The United Kingdom’s guided weapons industry had its origins in a number of early experiments conducted during World War II by various establishments. Progress in this work was assisted by an agreement on the transfer of classified U.S. weapons design data that was the result of the Tizard Mission, which visited Washington in 1940.
The first formal staff requirement for guided weapons issued by the Admiralty Signals Establishment in late 1943 proposed a surface-to-air missile (SAM) that would be guided by a radar beam. The Guided Anti-Aircraft Projectile Committee, an interservice committee, was formed in March 1944 to control and direct antiaircraft projectile research. The operational requirements of the army’s Anti- Aircraft Command (later transferred to the RAF) and the Admiralty were sufficiently compatible to be jointly investigated, and preliminary work eventually gave rise to the Sea Slug, Bloodhound, and Thunderbird missile systems. Toward the end of hostilities, the Tizard Agreement was reviewed by the United States and the flow of new scientific information was curtailed. This had a serious effect on the progress of British guided weapons development.
By the end of World War II, the British economy was on the verge of collapse and the sudden termination of Lend- Lease forced an immediate reappraisal of substantial defense spending. The Chiefs of Staff made the assumption that there would be no war for the next 10 years. Yet a number of guided weapons research projects were initiated. In the light of the perceived threat from atomic weapons and the realization that the densely populated country might not be capable of surviving a nuclear conflict, priority was given to Fighter Command and antiaircraft defense. In 1948, the Ministry of Supply decided to curtail research into long-range missiles to concentrate on the defensive missile program.
In January 1950, the U.S.-U.K. transfer of guided weapons technology was formalized by the Burns-Templer Agreement, which provided for the full and frank interchange of military information and guided weapons technology. The first batch of information on new U.S. weapons projects arrived during the second half of 1950, and weapons such as the Terrier II, Hawk, and Sparrow missiles were assessed to determine whether they could be accommodated within the U.K. guided weapons program.
The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 came as an unpleasant surprise to strategic planners. A drastic rearmament program was initiated, and the defense budget was approximately doubled, assisted by U.S. aid. Although this was a prudent precaution in the light of international events, it exerted a strain on the economy that would have unfortunate consequences before the end of the decade.
In 1955, Sir Anthony Eden initiated a wide-ranging review of defense strategy with a view toward reducing defense spending. Duncan Sandys continued the review through 1957, when a famous white paper on defense was published. It placed great emphasis on the nuclear deterrent, initially delivered by V-bombers and later by the Blue Streak missile fired from underground silos. V-bomber bases were to be protected initially by fighter defenses and later solely by a surface-to-air missiles system. This doctrine was discredited within a few years as it became clear that Britain could not afford to pay for the research and technology necessary to make the deterrent sufficiently safe from attack.
In the late 1950s, the projects that had been initiated in the 1940s began to enter service. The Fairey Fireflash was the first air-to-air guided weapon to be deployed by the RAF, albeit on a very limited scale in August 1957. The Fireflash was a radar beam–rider and had a limited capability against piston-engine bombers.
The first fully operational guided weapon to be deployed was the Bristol Bloodhound SAM, in 1958. It used semiactive Doppler radar guidance and was typically deployed with four mobile launchers controlled by target-illuminating radar. An improved Bloodhound Mk.II entered service in 1964. The Thunderbird SAM debuted with the British army in 1960 and had a similar performance to the Bloodhound.
The first effective air-to-air missile was the de Havilland Firestreak. It was a rear-aspect weapon and was deployed by the Royal Navy and RAF in August 1958. The later Red Top was based on the Firestreak Mk.IV. It was faster, had a longer range, and was capable of all-aspect homing against supersonic targets. It entered service in 1964.
The Armstrong-Whitworth Sea Slug was a naval SAM. Guidance was by radar beam, and it had solid fuel strap-on boosters and a solid fuel sustainer. It entered service in 1962 aboard County-class destroyers after a protracted development period.
The Avro Blue Steel nuclear missile entered service in December 1962 and was carried by Vulcan and Victor V-bombers. It was designed to deliver a nuclear warhead to a target 100 miles from launch using inertial guidance.
The de Havilland Blue Streak was intended to be an intermediate- range ballistic missile. Development relied heavily on U.S. assistance, as the design was based on the Atlas. Following extreme pressure from the treasury, the Blue Streak program was canceled in April 1960 in favor of the U.S. Skybolt missile (which was subsequently canceled by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in November 1962).
In 1977, a long period of industrial amalgamation concluded with the formation of British Aerospace (BAe), a large entity that included every remaining British aerospace company with the exception of Short.
The BAe Skyflash missile was the only successful radar-guided air-to-air missile to enter service in the twentieth century and was an adaptation of the Raytheon AIM-7E2 Sparrow with a new monopulse semiactive seeker. It entered service with the RAF in 1980.
Many other missile systems were developed and entered service between the late 1960s and 1980s, including the Sea Dart naval SAM (1967), the Sea Wolf naval SAM (1979), the land-based point-defense Rapier (1970), and the antiship Sea Skua (1982). All of these weapons were used during the Falklands War of 1982 with reasonable success.
In 1996, BAe Dynamics and Matra Defense joined forces to create a new defense company. Matra BAe Dynamics has an extensive and very capable product portfolio and research capability and at the turn of the century is developing the Storm Shadow conventional stand-off missile and the Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile for the RAF.