Su-24 against the F111/Tornado to see what i mean).
    Another issue will be the computers. Britain had not produced an airborne computer, capable of squeezing into a fighter, & we’re going to build the flight control system around the US VERDAN computer from 1958. This was employed in the far-less ambitious A5 Vigilante. It would almost certainly have been inadequate for the task. Moreover, the UKs record of producing advanced airborne computers, around this period, was hardly spectacular. A great example of the can be seen in the AEW Nimrod, which after 10 years of development was scrapped because of the inability the British computer industry to build an effective Radar processing computer that could squeeze into the narrow Nimrod body. I think, if the TSR2 had continued, it would have been 10 years late, used mostly US avionics, been a hanger queen & would have much poorer range/payload performance than expected. It also would have been a sitting-duck against 1980s Soviet defences.

  24. Bevan Ridehalgh

    Iy is funny how people who were not around at the time have much to say! I was there and worked on the design. Some comments are right, some are rubbish and some have changed from one to the other as time as passed by and led to different situations. I remember one leading Labour politician saying it was cancelled because it was a nuclear bomber. No, mate, the bombs are but the plane isn’t! Perhaps the idea of going European was correct but at the time Britain was one of the three nations that could buld a complete, fully equipped aircraft and we should have invited the rest of Europe to join us here in Britain rather than us go swanning off to the continent.

  25. Nigel

    My take on the TRS2 from what I was made aware of years ago We were 20 years ahead in technology with that aircraft compared with what the USA could offer ! There were many technological issues with the was it’s landing gear and vibration.the test pilot then had to fly the aircraft with me landing gear down,as it would not rise into the body of the craft correctly.I do not have the full facts on the engineering ,but I understand that to be the case.There was serious pressure from USA to drop the project and the then Priminister Harold Wilson caved in,the rest is history .However some good came out of the project and we saw Concorde come along again tbe USA did all they could to block the craft from the States need I say more.

  26. Nigel

    Thanks for the facts and corrections in reference to the TSR2 failings it fills the gaps in history even if painfully misinformed by some buffs.

    • Malcolm Steward

      For MRCA read More Refurbished Canberra’s Again. The B(I) was still the best low level beastie ever and I’ve got about 4700 hours on them. They were fairly safe down to about 10 feet with 4 eyes looking out and birds staying moderately intelligent Malcolm

    • B. Ridehalgh

      I was a stressman at the time – that is someone who is responsible for making sure everything is strong enough. This would be dead easy apart from one thing – everything has to be kept below its target mass.
      Just about everything is subjected to structural test – ie a specimen is subjected to the loads that will be felt in flight. These specimens include a full aircraft structure. The stressman involved breathes a sigh of relief when the loads being applied by the various jacks reaches the full inflight equivalent. He then worries when the loads keep increasing without failure occurring – he will get a rocket because the item is thus overweight!
      Quite often, the target is just missed, which is no great worry as a patch of some sort will help and the parts that will be manufactured in future will be made slightly stronger. Please bear this in mind.
      I well remember my wife asking me why I was getting so agitated when it was clear from the TV that Wilson was coming to power. I said, “It will possibly cost me my job.” (Actually, it did not. I was one of the lucky ones who was kept on at Warton.) Labour’s attitude to the TSR2 is clearly illustrated by a reported incident involving Healey. The TSR2 wing failed at 97% on test and Healey is said to have rushed into a cabinet meeting and said, “We will have to cancel it now.”

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  28. Bruce S. Conklin

    Can’t believe that anyone could describe the F-111’s TF30 turbofans as “state of the art”, much less imagine that the Phantom could become a “world-beater” by adding a fuselage plug to an already weighty, clunky airframe.

  29. Bruce S. Conklin

    Nimrod was meant to be an AWACS equivalent; but the Nimrod/Comet was a much smaller aircraft than the AWACS. The incapacity of the British avionics industry, real or imagined, was not the primary issue.

  30. Rick Raven Rumney

    This story was written as fiction. As an alternate history if the TSR 2 went into service. Meaning the UK may have purchased at F15 Back in the 1970s. There was in operation black buck in Argentina which was the longest bombing mission of its type at the time. He may have called it white buck because the TSR 2 was white. Every thing the author cited is correct. From the lack of radar to the cancelation of the fighter jets

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  33. Geoff Snelling

    The TSR 2 was destroyed by Harold Wilson in conjuncttion with Mary Goldring of the Telegraph and Solly Zukereman
    Read Pheonix into Ashes by Max Hastings and Death of the TSR 2 by Roland Beamont.
    They then convinced to buy the F111 which we paid as taxpayers for and never received or flew in the RAF !!!for
    If it hadn.t been for the French Harold’s lot would also have scrapped Concofrd

    • Keith

      I agree with Geoff Snelling, as one who worked on TSR2’s equipment and witnessed the first flight. Political left wing incompetance and lack of any sense. Equipment, weapons and engines lived on for many years. SWilson simply sold out to the USA.

    • Robert Hardy

      They might have done and on what grounds would that not have been a good decision? The fact that today, 50 years after Concorde’s development we do not have supersonic transport aircraft says it all.

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