Blue Steel nuclear missile, Rolls-Royce Derby, 2012
Blue Steel nuclear missile, Rolls-Royce Derby, 2012

During the Second World War many young British scientists were recruited to work on military projects, the most famous of which were radar (initially called radio location by the British), jet aircraft and the atomic bomb. After the war ended some of them moved into other areas of science, including the team behind the Manchester ‘Baby’ computer. Others remained in defence research establishments which expanded rapidly as the Cold War took shape, or worked on defence projects for private firms. During the 1940s and 1950s British defence research expanded rapidly with a host of new aircraft and missile projects alongside the development of an independent nuclear deterrent which followed the United States’ decision to withdrew collaboration after the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (the McMahon Act). In 1957 a defencewhite paper produced by Duncan Sandys signalled a new direction in strategic thinking and led to the consolidation and cancellation of many projects. Further cancellations during the 1960s, notably the Blue Streak missile and the TSR2 aircraft proved controversial and Harold Wilson’s Labour government sought to move Britain’s scientific and technological resources away from defence and into the civil sector. This effort was only partially successful but some developments that originated in defence research establishments, including liquid crystal displays and carbon fibre, were successful. The high costs associated with research and development of weapons systems has ensured that many subsequent major projects have been carried out in collaboration either with the United States or with European partners, and that UK government defence research capacity has been significantly reduced. Defence projects, however, continue to employ a significant proportion of British scientists and engineers and UK defence export sales in 2011 placed the country second only to the United States in the international sale of defence and security equipment.

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