With the German V-2 rocket bringing about the dawn of a new era in warfare, there were military analysists who could see that guided missile technology would eventually make strategic aircraft vulnerable, but development of such missiles was proving difficult, and fast and high flying bombers were likely to serve on for years to come before there was a need for something better. The need for massed formations of bombers would be made unnecessary if a single bomber could carry weaponry capable of destroying an entire city or military installation. For the program to become a reality it would have to be a large bomber, since afterall the first generation of nuclear weapons were large and heavy. Such a large and advanced bomber would be expensive on a unit basis, but would also be produced in much smaller quantities. With the rise of the Soviet threat and the arrival of the Cold War, British military planners realized the need to modernize Great Britain's forces. Furthermore, the United Kingdom's uncertain military relationship with the United States, particularly in the immediate postwar years when American sentiments of isolationism made a short-lived comeback, led the UK to conclude it needed its own strategic nuclear strike force.
This finalized request went to most of the United Kingdom's major aircraft manufacturers with the Handley Page and Avro firms both coming up with very advanced designs for the RAF's bomber competition. The design proposals would ultimately become the crescent winged Handley Page Victor and the delta winged Avro Vulcan respectively. The Air Staff decided to award devlopment and production contracts to both companies as insurance against one of the designs being deemed a failure. Work on the Victor began in November 1947 and the Vulcan in January 1948. As a further insurance measure against both radical designs failing, in July 1947 the Air Ministry issued Specification B.9/48 written around Vickers-Armstrongs' more conservative design, which would later be named Valiant and work on this project began in April 1948. In August 1947 the Short Brothers PLC aerospace company also received a contract for the Short Sperrin SA.4 based on the earlier less-stringent Specification B.14/4 with work beginning in November 1947.
The Short Sperrin would ultimately be cancelled in late 1949, but work on the three new aircraft now christened the 'V Bombers' continued. The term V Bomber was developed and used for the Royal Air Force as all the names of the new aircraft all started with the letter "V" and which were known collectively as the V-class. While more expensive than the American approach of building one bomber design per category, the RAF insisted on having multiple choices. Air Chief Marshal Sir John Slessor came to believe that had the Royal Air Force been forced into choosing among the three British bombers under development in the late 1930: the Avro Manchester, Short Stirling, and Handley Page Halifax it would have utlimately chosen the wrong one and hindered Britain's ability to employ an effective nuclear deterrent.
The development of the V Bomber force was also seen as a measure of gaining British military independence from it's American ally, the primary nation that dominated NATO.
The Vickers Valiant took its first flight in 1951 and went into full scaleproduction as the first V Bomber in 1955. The Valiant entered RAF service in 1955, followed by the Avro Vulcan in 1956 and the Handley Page Victor in April 1958, with the first Valiant squadron, No. 138 Squadron RAF standing up at RAF Gaydon in 1955, and the first Vulcan squadron, No. 83, standing up at RAF Waddington in May 1957. The first operational Victor squadron was No. 10 Squadron RAF Cottesmore in April 1958. The Valiant which entered service first was equipped with nuclear weapons supplied by the United States under Project E, which supplemented the British Blue Danube and later Red Beard weapons systems. The American weapons supplied under Project E were not available for the RAF to use as part of the UK's national nuclear deterrent; only British owned weapons could be utilized for that purpose. Although often referred to as part of the V Force, the Valiants were actually assigned to SACEUR as part of Britain's Tactical Bomber Force, although remaining nominally part of the RAF Bomber Command. The Vulcan and Victor were armed with British built bombs such as the Blue Danube, Red Beard, Violet Club the Interim Megaton Weapon and Yellow Sun of both versions, the Mk1 and Mk.2.
Particular attention and emphasis was placed on the quick reaction and high maneuverability of the V Force aircraft, especially the Vulcan model B Mk. 2. The Vulcan in particular was specifically designed for the quick reaction response mission. The bomber could start all four of it's Olympus turbojet engines simultaneously with little ground support equipment necessary when remotely deployed to one of its dispersal airfields; and, at readiness state: 15 (fifteen minute alert), it would be airborne from less than 5000 feet of runway. The Avro Vulcan would never be caught on the ground, or be in need of one of the few, conspicuous, 10,000 foot runways that the American B-47 Stratjet or B-52 Stratofortress required for a fully fueled and loaded take-off. The Vulcan also did not need immediate or intermediate aerial refueling, after a fully loaded take off, needlessly delaying the execution of a strike mission. From the day of its deployment in the deterrent force, an on alert Vulcan was ready to launch, and strike, limited only by the readiness state established by her crew.
In service the V Force would have been capable of destroying both area and high value point targets including air bases, command centers and ground forces staging areas hours before they could be attacked by NATO or Strategic Air Command's long range bomber forces. RAF Bomber Command attrition attacks against air defense positions in Warsaw Pact nations and European Russia alone by the V-Force (in prosecuting their initial attacks upon the Soviet Union) would be decisive in ensuring that NATO and SAC follow on forces attacks would be successful in achieving the destruction of Soviet and Warsaw Pact targets. This “one-two-punch” by the UK’s RAF Bomber Command first; and then, NATO/SAC second; was the heart of the nuclear retaliatory attack strategy for the West in the early to mid Cold War period.
The immediate destruction of these targets, at the outset of a military campaign in western Europe would have had a two-fold benefit to NATO and the West in the defense of Western Europe. First, no Soviet/Warsaw Pact tactical follow on land-force reserves at Corps or Army-Group strength would have survived the RAF V Force tactical nuclear strikes in European Russia and the Warsaw Pact border states. Therefore, a Soviet “rush to the Channel” the perceived military advance from Western Poland & East German staging areas would have been denied the follow on forces which would have made the success of such an armored thrust possible. V Force Tactical Air elements would have destroyed both the forces in being, along with the communications infrastructure including bridges, roads, railways, air bases which would be necessary to support such a tactical movement. As such, the V Force by having the capability of precision tactical air medium bombardment effectively deterred the dominant armored overrun strategy, of the massed and massive Soviet & Warsaw Pact armies, which in theory, could have overwhelmed the vastly outnumbered NATO ground forces of central Europe in a surprise ground attack which did not give away tactical surprise, by use of organic tactical air support. This is why the V Force was extensively dedicated to radar navigation bombing and precision strike operations. In a theoretical nuclear war environment the V Force would attrit itself against the air defenses of high value point target complexes in European Russia. It would expend itself against air defense radar installallations, command & control centers; and air defense missile and aircraft bases. Once these targets had been identified, they would have been subject to what in essence would have been combined tactical nuclear weapons attacks by the V Force until they had all been identified and/or destroyed.
A White Paper produced by the Royal Air Force for the British government in 1961 theorized and claimed that the RAF's nuclear force was capable of destroying key Soviet cities such as Moscow and Kiev well before bomber aircraft from the United States' Strategic Air Command had entered Soviet airspace, "taking into account Bomber Command’s ability to be on target in the first wave several hours in advance of the main SAC force operating from bases in the mainland United States." Throughout the early stages of the Cold War, NATO relied on the Royal Air Forceas the primary force to threaten key cities in European Russia. RAF leadership concluded that the V Bomber force was capable of killing eight million Soviet citizens and wounding another eight million before American bombers had even reached their targets. At the time they entered service all three V bombers were capable of altitudes that put them effectively out of reach of the then contemporary cannon armed Soviet interceptors such as the Mikoyan Gurevich designed MiG-15 Fagot, MiG-17 Fresco, and later MiG-19 Famer.
In its early years, the British V bomber force relied on the concept of aircraft dispersal to escape the effects of an enemy attack on their main bases. There were 26 such bases in the late 1950s, in addition to the ten main bases: RAF Coningsby, RAF Cottesmore, RAF Finningley, RAF Gaydon, RAF Honington, RAF Marham, RAF Scampton, RAF Waddington, RAF Wittering (HQ RAF Bomber Command) and RAF Wyton; a total of 36 bases available for the V bomber force. In times of heightened international tension the V bomber force, already loaded with their nuclear weapons, would be flown to the dispersal bases where they could be kept at a few minutes readiness to take off, the bases being situated around the United Kingdom in such a way that a nuclear strike by an attacking state could not be guaranteed to completely knock out Britain's ability to retaliate. Apart from deployment to the bases during exercises, the most notably use was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when at one point Avro Vulcans were lined up on the runways with engines running, at two minutes notice to take-off and proceed to their allocated targets.
All of the V Bombers would see active service in the RAF at least once albeit with conventional bombs rather than nuclear devices. The Vickers Valiant would see action in the Suez Crisis in 1956, the Handley Page Victor in the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation of 1962 through 1966, and the most famous the Avro Vulcan during the publicized Black Buck Raids in the Falklands War long after the strategic nuclear role had been passed over to the Royal Navy. In the deployment of nuclear weapons, only the Vickers Valiant would drop a nuclear device, as part of British tests.
Upon entering RAF service all three V bombers were initially painted in an overall silver finish, with the prominent under-nose H2S radomes on the Valiant and Vulcan left in black, however, this silver finish was later changed to one of anti-flash white, the RAF roundels being adjusted in shade, and made paler, to minimize the absorption of energy from the flash of a detonating nuclear device.
The development of effective anti-aircraft missiles capable of reaching extremely high altitudes by the Soviet Union for bringing down enemy aircraft made the deterrent threat delivered from bombers flying at high altitudes increasingly ineffective. In 1963 the British government decided to redevelop the use of the V bombers from high altitude strike platforms to performing low altitude operations instead. With the cancellation of the Blue Streak missile program and the cancellation of the American Skybolt system and with the Blue Steel missile already in service, six squadrons of Vulcan B2s were re-assigned to the low-level penetration role where they would operate at altitudes of 200 feet and lower and were re-equipped with the WE.177B strategic laydown bomb from 1966 until it was decided that deploying nuclear weapons by missile was more feasible and the Vulcans were replaced in the strategic nuclear strike role in 1969 by the Polaris missile to be launched from the Royal Navy's nuclear submarine fleet. The WE.177 equipped Vulcans were supplemented by the two Victor squadrons equipped with Blue Steel weapons since modified for low-level launch that continued to serve on in the strategic delivery role until 1968 ended.
In the low-level role, which had originally been intended to be performed by the cancelled BAC TSR-2, the V Force were considered by Air Staff planners to be largely immune from interception, with Soviet air defenses being assessed as having no significant interception capability below about 1,500 feet. Any remaining threats were deemed to be coming from the Soviet SA-3 low level surface to air missile, which resulted in flight planners taking great care to route low flying aircraft around known SA-3 missile sites. As a result of this maneuver, individual aircraft were calculated by operational planners to have a 90-95% chance of successfully delivering their weapon on the assigned targets. Although subsequently relieved of their role as the deliverer of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent, the Vulcan squadrons continued to serve with the same WE.177B weapon in a low-level penetration role assigned to SACEUR for use in a tactical role in Western Europe. Six squadrons of Vulcans were still assigned this role with the WE.177 weapon in 1981. The last four remaining squadrons were about to disband in 1982 when called upon to assist in conflict in the South Atlantic: the Falklands.
With the change to low level operations the anti flash white scheme was altered to a disruptive pattern of grey and green upper surfaces, with light grey under surfaces. After reports from the Red Flag exercises in Nevada in the late 1970s that the light grey under surfaces became highly visible against the ground when the aircraft banked steeply at the low altitudes it was assigned to, the disruptive pattern was later continued to include the under surfaces as well on all Vulcans.
The Valiant was the first of the V Bombers to be removed from service as a nuclear bomber; taking on the role of an aerial refueling tanker and performing low level attack and photographic reconnaissance. Structural fatigue problems due to the transfer to low-level operations meant the Valiants were removed from service completely by 1965. The Victors were then converted to replace the Valiants as aerial refueling tankers. Only the Vulcan alone of the threesome, retained a nuclear delivery role until the end of their planned service life scheduled for 1982. The short extension as tankers until 1984 was an unexpected extension to meet operational emergencies. In addition to the roles they were designed for, all three V Bombers served as air to air refueling platforms at one time or another; the Valiant was the RAF's first large scale tanker. As a means of replacing the loss of the Valiant, Victor B.1s were converted into the AAR role. When the Victor was withdrawn from service as a bomber, a number of B.2s were then converted into tankers. Finally, due to delays in the entry into service of the TriStar, six Vulcan B.2s were converted into tankers, and served from 1982 to 1984.