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How the A-4 Skyhawk Ruled the Skies

August 20, 2017 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: A-4SkyhawkJetsU.S. NavyMilitaryTechnologyWorld

How the A-4 Skyhawk Ruled the Skies

This was one tough jet.

The Skyhawks served as the IAF’s primary dedicated attack plane during the incessant border skirmishes of the War of Attrition with Egypt. Five of them fell prey to much faster Egyptian MiG-21 jets. However, in May 1970, one Israeli Skyhawk pilot managed to turn the tables on a slower MiG-17 over Lebanon in an decidedly unconventional manner, as recalled by Col. Ezra Dotan :

I completed the descent to the MiGs' altitude and sat on the tail of one of them. I decided to use the fire power of the air-to-ground rocket pod in order to hit the MiG. I shot off a first salvo from both pods, at a range of 50 meters. The rockets went very low and passed under the MiG without the pilot even noticing them. I raised the sights, shot off another salvo, and the MiG disappeared in a great explosion.

Dotan went on to bump into another flight of four MiG-17s and chased one of them down to low altitude:

I found him exiting one of the wadis with a sharp bank. I was going at about 570 knots, and in order not to pass by him, I turned off everything I could turn off to slow the plane down. I would have spread my ears out to the sides, too, if that could have slowed the plane some more. . . .

I pulled up so close to him that I couldn't even point the nose down at him. He got some distance between us and we started playing cat and mouse: He banks right, I turn to follow. He banks hard to the left - I do the same. At a certain point I shot a burst at him. The bullets ripped off the left wing and the MiG rolled right and rammed into the ground.

However, the Skyhawk force suffered in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as the relatively slow jets were called upon to hammer advancing Egyptian tanks covered by patrolling MiG-21s and long-range SA-6 surface-to-air missile batteries deployed along the Suez Canal. Until Israeli ground forces knocked them out, the SAM batteries reaped a fearsome toll. Israel lost fifty-three of its roughly two hundred Skyhawks in the conflict.

Yet despite this rough handling, the old attack jet remained a fixture in the Israeli Air Force for decades to come, and would see further action during the war in Lebanon, where a Skyhawk shot down another MiG-17. The last Israeli Skyhawks, serving largely in a training capacity, were not retired until 2015.

Bane of the Royal Navy

In April 1982, Argentine troops seized the Falkland Islands, known as the Malvinas by Buenos Aires. In response, the United Kingdom dispatched an amphibious task force to take them back. Lacking the naval power to confront the fleet, Buenos Aires flung its land-based fighters at the British warships instead.

 

Argentine Etendard fighters famously sank two ships in the conflict using Exocet antiship missiles with a range of forty-three miles. But Argentina had only four air-launched Exocets available, and so the brunt of the antiship raids had to be performed the old-fashioned way, with its forty-eight Skyhawks, which included a mixture of A-4Bs and Cs, as well A-4Qs operated by the Argentine Navy. These had defective ejection seats due to a U.S. arms embargo, had little in the way of defensive countermeasures and required multiple refuelings via KC-130 Hercules tankers to even make it to the combat zone.

Upon arriving, they would have to brave the firepower of a British fleet bristling with high-altitude Sea Dart surface-to-air missiles and avoid the combat air patrols of Sea Harrier jump jets, then dodge shorter-range Sea Wolf and Sea Cat point-defense missiles in order to drop iron bombs directly on top of warships still equipped with old-fashioned flak cannons and even huge 4.5-inch dual-purpose guns with air bursting shells. Even worse for the Argentine pilots, their bombs were notorious for their faulty fuses, and many failed to detonate even after scoring a direct hit.

 

Despite the long odds, when British troops began landing on the Falklands, the Argentine pilots gave it their all in the Battle of San Carlos starting on May 21. After five days of intense air-sea warfare, nearly half of the Skyhawk force—twenty-two planes—had been picked off while running the deadly gauntlet. Sea Harriers shot down eight, flak blasted two more, and missiles and accidents claimed the rest.

But the A-4s that got through managed to sink the destroyer Coventry and the frigates Antelope and Ardent, as well as crippling the Landing Support Ship Galahad and badly damaging several more destroyers and frigates. The other Argentine aircraft—Dagger fighters and Pucará attack planes—suffered similar losses but inflicted less damage.

The Skyhawk had one more crazy battle ahead, as twenty-nine were in service in the Kuwait Air Force. When Saddam Hussein’s troops stormed the small country on August 2, 1990, the Kuwaiti A-4KUs shot down three helicopters full of Iraqi commandos and strafed the advancing tanks of the Medina Armored division. By the second day of hostilities, the Kuwaiti pilots were taking off from desert roads, as their air bases were damaged by Iraqi bombing. As Kuwait succumbed to invasion, nearly the entire A-4 force then fled to neighboring Saudi Arabia. When an American-led coalition embarked on Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait in 1991, the Kuwaiti Skyhawk flew more than a thousand combat missions in support, losing one jet to a radar-guided missile, though the pilot successfully ejected. One Kuwaiti Skyhawk pilot even had the rare pleasure of blowing up his old office at an air base with a five-hundred-pound bomb.

There were several other operators of this kind. Indonesia flew A-4 into combat against insurgents and East Timorese separatists. The Skyhawk also saw more peaceful service with the air forces of Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, the last three of which flew their own unique variants designated the A-4S, G and K respectively.

The Skyhawk’s Legacy

Argentina and Brazil both continue to operate Skyhawk combat squadrons today. The Brazilian Skyhawks were purchased from the Kuwait Air Force and extensively modernized. For years they served as South America’s last carrier-borne fighters until the decommissioning of the carrier São Paulo (formerly the Foch) in February of 2017. However, the Brazilian Skyhawks (known as AF-1s) have not been retired, nor the upgraded A-4R Fightinghawks serving with the Argentine Air Force.

The A-4 exemplified virtues of simplicity and cost-efficiency that have seemingly been forgotten in modern warplane design. It was light and easy to handle, and could deliver a nasty punch at its targets, without being weighed down with capabilities unnecessary for its primary mission.

But there is a flipside to the Skyhawk story: its American, Israeli and Argentine combat pilots flew in an era when attack pilots had to dive into the teeth of fearsome enemy air defenses to deliver their payloads—and it was simply accepted that many would pay a terrible price for their bravery, which did in fact occur.

Skyhawks cost around $750,000 to produce each, equivalent to roughly $6 or $7 million in inflation-adjusted dollars. Today, the Pentagon may spend thirteen times that price to purchase a single F-35 stealth fighter, with the expectation that said airplane will remain nearly immune to enemy fire in any war not involving a peer opponent.

The costs and benefits of that tradeoff bear consideration, but if nothing else, that reality should inspire renewed respect for the combat pilots of aircraft like the Skyhawk, who routinely undertook dangerous missions and suffered heavy losses that today would be deemed unacceptable.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring .

Image: U.S. Navy