UK Defence Applied Research 1945-1990

Eds. Robert Bud and Philip Gummett (1999), Cold War Hot Science: Applied Research in Britain’s Defence Laboratories 1945-1990, Harwood ISBN 90-5702-481-0


The history described in these pages is … sometimes cheering, sometimes saddening, but always worth recounting.

SirHermann Bondi FRS

Introduction: Don’t You Know There’s a War ON?

The Cold War is central to the understanding of science in the second half of the twentieth century. …

… At a central moment of the confrontation, 1967, the US National Academy of Sciences reported to the US House of Representatives on ‘applied science and technological progress’. … Among its key conclusion were that ‘studies of the history and sociology of applied sceince are important‘.

Unlike its larger US counterpart, British defence research … was conducted largely within dedicated civil service establishments, employing at its height over 30,000 scientists and administrators. … In 1959 … about 3,000 technicians and 2,000 professional scientists were employed.

[The] establishments were not simply  centres of research: they were (and are) also a reservoir of technical advice available to government, whether on the feasibility of proposals from would-be contractors, on the seriousness with technical dimensions of intelligence should be viewed, or the future of technology as a factor in strategic planning. In times of crisis they also proved to be a valuable asset, able to mobilise effort rapidly to address novel problems, or to work out how to adapt existing equipment, which has so often been found itself being used in circumstances different from those for which it had been intended. Finally, civilian spinoff has also been an important aspect of their work, even though … this has been only a secondary concern.

… Scientists came to play new roles as advisers at the highest levels: Tizard and Lindeman, .. Blackett and Jones, Zuckerman and Bernal … . Their impact was felt not only on equipment … but also in the development of tactical and strategic ideas, as the ‘Sunday Soviets’, in which the radar scientists freely brainstorm with military officers … . In short, scientists came to play a new role as colleagues and advisers of those men in Whitehall and in the field.

The postwar position

Overall, Britain remained a world leader in many fields of defence technology, and was well placed in many others. [But] Industry was concerned that an excessively military focus would detract from civilain competance. … As a 1958 … memorandum explained: ‘the aim must be also to ensure .. a fund of scientific knowledge and resources is built up which will be adequate for the development of future generations of weapons, even though their precise nature cannot yet be foreseen

The history of defence policy … until the late 1980s could be summed up as reflecting, on the one hand, the withdrawal from Empire and the definition of a new world role in the face of growing superpower strength, and on the other the search for a defence policy that would be economically sustainable. … [The] main focus of policy was a potential war against the Soviet Union, which would be fought on the north German plain. … Not until the 1982 Falklands conflict was a a major conventional campaign waged.

[The] life-expectancy of every defence review between 1945 and the mid-1960s had been a mere two and a half years. As the usual gestation period for new weapon systems was from two to four times longer than that figure, this was clearly too short. Things were to get worse in the mid-1960s, ‘with doubts and dissension developing at almost every level of British defence policy, with strategy, fundamental weapons and administrative methods all being thrown into the melting pot’. …

There developed … growing unease at managerial control of the equipment programme. Much of the blame was attributed to inter-service rivalry and the incapicity of the central Ministry of Defence to control the Service ministries and the supply agencies. A review … led to the creation of a new, more unified, Ministry of Defence from April 1964. …

By the mid 1970s … the need for further defence cuts had become imperative. … Britain’s Armed Forces were still performing a greater range of missions than any other in the world, except those of the superpowers and, possibly, France. …

An attempt to deal with these problems radically was made in 1981 … .

The Falklands and after

[British] industry and the defence research establishments played an important behind-the-scenes part. …

By 1985, all [the old] items remained on the agenda and some new ones had been added. The MInistry of Defence … underwent a major reorganisation [, partly to exploit] new opportunities for international collaboration … seing here a route to economies. [Sources] increasingly pressed the case for a greater emphasis to be placed on conventional weapons.

The [US Strategic Defense Initiative] also raised issues of cooperation within Europe. … [France] proposed … Eureka … .

By means of enormous exertion the country had retained the capacity for (relatively) autonomous development and production of a wide range of weapons systems .. . In some fields (notably VTOL, communications equipment, night vision, display systems, short-range antiaircraft missules, and computer software, to name but some), Britain’s capability could be seen to be in the front rank by world standards.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that British weapons have rarely been tested in the kind of confrontation for which they were designed … . [Hence] the jury remains out on just how effective the products of the Cold War defence equipment programme might have been.

Overview of R&D effort

The UK has … traditionally been a high spender .. . [Britain] remained, at least until the late 1980s, the clear leader of the second division, although an order of magnitude behind the superpowers … half of government expenditure went on R&D went on defence. Thre concerns would be repeated … : How could the research establishments best focus on priorities, select key affordable programmes that would benefit the military most efficiently, and maximise spinoff to the civilian economy? [A committee under] the chairmanship of Sir Solly Zuckerman [made an] urgent recommendatrion that there should be a seemless web between the definition of an operational requirement and the monitoring of a final manufacturing process.

The role of the establishments in the 1980s ands 1990s … have been restricted to those that fall most naturally to goivernment, and without which government would find it hard to act as an informed customer of the defence industries and to stay abreast of international trends. Thus, the establishments assist with the setting of specifications, perform long-range research, run certain expensive central facilities, support industrial contractors, engage in evaluation and acceptance work, and generally act as a reservoir of advice for government.

[But] in 1991 the main non-nuclear defence research establishments were moved into a more contractural relationship with the Ministry of Defence … .

In 1995 DRA underwent a 60% expansion, with the addition of test and operational analysis facilities, pluse CBDE, and was renamed the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA). {this] was the largest science and technology organistaion in Europe, with a turnover of more than £1 billion. Staff (excluding contract staff), numbered 11,700, compared with 8600 in 1995, though it was projected to fall to about 10,000 by 1997-8.


Time and time again we see the leapfrogging of offence and defence, but often all on the side of the West. [The] high level of investment in western military research and development undoubtedly stimulated research to nullify its consequences. …

The second theme in this book is the nature of applied science and technology. The focus of research … was upon entire systems, hence the importance of having access within the establishments to a wide range of cognate technologies and – critically – the capacity to integrate them … for a particular military task. [If] there really has been an information-led revolution in military affairs, together with movement towards the much-vaunted ‘system of systems’, then its foundations were laid half a century ago in the UK by the admiralty research establishments .

[Zuckerman] concluded that efficient financial management of military R&D mattered far less than choosing the right projects on which to work, and the right people to do the job.

The function of the establishments within ‘UK plc’ has … been ambivalent: pressed to contribute, yet in the nature of the innovation process not best placed to do so.


[The] essential dilemmas remain: how to maintain technological capabilities against uncertain and shifting requirements: how to organise projects so as to achieve success; how to recruit and retain the necessary staff; how to cope with the budget set; and how to contribute effectively to the wider science, technology and innovation base. These … are, it seems, inherent to the activity itself.

Some more Chapters

  • The Royal Aircraft Establishment from 1945 to Concorde
  • Rotary-Wing Aircraft
  • Ground-Based Air Defence and ABM Systems
  • Armoured Fighting Vehicles
  • Aircraft Carriers and Submarines: Naval R&D in Britain in the Mid-Cold War
  • Thermal Radiation and its Applications

Open Systems in a Closed World: Ground and Airborne Radar in the UK, 1945-90

Jon Agar and Jeff Hughes

… Through the iaspora of radar scientists and engineers who returned to and reoriented civil science after the war, and those who remained in government employment and continued the development of electronic systems for miltary purposes, and those who helped create the new electronic industries servicing both civil and military sectors, radar technology and the skills that produced it became pervasive elements of the postwar sociotechnical ensemble, part of the reason why the academic-military-industrial complex existed, and simuklateneously the ‘glue’ that held it together.

Yet … Radar technology does not exist in and of itself: it is always part of some larger system, be it the Chain Home reporting system established during the Second World War and entrenched today as air traffic control and early warning systems … . At the same time, however, it si another characteristic feature of radar that particular assemblies or subsystems might well have multiple uses. … A particular piece of radar technology could thus be deployed and made useful in various ways which depended on complex negotiations between producers (scientists and engineers at the research establishments) and operational users. It is this systemic yet flexible aspect of radar that makes it difficult to abstract the development of radar per se from the development of the wider networks in which it is designed to play a part.

In the postwar context … however, with a radically different institutional framework and a very different set of relationships between the producers and the users of radar technology, the development of these component technologies was subject to different demands and an entirely different institutional philosophy of innovation. …

[Paul Edwards] characterises the closed world as ‘a dome of technological oversight … within which every event was interpreted as part of a titanic struggle between the superpowers’. Its key themes, he argues, were ‘global surveillance and control through high-technology military power’, and the cyborg-like integration of human and machine in ‘weapon systems and strategies whose human and machine componets could function as a seamless web, even on the global scales and in the vastly compressed timescale of global nuclear war’. In this regime computers – and, we argue radars and othyer electronic devices which were linked to and through them – ‘made the closed world work simultaneously as technology, as political system, and as ideological mirage’.

… Our main conclusions centre on the relations between research establishments and service users, the trend towards integration of systems, but also thier suprising vulnerability – ‘open’, then, in several senses of the word.

A world of their own? Radar establishements and their work 1945-49

At … TRE a very particular institutional style of innovation had developed during the war, in which very close communictaion between entrepreneurial innovating scientists and potential users was a key part of the process by which new technologies cam einto beingand were put into active service. Typically, informal contacts between Service staff (whose visits to the research establishements were promoted by events such as A.P. Rowe’s celebrated ‘Sunday Soveiets’ at TRE) and scientists would lead to a two-way discussion of operational problems and suggested solutions, and of new devices and possible applications. Confluences of interest could be negotiated in this informal setting, and scientists ‘selling’ a new idea wopuld usually identify closely with the needs of a particualr user or group of users, wgho wopuld become their ‘product champion’. Authority to produce a ‘mock up’ of proposed new equipment was easily obtained, and only succesful and very promising results would usually be drawn to the attention of higher levels of management Only after many proitotypes and trials, when an innovation reached the stage of engineering for prouction, would the management of a development project become formalised. Crucially, TRE would continuen to be involved with applications as they were introduced into operational service, an importnat factor in the success of TRE in developing new systems to help counter the Nazi threat.

The best staff were not ‘back-room boys’ (e.g Frank Jones, Bernard Lovell).

   Responsive and efficient, the informality of innovation at TRE worked admirably well during the war. The close liaison between providers and users essential to the success of TRE all but ceased with the end of the wewr, howveer, when the reeqarchers in the establishments were not required to reacxt quickly to unfolding events but to work systematically within a long-term research programme. This change of approach fostered a very different philosophy of innovation, which must have been quite alien to those who had come to scientific maturity during TYRE’s war years.

Remobilisationand Rearmament: Radar develpment 1948-53

[Following the start of the Cold War, the Korean war and the establishment of NATO there was a reorganisation] stemming from concern at ‘higher levels of management that … there might be duplication and wasted effort’. [However] the organisational change … raised fundamental issues concerned with the relationships between establishemnts and ‘users’, and with the trend …  towards comprehensive integreated radar systems.

Consolidation but not unification: The Radar Research Establishment 1953-61

[The amalgamation of TRE and RRDE] was a decision [not] ‘to abolish the split of work by “user” – and the close relationship between service and establishment was and is an often-cited factor behind the succes of TRE.

[In 1953 the links between RRE and industry] were very strong. Academic links were weaker.

The Limits of Integration: Data handling, Airborne Radar and TSR-2

The expansion of research at RRE in the wake of Sputnik was first accommodated within the organsiational structure imposed in the 1953 merger. {in 1962 a further reorganisation took place … .

A significant feature of the RRE programme in the 1950s was a group under A.M. Uttley investigating the role of the huamn operator as a link in the control chain. This grouop originated in wartime TRE, and explored problems of reaction times, response characteristics and patternm recognition in radar users, all with the aim of understanding errors in control operations. Although the group was wound up after Uttley’s resignation to take up a senior post at NPL in 1957, RRE neverhteless retained a marked sensitivity to the ole of the human operator, and it may be that the work of Uttley’s group fundamentally shaped the philosophy of the establishment. … Two radically different solutions [to radar integration] were possible. Both RRE and ASWE (ASRE) succeeded in developing data processing and display systems meeting the operational requirement, one (RRE) employing analogue and the other (ASWE) digital techniques. [DRPC’s Cockburn] noted that ‘the important issue was that two experienced establishments faced with meeting similar operational requirements in a similar time sclae were depending on different technological solutions’.

Intimately tied to this difference in approach – what Cockburn called a ‘transition from well-tried analogue techniques to more promising but risky digital techniques – were the attitudes of the two establishements to automation: ASWE used automatic data extraction as part of their precocious ADA system [a language for embedded, real-time, safety-critical computing], developed since 1953 and described elsewhere in this volume, whereas RRE had chosen manual data extraction and processing … . [A working party ] found that RRE had not pursued manual systems out of ignorance … but felt that automatic systems could not cope with jamming, insisting that instead the discrimination of a human was needed. [Behind] the difference in technical solutions were radically different attitudes t human operators, jamming, digital techniques, and a natural preference for intramural development.

Ground Radar and Radars for other users, 1960-80

We have argued that the relationship between establishment and user was an importnat factor in the development of radar. The establishments were confronted with a variety of users whose needs might diverge widely, of course, and again it is eay to see how the flexible and pervasive nature of radar allowed the technology to be creatively adapted to new situations.

Conclusion: Reorganisation, Rationalisation and RSRE into the 1980s

 … In 1948 … a TRE report had [noted] that ‘In peace as in war there must always be the closest possible co-operation between the scientist and the user to ensure that the user gets as nearly as possible what he wants and that the scientist is not allowed to design an equipment so complicate dthat it cannot be used’. This could fairly be said to characterise the attitude of the radar establishemnsts for the follwoing 50 years, up to and including RSRE becoming one of the founders of the DRA in 1990. Indeed, the continuyity ad stability of the relationships between establishments and users against a rapidly (and occasionally radically) changing organisational and strategic background is one of the most marked features of our account. [The] establishments have always displayed a sensitivity towards users, at first in their traditional Army and Air Force constituencies, and increasingly in the 1960s in industry … .

‘In almost every field of Defence interests, electronic equipment forms the basis of modern weapon systems’. … This widespread applicability of the [radar] technology, and its openness … was important in protecting basic radar R&D, and again allowed for maximum creativity in user-establishment relations.

… It would be easy to conclude that increasing integartion and centralisation implied increasing automation. Yet, as we have seen, there were significant differences of opinion between establishments with respect to the role of the human operator in the command and control chain – and therefore to the kinds of technologies and, ultimately, the kinds of global strategies that might be appropriate to manage the closed world.

An integrated system, embodying the fruits of new research from the establishemnts and in which automation promised minimisation ofm human erro, should not, howver,be equated easily with success. … The vulnerability of the closed world is perhaps the most significant theme to emerge from a study of postwar radar.

Even more Chapters

  • Naval Command and Control Equipment: The Birth of the Late Twentieth Century ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’
  • Laser Research and Development
  • Chemical and Biological Warfare and Defence, 1945-90
  • Defence Physiology
  • Civil Spinoff from the Defence Research Establishments

Government Management of Defence Research since the Second World War

Stephen Robinson

Opportunities for exploiting science are normally identified by key individuals working at the leading edge, and many defence establishments grew up ad hoc during and just afetr the war as technology, with obvious application in key military fields, was identified. …

Public affairs are run largely by civil servants in the administrative and executive classes, and as government reserach expanded between the wars, more and more scientists were recruited. In 1945 arrangements were formalised and the science class was created, with separate career streams for scientists, scientific assistants and experimental staff.

[The] individual merit (IM) promotion scheme, introduced in 1946 … has served research well. … [It] has allowed scientists to remain closely associated with important programmes, and to provide the core of excellence so importnat to national defence and to international knowledge exchange. Nevertheless, the scheme has suffered from two flaws. The panel of independent assessors has included world-class scientists more familiar with pure than applied work, and the five-year review, stipulated to retain the new rank, has sometimes enhanced the predisposition to remain in a particular field against the run of changing defence priorities. Apocryphal stories relating to IM promotion abound, including that of candidates who failed for being involved in research ‘too closely associated with defence matters’!

In practice, research, more than most activities, is programmed in detail by those doing the work, within constarints imposed from above. … [Two] aspects have remained in common: the need for military staff to interpret user requirements and set programme constraints with the help of scientific advice, and the attentuation of unwanted projects by prioritising candidate programmes within fixed resource allocations. [MoD] methods to some extent inspired he customer-contractor principle made famous by Lord Rothschild in his 1971 report on the organisation and management of government R&D. His proposdals were aimed mainly at applied research in the civil sector … . Lord Rothschild was well aware that overzealous customer control would stultify research progress, and he proposed a surcharge of 10 per cent should be available to scientists for discretionary work. It is a cause of concern that although the MoD allows such cost recoveries in industry, it has not seen them as appropriate in its own laboratories.

The key to good applied research is that high-calibre research staff should be able to steer their work by intimate knowledge of users and their potenbtial needs, and transfer technology effectively to those who will apply it to meet such needs. The challenge to management is to lead, and to deploy capital, human resources and advice in a way that sharpens rather than blunts this process. It is a challenge that is rarely met as well as might be hoped, but it is fair to claim that performance within the MoD has compared favourably over the years to similar organisations overseas.

… Thirty years ago a fortunate scientist could apply the wisdom he gained inn research and design of one generation of equipment to the next. Now he is lucky if he sees one design through to completion, and even if he should survive to its successor, there is a likelihood that rapid advances in technology will have passed him by. … Growing difficulties in the maintenance of appropriate industrial capacity for the deep understanding of ever more complex military systems have long been recognized. Increasingly, these are the overiding considerations in formulating policy for research programmes and in the career development of staff.

Transfer to Industry of Design, System Integration and Project Management

None of these subjects is easy. It is difficult to recruit scientists while laying off engineers, and much of industry was only too happy to accept the low-risk option of manufacturing equipment to government drawings. …

… Lack of clarity concerning the proper development and project management responsibility of industry may also have contributed to the incredible concept of the 1980s that, by more rigorous contracts, a  monopoly customer could increase competition and reduce technical risk at the same time. Sadly for managers, it is all too easy to fail in the implementation of a good policy, but virtually impossible to succeed when it is bad.

… Wiht budgets to hand, research staff have been able to lead military requirements by u technical demonstration, and dictate the direction of industrial research through extramural contracts. Consequently, well-meaning, excellent and articulate scientific staff have sometimes presented management with problems they have not been able to recognise, let alone solve, and valuablem industrial resources have bene misused. As might be expected, this phenomenon has been most evident in areas such as data processing, where civil technology has beenn overtaking that more familiar within the defence community. …

Although this problem may, on occasion, have led to suboptimal defence procurement, the exploitation record of defnece research has generally been good. Queen’s Awards for Tehnology are given when commeriocal success in industry has derived from highly originalk scientifi wor, and bearing in mind the small fraction of defence establishment activity which is appropriate, it is highly commendable that, between 1976 and 996, government defence laboratoroes (20 awards) have shared in awards three times as often as Research Council laboratories (7 awrads), and ten times as often as university departments (2 awards). On balance, British industry has certainly gained considerable commercial advantage fromm knowledge discovere by government scientists for defence purposes.

Failure of Inter-Service Prgramme Coordination

[In] time ofm peace, with budgets on a tri-Service basis and the work moving towards genberic research, there is little doubtthat research establishments have become too parochial. … [Scientists] hardly communicate at all. Moreover ‘focus’ and ‘viable levels of resource’ are watchwords of applied research, and dispersal is almost always a recipe for fragmentation and failure.

As developments moved to industry after the war the inefficiencies of uncoordinated rseearch were exposed … .Electronics, being generic and of increasing importance to all three Services, was the main problem area, and matters improved somehwat when the principle electronice laboratories were merged at Malvern.

Electronic Component Development

… In future conflicts a protagonist with access to superior components, for example for target acquisition, intelligence gathering or communications, is likely to prevail.


Although management theories and fashionable styles developed to address particualr problems abound, management remains a largely pragmatic activity, a game with uncertain rules, played on an unevn field, in an unfair world. ..


… Applied research workers in the defence community should feel involved and strongly committed to succesful equipment procurement, for it is written: ‘the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel they brother? and he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?’ After all their endevours, it would be sad if the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency survived, only to carry he mark of Cain into the next millenium. … [Government] and industry should not forget that the [DERA] is a jewel in their crown. In a world of increasing technical sophistication, where industry will be less and less able to carry out training and applied research at the level demanded by the market, it may well prove to be a model of the type of integrated staff development and applied research institute that society requires.





%d bloggers like this: