This has been an exciting week in terms of progress towards armageddon. With NATO’s help, the Ukrainian military got some old Soviet-era cruise missiles airborne, and flew them hundreds of kilometers across Russia. One of them exploded over the Engels 2 air force base, where nuclear bombers and their hydrogen bombs are stored. Two Russian bombers were damaged, and three people on the ground were killed.
Meanwhile, back in the Land of Freedom, Northrop Grumann proudly “unveiled” the US’ latest nuclear bomber, the B21. I remember the televised “unveiling” of the B2 bomber, during George HW Bush’s twelve-year presidency, and this was one was even lamer. Turns out the miracle B21 has never flown, and won’t be airworthy for a while yet. And also turns out that its “stealth” coatings aren’t so stealthy, so the 21 won’t be able to travel to dangerous war zones, and will instead fire its missiles from thousands of kilometers’ safe distance. And also turns out that, being a miniature copy of the previous B2 flying wing, it doesn’t need a pilot! So there will be few Top Gun/Maverick job opportunities. The B21, built in mouth-wateringly small quantities due to its expense, will function – when the time comes to destroy the planet – as a drone.
This will be a drag for Tom Cruise, and the producers and directors of those movies, perhaps, but they at least will be secure in their New Zealand compounds.
As this is a little discouraging, perhaps, let me take you back in time, to the 1960s and 1970s, when our insane and inadequate leaders were also planning to embroil us in a fiery war of nuclear conflagration – but at least they were doing it with style!
First up, is the AVRO Vulcan, a British nuclear bomber from the 1950s and 60s. The above models are painted brilliant white, in order to reflect the flash of blasts in the vicinity. Royal Air Force pilots were instructed to wear an eye patch. If they were blinded by a nuclear blast, they could simply remove the eye patch, and use the other eye. Brilliant!
The AVRO Vulcan was designed to attack Russia. It was intended to fire rocket missiles at Moscow and other cities or bases, then swing back around to land in Germany, or England, not long after the missiles hit. The AVRO Vulcan is a famously-unreliable aircraft. On its “unveiling” in 1956, the first Vulcan flew around the world, then crashed while trying to land at Heathrow Airport. The pilots ejected safely, but four crew members in the back (including the Avro rep with his clipboard) were killed. Another protoype Vuclan crashed at a British air show in 1958, killing all four crew members and three people on the ground. And the same year a Vulcan crashed outside Detroit, killing all its crew.
Two Vulcans crashed in 1959 – the first wrecks without fatalities. In 1963, the Vulcan took delivery of its intended payload, the British “Blue Steel” nuclear bomb, and another Vulcan flew into terrain during a training exercise in Scotland, with 100% fatalities. In 1964, there were three more crashes – two more crews died. 1965-68 saw four more Vulcans crash, with multiple fatalities. in one instance a Blue Steel “missile training round” was on board the aircraft, which was totally destroyed by fire, on the runway at RAF Scampton, in Lincolnshire.
One might expect, as more of these planes were built, and flown, and loaded with nuclear bombs, that their reliability would improve. But it did not. Vulcans continued to crash on landing, and to incinerate the guys in the back.
Such a catalogue of carnage, wreckage, blazing jet fuel… It sounds like Blackhawks, or Blazin’ Air Combat. Yet none of this happened during a war. These disasters were all training exercises or air show events. Like the F-35, the AVRO Vulcan was an expensive and deadly blind alley of useless aircraft design. It killed numerous people, all of whom were on “our” side. Unfit for purpose, it ceased to have a purpose when President Kennedy cancelled the “Skybolt” missile, which was supposed to replace the highly-unreliable Blue Steel missile.
The Blue Steel missiles were withdrawn from service in 1970. The AVRO Vulcan could have been junked at the same time: up to this point it had done nothing but fly around the world and crash. But military boys will have their toys, and so the British nuclear bomber fluttered on for another decade. The seventies saw four more crashes, with multiple fatalities: one Vulcan broke up over a Maltese town, showering it with burning wreckage. Then, in 1982, came its salvation: Margaret Thatcher’s war to save the Falkland Islands.
At last, the Vulcan had a real mission! Several were prepared for the long flight to the South Atlantic, refuelling en route. This was apparently a world record in terms of distance travelled to drop a bomb on someone. And a couple of Vulcans made it all the way there, and did indeed drop several bombs. Unfortunately, returning from its first actual war experience, one Vulcan broke and had to make an emergency landing in Brazil. When it attempted to ditch its two remaining missiles, only one of them would fire. The Vulcan and its crew were detained by the Brazilian authorities until the end of the war.
Now, if the AVRO Vulcan seems an absurdist waste of money, human life, and fossil fuels, at least it had a sleek, original design. The same cannot be said of the Russian nuclear war-fighting craft seen below.
Behold the Lun Ekranoplan!
This was a big, heavy, ocean-going aircraft which flew just a few meters above the water, and was officially classed as a boat. At the front are its engines: eight turbofans, capable for pushing the massive creation forward at 550 kilometers an hour. Behind, and above, the jet engines are six missile launching tubes, intended to house conventional or nuclear cruise missiles with a range of 100-240 km.
The Ekranoplan sported various cannons, fore and aft, and had huge transport capacity, but its primary purpose was to be an aircraft carrier-killer. With a range of 2000 km, evading Radar due to its low altitude, it was to bear down on the fleet like a levitating whale and launch all six missiles, then – like Vulcan – turn around and go home. Designed in the 1960s, the Ekranoplan didn’t go into production till 1987, at the tail end of First Cold War. Only one was completed.
En route to its final resting place, a tourist attraction in Dagestan, the Ekranoplan was beached in 2020. Last year it was successfully towed ashore.