RogerBW's Blog

One for the Brow part 1: history 12 April 2014

I often come up with alternate histories. The usual way of doing this is to change some historical detail and then speculate about what might have gone differently. In this case, I have a specific goal in mind, so I'm trying various divergences to try to get to the state I want.

The goal is simple: I want to wargame (using the Harpoon rules) with various cancelled British military projects of the 1960s, specifically including the CVA-01 Queen Elizabeth. (And the TSR-2, of course.) For them to be built and in service with initial bugs worked out, I'm looking at a point in time somewhere around 1975. I could just say "well, for these games they didn't get cancelled", but I want to extrapolate: just as the demise of the XB-70 meant that the Pye Wacket missile would no longer be developed, what other ships and aircraft that we don't now know about would have been ordered if CVA-01 had gone ahead? What sort of trouble is the Royal Navy going to be getting into, and what will their opposition be like? Am I going to restrict myself to re-fighting the Falklands, or am I going to be more flexible? (Well, you know me by now.)

So first, how can I stop those projects being cancelled? Politics and money. Start the development of North Sea Oil a few years earlier to have Britain feeling a little less poor, and throw the 1964 election (which was historically very close) to the Conservatives instead of Labour – i.e. to the people who'd already put lots of money into military projects rather than to the ones who were determined to cut military expenditure. So a swing to the Roostic Party ("Vote Roostic. Things can't get worse"; don't ask) causes ten key historical Labour gains to be held by the Conservatives instead.

I also want these ships potentially fighting on their own and holding up the West's end of the Cold War, rather than the big stuff necessarily happening as part of an allied force led by the US Navy. So let's do bad things to the USA.

In 1967, LBJ is persuaded to intervene actively in the Six-Day War. OPEC starts its oil embargo against the US and Europe, early enough for the UK to think carefully about just what's going to be done with its own oil wealth.

Someone leaks the true facts of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the anti-war movement gets a substantial boost as the USA's international credibility collapses. Race riots tear American cities apart through the long hot summer of 1967. (Even more.)

In late 1967, Senator Eugene McCarthy (no relation) of Minnesota enters the presidential race on an explicitly anti-war platform. He gains the Democratic nomination, then the votes of a population tired of sending their children off to die for no obvious benefit. The American withdrawal from Vietnam is complete by the end of 1969, and the country turns inwards, in an attempt to put right the problems in its own house before telling others how to fix theirs. The four manned lunar landings impress the world, but there's no sense of vigour and no pressure to complete the series with Apollos 16-20. There may be a backlash against McCarthy in 1972 or 1976, but by that time the multipolar world is re-established, and the brief post-war "two superpower" era is seen as an aberration from the normal state of affairs.

NATO will still be NATO, but the powers that aren't the UK will be a bit more reluctant to go out and do things. In particular, the US regards it as it regards the UN: it'll grudgingly pay up eventually, but it's not enthusiastic about it. As long as there aren't any Soviet boots on American soil, the US is happy; it may well send "advisors", but it won't commit regular forces overseas.

France remains doggedly independent, if anything more wary of a British-led alliance than of an American one, but the rest of Europe is still part of NATO. Nobody quite trusts the Germans to have their own nuclear weapons yet, but the UK, France and Italy all have their own nuclear arsenals, cruise or ballistic missiles launched from land, sea, or (in the Italian case) airborne platforms. Everyone assumes Sweden does, too, though she relies on her neutrality to avoid having to make a formal declaration.

The USSR is still the USSR. It's ideologically committed to the spread of international communism, but without the big push back from the USA it's less aggressive about it. That doesn't mean that there won't still be provocations.

This version of the RN isn't as committed to the North Atlantic convoy protection mission as the historical USN: it's assumed that the Americans will join the Third World War fashionably late as they did the last two, and nobody's building ships round the assumption that they will be on time to the party. Rather, in peacetime the RN is the "policeman of the seas" again: keeping shipping lanes open, dealing with smugglers and pirates, doing disaster relief, and so on; in war, it's hunting SSBNs and arranging for air strikes against targets either afloat or inconveniently far from RAF bases. The purpose of the carrier is to get its Buccaneers to where they'll do some good; everything else is to protect the carrier or hunt enemy ships/subs.

I'm going to try to stick to technological plausibility: my RN will be better than the historical one because it's got more money, both for ships and aircraft and for R&D, but I'll restrict myself to things that could have been built at the time.

The tot, of course, continues.

(Next: France)


  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 05:02pm on 12 April 2014

    A real shame to lose Apollo's 16 and 17, but I suppose it's the only way to shut Gene "last man on the moon" Cernan up :-). Ah well, Apollo 15 is my favourite Apollo mission anyway, at least your Apollo programme goes out on a high.

    So what happens to Skylab in your chronology, there will be even more left over Apollo hardware to use (unless they stopped building stuff earlier). And presumably the Shuttle development is even more delayed and troubled than historically.

    On the other hand with a reduced US military, NASA may not feel forced to take the military's money and may end up designing a much better shuttle as originally planned without the payload sapping features the military insisted on. The original design had straight wings, it would have looked very different.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 07:46pm on 12 April 2014

    Apparently Nixon seriously considered cancelling 16-17 as well as 18-20 but was talked out of it. With the national malaise in effect I can see McCarthy going for the "fix problems at home first" approach. (This never works, of course, partly because the sums of money needed for space exploration are trivial compared with other programmes.)

    Haven't given a whole lot of thought to later space exploration. I suspect it's primarily unmanned; those big Soviet RORSATs (and some NATO equivalent of the Key Hole series) have to get into orbit to keep my Cold War scenarios vaguely recognisable, but that's basically spinoff from ICBMs. It might be that the US is prepared to launch satellites as a significant chunk of its contribution to NATO.

    As I understand it that whole "USAF insisted on cross-range, hence wings" thing may be a blame-shifting exercise by NASA. It's not clear right now.

  3. Posted by John Dallman at 06:15pm on 13 April 2014

    A few thoughts:

    Presumably British governments since 1964 have avoided major screw-ups, like the Barber Boom, the three-day week, and so on?

    There's definite scope for the Buccaneer to have been upgraded by 1975. The obvious things to add are more power for supersonic capability, better radars, and smarter weapons.

    I have seen people playing Anglo-French naval conflicts set in the 1980s. It may be worth thinking more about what the French build.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 06:33pm on 13 April 2014

    Indeed; I don't want to go particularly far into the politics, but at the very least there has to be enough money to pay for all the neat toys and the will to spend it on them.

    I'll have another poke at the British Secret Projects books and see what I can find about proposed Buccaneer developments.

    The French will certainly have the Clemenceau and Foch, and maybe even a third carrier if she can be afforded (because after all they have to worry about the Anglais now), loaded with Super Etendards and Crusaders; they may even get that VTOL Mirage to work, though they'll have to downgrade it a bit from the rather optimistic prototype. I'll have a look at their historical fleet. If there's going to be another war that's politically if not geographically within Europe, France is the only non-NATO member; and there are traditions about these things as far as the RN is concerned.

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