Cancelled multi-million projects, lost brand names and cheesy slogans – TIM ROBINSON explores what a collection of 1980s defence advertisements tells us about the evolution of military aerospace.

As any former Cold Warrior might tell you over a beer, the 1980s were particularly good for the defence industry. A definite threat in the form of the USSR saw defence spending boosted by Reagan's rearmament plan. US victories in Grenada also vanquished the ghosts of Vietnam and the disastrous 1980 Eagle Claw mission. Rambo, Airwolf and, of course, Top Gun, may have been fictional but they fed into a new confident and assertive America.

Western Europe too, was not immune to this and the serious no-kidding menace of a Warsaw Pact invasion meant that minds were focused on weaponry that would allow NATO allies to hold out long enough until help arrived.

The period then makes for a fascinating time to consider defence industry adverts that appeared in magazines of the time and a great collection has been amassed at the website which is well worth a browse.

Some of these trade ads promote companies that are now either merged or defunct, others highlight cancelled programmes or projects. Conversely, some adverts portend the future in featuring UAVs (or Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs)) as they were known then. Others show how the defence industry has evolved from platforms then to 'systems' and 'information dominance'. There are other nuggets too, like defence equipment that, with hindsight seems the wrong idea at the wrong time. Lets take a look at some of the best examples:


SabreBat (1980)

SabreBat, SabreBat, does everything a sabre cat can do’, ran the theme tune for an 1980's kids' cartoon I've just invented. In the 1980s, forward swept wings (FSW) seemed the shape of the future – so it was no wonder that this 1980 ad from Rockwell featured this futuristic fighter. In the event, the only US FSW design to fly was the Northrop X-29 demonstrator.   


Harrier off a super-tanker (1982)

It is unknown whether this Rolls-Royce advert came out before or after the Falklands War – where not only did the Sea Harrier prove its worth in combat but the Atlantic Conveyor cargo ship was used to bring extra Harriers to the fight. Oddly, with no mention of Sea Harriers, it might well predate the Falklands and be more focused on the expected second Battle of the Atlantic and/or defending Norway in the event of WW3. 


Plus ca change (1987)

An armed Bell 406. Wait – when was this ad from? Last year? Fast forward 35 plus years and the US is still struggling to field an armed scout after cancelling the Comanche and retiring the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. 


What Fokker came up with this idea? (1982)

Landing an T-tail airliner on a carrier would probably have taken Dutch courage. This was one of the proposals for the US Navy’s Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) requirement – a contest that was won by the upgraded C-2A(R) Greyhound.  


AEW Islander (1986)

A strong contender for ‘ugliest aircraft ever’ the Pilatus Britten-Norman BN-2T AEW Defender was an attempt to turn a STOL utility aircraft into a low-cost AWACS. Possibly after no self-respecting pilot could be found who was willing to be even seen dead in something that ugly-looking, the idea was dropped.  


Hypertechnology hype (1983)

British Aerospace’s slogan at this point seemed to include lots of usage of ‘hypertechnology’. What it actually meant is a little lost in the mists of time, but I think we can assume its positive.


A view of the future (1987)

‘RPVs?’ scoffed your steely-eyed photo reconnaissance pilot as they suited up for a low-level, high-speed mission. Fast forward 30 plus years and not only has the dedicated FJ tactical-recce mission almost disappeared, but UAVs are now ubiquitous and some are carrying weapons. Heresy!  


Replaying Eagle Claw with Ospreys (1986)

No prizes for guessing to what real-life failed event this Bell/Boeing ad was referencing with this artwork of a long-range hostage rescue mission. Six years earlier Operation Eagle Claw to rescue hostages in Iran had revealed US weaknesses in special ops aviation. The V-22 Osprey, then in development, promised new capabilities to carry out seemingly impossible missions.   


Naughty, naughty (1985)

Today, over 100 states have signed up to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) – thanks to a worldwide effort to restrict these indiscriminate weapons. However, back in 1985, there was no shame in advertising your cluster bomb as ‘combat proven’. 


How low can you go? (1980)

Other adverts provide an insight into changed tactics. The fearsome air defences of the Warsaw Pact meant that the name of the game was ultra-low level penetration to get to targets. Today, the rise of precision weapons, stealth and jamming and ‘permissive’ air environments means the action has moved to the medium level.


Odd couples (1981)

Boeing and Saab pitching a trainer to the USAF? Nothing new. In 1981 Lockheed was hoping that the US Navy and USAF might overlook this Franco-German trainer's heritage as the ‘Lockheed Alpha Jet’….

Tim Robinson
23 May 2017

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