Crashed in Iran: Final flight of Vulcan XJ781

In 1955, the UK entered in to an alliance that with the benefit of hindsight seemed doomed to failure. It was known under a few names, it initially being referred to as the Baghdad Pact or the Middle East Treaty Organisation (METO) but was most commonly referred to as the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO). The origins of the alliance can be traced back to a year prior when Turkey and Pakistan signed a treaty of mutual cooperation on defence matters. Encouraged by the United States in 1955, a new agreement was penned that added Iraq, Iran and perhaps most significantly the United Kingdom however the US itself was held back from formal involvement until 1958.

In a nutshell, CENTO’s role was modelled along the lines of NATO in Western Europe with the goal being to establish a series of militarily powerful countries on the Soviet Union’s southern flank and to counter any communist revolutionary forces emerging in the Middle East. It was headquartered in Baghdad, Iraq until 1958 when Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Qasim of the Iraqi Army overthrew and killed the last King of Iraq, King Faisal II. Iraq then withdrew from CENTO and the headquarters was moved to Ankara in Turkey.

The 1960s were a tough time for the organisation. It’s existence was heavily criticised for its lack of action to help curb the first Indo-Pakistan War, the Six Day War, tensions between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus and it’s seeming lack of ability to prevent Communist revolutionary forces rising up across the Middle East. Even the UK and US, who should have been its biggest supporters, often bypassed it when dealing with specific issues and countries in the region. The US had to especially tread carefully when dealing with CENTO because of the strong pro-Israel lobby in Washington which viewed the alliance with suspicion.

For the UK, its military bases on Cyprus were of high importance for the alliance with the RAF’s Near East Air Force providing a nuclear strike capability with Avro Vulcan B.2s from early 1969. The aircraft were operated by Nos.9 and 35 Squadrons out of RAF Akrotiri which was by then the only RAF station left on the island after RAF Nicosia was forced to close in 1966 to become Cyprus International Airport.

One of the advantages of being a member of CENTO was that British military units could undertake deployments to member states which for RAF crews allowed them to gain invaluable experience operating over the Middle East. It was not uncommon for the long range Vulcans to fly to Iran or Turkey on goodwill flights or to train with their respective air forces and one place they would regularly visit was Shiraz Air Base in south-west Iran.

Avro Vulcan XJ781 B.2On May 23rd 1973, one such visitor to Shiraz was Avro Vulcan B.2 XJ781 operating with No.9 Squadron which, having completed a routine training mission turned towards the Iranian base for landing. In this instance, the usual crew of five were joined by a sixth man, an officer from the Imperial Iranian Air Force who was aboard acting as an observer. This was not uncommon but often proved problematic for the British crews as the observers almost never spoke any English leading to safety briefings being conducted with pointing at things hoping he understood. The observers also liked to smoke during the flight.

All had gone well until it came time to lower the undercarriage ready for landing. While the nose and starboard undercarriage legs lowered successfully, the port leg refused to budge despite the efforts of the crew. Low on fuel, the crew had no choice but to attempt an emergency landing at Shiraz. The ground personnel at Shiraz immediately went in to action and began spraying down foam across one of the two runways at the base in an attempt to cushion the port wing when it inevitably made contact with the ground and reduce the chance of fire. With the runway sufficiently doused down, the aircraft made its landing attempt.

The Vulcan touched down on its starboard undercarriage with pilot Flight Lieutenant John Derrick fighting to keep the wings level before the nosewheels made contact with the ground. The aircraft ran on just the starboard and nose wheels for a short while before the port wing was lowered as carefully as possible on to the ground. With the wing scraping along the foam-soaked runway it began pulling the aircraft to the left, sending it veering off the runway and across an adjacent gully that was not marked on any maps of the airfield. The nosewheel fell in to the gully and was sheered off followed quickly by the starboard undercarriage leaving the Vulcan to slam down on to its belly before finally sliding to a halt. As the aircraft slid across the ground, the bomb aimer’s window in the blister under the nose shattered sending clouds of dust in to the lower deck of the cockpit while the navigator’s table collapsed temporarily trapping the two navigator’s by their knees. Aside from the bruised knees, the five crew and the Iranian observer were all unhurt and with the crew hatch stuck against the ground they left the aircraft through the canopy which had been ejected after the undercarriage collapsed.

Avro Vulcan XJ781 Iran Shiraz crash

Flight Lieutenant John Derrick in front of the crashed XJ781 at Shiraz (Courtesy James Rich)

A maintenance team from Akrotiri was flown out aboard a Hercules cargo plane and immediately declared the crash as a Category 5(C) meaning it was beyond repair or salvage. The Iranians agreed to accept the airframe as scrap but insisted that British engineers familiar with the aircraft remove key military components. Thus, after twelve years of service XJ781 ended its days being broken up on a dusty Iranian airfield.

In many ways the crash of such a symbol of British military power as a V-Bomber symbolised the ailing position Britain found itself in when dealing with CENTO. A year after the crash, Turkey invaded Cyprus in defence of Turkish Cypriots following a military coup organised by the Greek Junta. This forced Britain to withdraw all military support for Turkey and consequently CENTO itself which from then on existed only on paper. In 1979, whatever remained of CENTO was dissolved in the wake of the Iranian Revolution.


Thanks to James Rich, Flight Lieutenant John Derrick’s nephew.

 

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Is the British nuclear deterrent relevant in the 21st century?

 

They sail beneath the waves almost totally unseen carrying more firepower than was unleashed in World War Two. The nuclear ballistic missile submarine or SSBN is the ultimate safeguard from direct attack by a foreign power. Not knowing where one of these Trident nuclear missile armed behemoths is at any one time means that an enemy country cannot launch an attack without sustaining unthinkable losses to their own people and national infrastructure – a concept known quite aptly in military circles as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).

Vanguard-class nuclear submarine trident

It is truly stomach wrenching to contemplate just how devastating these vessels potentially are to humanity itself and it is that fact above all others that has spurred the campaign for nuclear disarmament. In Britain, the country that played a big role in developing America’s atomic bomb and the third independent nuclear power to rise, the lobby for nuclear disarmament has seen a powerful ally take prominence in British politics in the form of the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn has been a prolific anti-nuclear campaigner for many years and when he was elected to leader of the Labour Party he made it abundantly clear that if elected he planned to take the first steps to the nuclear disarmament of the Royal Navy. Corbyn even went as far as to remove his shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle, in a cabinet reshuffle because supposedly she was not against the nuclear deterrent unlike her replacement, Emily Thornbury, who is much more vocally opposed to Britain’s nuclear submarines.

In an, a post on his website entitled Nuclear Madness he says;

“Nobody is made more secure by this insane waste of resources on destruction.”

Vanguard-class nuclear submarine trident2Corbyn’s Labour Party is not alone in British politics with their anti-nuclear stance. The Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and the Green Party are also firmly against a nuclear armed Britain. However, David Cameron’s ruling Conservative Party disagrees and have begun the process of replacing the Trident nuclear missile-armed Vanguard-class submarines with a fleet of three new Successor-class vessels believing the nuclear deterrence is key to Britain’s security.

Clearly these are fundamentally opposite opinions and this has reignited the debate with more passion than ever before. So the question becomes; is the nuclear deterrence relevant in the 21st century especially in light of the threat from the Islamic State terror group which the average person on the street views as the most immediate threat to their way of life?

To begin to answer this question one must first look at the history of the nuclear deterrence itself which can be traced back to work carried out in British laboratories before the Second World War. Like America and Germany, Britain was carrying out the ground work that would ultimately lead to nuclear weapons which Britain viewed as a way of safeguarding her empire against the ever increasing threat from Germany, Japan, Italy and the Soviet Union all of whom were expanding at the time. Winston Churchill wrote of the potential of nuclear weapons as a deterrence in the 1930s even though they were still a fantasy at that time. When war broke out in 1939 Britain lacked the resources to continue the work on her own but when America joined the fray in 1941 the scientists involved were transferred to the United States to work on the Manhattan Project which would lead to the world’s first atomic bombs which ended World War II when they were used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which resulted in almost 200,000 deaths.

After the war, Britain expected to be repaid for its part in developing its ally’s superweapon with atomic weapons for their own forces built with US support. However, the United States refused and pulled all support for Britain’s nuclear weapons program wanting to establish a nuclear monopoly. The British scientists returned to Britain and were instructed to work on the first British atomic bomb using the experience they had gained in the United States.

vickers valiant nuclear testBritain detonated its first atomic weapon on October 3rd 1952 and were soon fielding a fleet of bombers for the Royal Air Force to deliver them on to a target should World War III break out. Realising they had lost their monopoly by the 1950s the US relaxed its policy and began supplying British forces with their more advanced nuclear weapons with which to square off with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. By the late 1950s, Britain and the US developed a joint operational plan for the use of nuclear weapons against a Soviet invasion of Western Europe but the bombers that carried them were becoming increasingly vulnerable to advanced Soviet fighters and surface-to-air weapons. Therefore, the two countries began developing the Skybolt missile which was a very long range nuclear-armed weapon which could be fired by the bombers far from the target. However, when President John F. Kennedy arrived at the White House he pulled the plug on the project which left Britain’s nuclear bombers on the verge of becoming obsolete.

In order to keep Britain in the nuclear game with the United States which was (and remains) important both strategically and politically to Washington, Kennedy offered to sell Polaris submarine-launched nuclear missiles for Britain to put in its own force of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Thus the Royal Navy took over the nuclear deterrence role from the Royal Air Force in the late 1960s. By the 1980s the Polaris-armed submarines were in need of replacement and this led to Britain purchasing the UGM-133 Trident II submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for use in four new Vanguard-class submarines.

HMS Vnegeance Royal Navy

Despite the end of the Cold War the submarines continued to carry Britain’s nuclear deterrent through the nineties and the first decade of the 21st century but are now fast approaching the end of their useful lives and need replacing themselves which has led to the current debate in London. Aside from their moral implications, the cost of replacing these three vessels is one of the biggest sources for opposition with varying figures being thrown around by those for and against David Cameron’s plans. Any figures for the Successor-class at the moment are speculative but in 2014 the independent Trident Commission estimated the lifetime cost (building and operation) of a Trident replacement as being at least £100 billion. With Britain still recovering from the economic recession that blighted Europe and North America almost eight years ago it is easy to see why even leaders of the British armed forces are starting to voice their opposition with Britain’s conventional forces looking increasingly stretched having to tackle Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Libya as well as maintain garrisons on the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar. To put this figure in to perspective it is the equivalent sum to how much it would cost to build approximately 95 Type 45 destroyers or 16 Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

That is a staggering realization so just why does David Cameron and his Conservative Party feel that the need to spend that much on a weapon system that in theory will never be used? Just what is the threat to Britain in 2016 that justifies such an expense?

The first answer that springs to mind is of course, Russia. After the initial honeymoon period of the post-Cold War years, the rise of Vladimir Putin in Moscow and the explosion of Russian nationalism has seen Russia projecting its influence beyond its borders once more to such an extent that it would not be inaccurate to say that we are truly in the grip of “Cold War II”. Russian successes in Georgia and the Crimea have only encouraged Putin further leading to his boldest step yet; putting Russian forces in to Syria to support President Assad whom the west wants removed. This has had consequences beyond Syria’s borders with British aircraft (below) and warships playing cat-and-mouse with their Russian counterparts in the Baltic and North Atlantic while the war of words becomes more bitter.

RAF Typhoon Tu-160 BlackjackBut just how far is Putin willing to push things with the west to achieve his aims? Excluding the incident earlier this year in which a Turkish fighter shot down a Russian Su-24 strike aircraft near the Turkey-Syria border Putin has been very careful to avoid a direct confrontation with the western powers regarding Syria. If one looks at the situation with Russia regarding Syria in a Cold War context, then both sides know the possible consequences of escalating the situation in Syria. While it is not openly admitted, the fact that the United States, Britain, France and Russia all have nuclear weapons and all have interests in Syria is what has kept these powers from reacting to one another militarily. If we take the Su-24 shootdown but without the risk of nuclear weapons, then it is likely that Russia would have responded to Turkey with military force plunging Europe in to another massive conventional war. If proof was ever needed that this could happen, you need only remember that World War I began with one man armed only with a handgun and a strong sense of nationalism.

But just as nuclear weapons have prevented open conflict with Russia thus far they have also created the problem of just what the west can do about Putin’s actions in Syria. No one wants the situation to escalate to the point of direct confrontation but with Russian forces firmly embedded in the country to meet Putin’s aims then the west is clearly in a weak position. Only time will tell how this chapter of history will ultimately play out.

Kim Jong Un nuclear missileBeyond Russia other potential nuclear threats to Britain come from China despite the recent economic progress made between London and Beijing. China is increasingly locking horns with its old enemies of Taiwan and Japan both of whom are supported by the United States and therefore by association, Britain. To the south of China, the “hermit kingdom” of North Korea continues to develop its nuclear weapons and missile programs (right) while India and Pakistan still stare at one another across the border with their nuclear weapons sitting ready for the final confrontation. Then of course there is the situation with Iran’s nuclear weapons program which despite having calmed down somewhat remains a source for possible conflict in the future should relations with the west worsen again. If any of these countries utilise nuclear weapons against their neighbours, then things could start happening very quickly that could see the world’s other nuclear powers dragged in leading to the potential for an apocalypse however it is this fact that has largely kept these countries in line with their weapons.

The cynic would perhaps argue that Britain and America’s nuclear weapons have not done anything to curb these developments and may even be responsible for encouraging them. The fact of the matter is however that despite efforts to stop it, nuclear proliferation is increasing around the world. When it boils down to it nuclear weapons are simply a matter of physics rather than some state secret and theoretically, any country or even a well-organized terrorist group anywhere in the world can build them if they pour enough resources and research in to making them.

So to reference Jeremy Corbyn’s statement about how safer the world would be without British nuclear weapons we have to remember that the threat remains to us from across the globe regardless. Removing the nuclear weapons capability from the British arsenal will not change that fact but retaining those weapons will mean that Britain will be able to exert its influence on the world stage when it comes to dealing with other nuclear armed countries as opposed to surrendering it to a nuclear armed ally who may not have our best interests at heart. This, coupled with the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), means that far from being a weapon system that may never be used the nuclear deterrence is in fact in constant use by its very existence.

Vanguard class

Does that justify a £100bn price tag?

That’s a question we each have to ask ourselves regarding our view of the world since as tax-payers we are funding the weapons. The debate will never go away even if Corbyn gets his wish and the weapons are dismantled; the debate will then become about resurrecting the deterrence amid a loss of political influence and/or a direct threat to national security. Whatever your views on their use in the 21st century just remember this one undeniable fact; the threat of nuclear weapons did prevent World War III throughout the years of the Cold War and if we are truly in Cold War II then surely we should retain that asset to continue to do the same.

 

BREAKING NEWS: 10 US sailors detained by Iran

Tuesday January 12th 2016
2153hrs


In the last hour it has been revealed that Iran has detained 10 US sailors after their patrol vessels were stopped in the Persian Gulf

The BBC has reported that the Iranians have informed the US that the sailors were safe and “will promptly be allowed to continue their journey”. The BBC state that the incident happened near Farsi Island after one of the ships encountered mechanical problems.

NEWS: Work begins on HMS Juffair base in Bahrain

A ceremony has been held to mark the start of construction on a new permanent Royal Navy base in the Persian Gulf. Defence Secretary Philip Hammond along with sailors from the Royal Navy minehunter HMS Bangor and support ship RFA Cardigan Bay, attended the ceremony at Mina Salman Port, Bahrain. Once operational the facility, which has been christened HMS Juffair, will be able to support continued Royal Navy deployments in the Gulf region.

Mr Hammond told the sailors and guests;

The beginning of construction work at Mina Salman Port marks a watershed moment in the UK’s commitment to the region. The presence of the Royal Navy in Bahrain is guaranteed into the future, ensuring Britain’s sustained presence east of Suez. The new facility will enable Britain to work with our allies to reinforce stability in the Gulf and beyond.

However, back in the UK the news has been met with some opposition particularly from human rights groups. A number of questions over human rights abuses in Bahrain remain unanswered and there are claims that Britain is ignoring this fact in order to establish the naval base. There are also concerns that the base may draw Britain deeper in to the growing confrontation between Bahrain and supposedly Iranian-backed extremist groups attempting to topple the Bahrain government.