Cold War Era

Exercise Skyshield: the day RAF Vulcan strategic bombers fooled American and Canadian interceptors and penetrated NORAD’s massive surveillance system

RAF Vulcan bombers at Exercise Skyshield

The best of the three RAF jet bombers to serve during the Cold War, the delta-winged Vulcan possessed speed and fighter-like manoeuvrability at low level despite its size. Designed as the Avro 698 and first flown in August 1952, the Vulcan entered service in February 1957. The aircraft operated as Britain’s frontline nuclear deterrent, equipped to carry the Blue Steel stand-off missile.

As told by Andrew Brookes in the book Vulcan Units of the Cold War, the Vulcan’s capabilities as a high-level nuclear bomber were clearly shown in 1961, during Exercise Skyshield against the formidable air defences of North America.


In 1951, the US Air Force (USAF) contracted with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work on what Secretary of the Air Force T K Finletter described as the ‘Manhattan Project of air defence’. Its conclusions in the summer of 1952 recommended the construction of an early warning radar line across northern Canada to give three to six hours’ warning of approaching enemy bombers, an integrated and fully automatic communications system, and improved fighters and SAMs for interception.

This culminated in the merger of the US and Canadian air defence systems within the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) on May 12, 1958. Coordinated from Colorado Springs, in the Rocky Mountains, the Americans and Canadians had every right to be proud of NORAD, and to prove its effectiveness they decided to mount a massive air defence exercise in October 1961 that was to be fully realistic, and to which Bomber Command was invited. High Wycombe was more than happy to oblige, especially as it gave the RAF an opportunity to test the new Vulcan B 2 under virtually operational conditions.

RAF Vulcan bombers penetrate unscathed

Nos 27 and 83 Sqns sent four jets each, with aircraft from the latter unit being sent to Lossiemouth to attack from the north, while No 27 Sqn went to Kindley AFB, in Bermuda, to penetrate from the south. On Oct. 14 both groups set off. The northerly wave began with USAF B-47s going in at low level from 500 ft upwards, jamming out the ground radars. Behind them came B-52s at 35,000 ft to 42,000 ft, supported by B-57s, while finally at 56,000 ft came No 83 Sqn’s B 2s in stream.

ECM proved so effective that only the first Vulcan heard an F-101 Voodoo lock-on. Although many fighters were scrambled, they concentrated on the B-52s so that by the time the B 2s came in the interceptors did not have enough fuel left to climb to 56,000 ft for another battle. The RAF bombers penetrated unscathed to land at Stephenville, Newfoundland.

Skyshield limitations

The southern wave also came in ‘using all jamming equipment and passive defence systems’. The No 27 Sqn jets penetrated on a broad front, but as they approached 50 miles from the coast, when the fighters were unleashed, the southernmost Vulcan turned and flew north behind the jamming screen provided by its compatriots. Thus, while the F-102 Delta Daggers concentrated on the three lead aircraft, the fourth jet crept round to the north and sneaked through to land at Plattsburgh AFB, New York.

Skyshield obviously had its limitations in that the only way to see how a Vulcan would have coped against a MiG-21 was to send one against it, but B 2s at height were no sitting ducks, even when the opposition knew they were coming. This exercise proved that a few resourceful crews could hold their own against the world’s most sophisticated air defence system.

Vulcan Units of the Cold War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Air Historical Branch-RAF

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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