Just one year after France retired its last Super Étendard carrier-based strike planes from service, it was announced this week that Argentina would purchase six of the retired warplanes. The Dassault-Breguet Super Étendard has always been more distinguished by its armaments and technical capabilities than by its performance specifications. While it ably served France in six wars over thirty-eight years, the Super Étendard will always be remembered foremost for its role in sinking British two ships during the Falkland War—an event that would shake up naval planners for years to follow.
The Étendard (“Battle Standard”) was first developed as proposed successor to the fifties-era Dassault Mystère fighter-bomber. While the French Armée de l’air passed over the single- and twin-engine Étendards II and VI in favor of the iconic Mirage III, Dassault later managed to sell the French Navy on the IVM variant for service onboard its new home built carriers, Foch and Clemenceau. The Étendard IV was a light attack plane in the same mold as the A-4 Skyhawk, capable of flying just shy of the speed of sound powered by an Atar 08 turbojet engine. It had two thirty-millimeter DEFA cannons and could carry an unimpressive maximum weapons load of three thousand pounds. The original seventy-four Etendard IVs never saw combat. However, the longer-serving twenty-two IVP photo-recon variants did serve, with two of them making it home to base after being struck by missiles over Lebanon and later in Bosnia.
By the 1970s, the French Navy wanted something a bit more capable, and was leaning towards purchasing the American A-7 Corsair. However, Dassault successfully lured them away in 1973 with an offer to simply make a cheaper, upgraded version of the Étendard IV. This turned out to be a classic arms-procurement bait and switch, as the new Super Étendard turned out to be at least as expensive, causing the order of a hundred to be downsized to seventy-one by the time it entered service in 1978 with the French Navy’s Flottille 11F squadron.
The Super Étendard had modestly better performance than its predecessor. Though lacking an afterburner, its upgraded Atar 08L-50 turbojet allowed it to fly just above the speed of sound at 860 miles per hour, and its maximum bombload when taking off from carrier was increased by 50 percent across five pylons—though still far below that of the A-7 Corsair. A retractable in-flight refueling probe allowed it to operate across long distances. However, its most important upgrade lay in its weapons and avionics: the Super Etendard boasted a then-advanced Etna navigation/attack computer system, and a multi-mode Agave radar that could be used to target both air and surface targets. The Agave allowed the Super Étendard to fire Matra Magic short-range air-to-air missiles for self-defense, and more importantly, the AM39 Exocet antiship missile.
The Exocet (“Flying Fish”) was then one of the most advanced weapons of its kind. The Exocet skims just two meters above the surface of the water across a distance of forty-three miles (or 110 in the latest version) to avoid radar detection while approaching the speed of sound. It relies on an inertial guidance system for most of its trajectory, before activating onboard active guidance radar at the terminal stage. As a result, the missile is only likely to be detected less than four miles away, giving air-defense systems only twenty seconds to react before impact. The Super Étendard can carry one 1,480-pound Exocet under one wing, with a fuel tank on the other for balance.
War in the Falklands
Air-launched antiship missiles first saw action in World War II, where they scored some notable successes, notably sinking the Italian battleship Roma, despite the limited scale of their use. Cold War navies continued developing the technology, but could not rely on firsthand experience to gauge their effectiveness—though ship-launched missile attacks in Arab-Israeli and Indo-Pakistani conflicts suggested they were formidable.
Argentina purchased fourteen Super Étendards in 1981 to serve in its Second Pursuit and Attack Squadron onboard the carrier 25 de Mayo. The choice of the French fighter was motivated by a U.S. arms embargo instituted due to the ruling military junta’s brutal Dirty War, in which the Argentine Navy played a major role by tossing hundreds of leftists and suspected rebels off airplanes into the Atlantic Ocean. Argentine Navy aviators received flight training in France, and the first five of their aircraft were in Argentina, with one Exocet missile apiece, when on April 2, 1982, Argentine troops seized the Falkland Islands—the Malvinas, according to Argentina—from the United Kingdom. In the subsequent crisis, the Argentine technicians had to install the Exocet missiles themselves.
On the morning of May 4, an Argentine P-2H Neptune maritime patrol plane detected the British destroyer Sheffield on its radar. At 9 a.m., two Super Étendards piloted by Frigate Captain Augusto Bedacarratz and Lieutenant Amando Mayora took off from their base in Rio Grande, heading for the contact. After refueling with a KC-130H tanker, they began skimming just above sea level to evade radar detection. At one point, they popped up to acquire targets on their radars, only to be alerted that they had been acquired themselves by the British destroyer HMS Glasgow. They quickly ducked back to sea level to avoid detection, then popped up a second time at five hundred feet. This time they acquired a radar lock on a British ship between twenty and thirty miles distant. The Argentine pilots released their missiles and then belted for home, convinced the attack had failed because they had not seen the solid-propellant rockets on the Exocets ignite. In fact, they simply had a delayed ignition cycle.
Their target, the Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield, never picked up the Étendards on its radar, and had not gone to action stations after the Glasgow reported its radar contacts. The Sheffield’s onboard radar only picked up the Exocets ten seconds before one of them slammed into its stern. Even though an investigation later found that its warhead had failed to detonate, the impact killed twenty of the crew and caused the ship to catch fire. The survivors sang “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python as they awaited evacuation. The Sheffield sank under tow several days later.
After this incident, the Thatcher government was ready to take drastic measures to deal with the Exocet threat. This led to their conceiving Operation Mikado, which envisioned using two C-130 Hercules transports to land fifty-five operators of SAS B squadron onto the Rio Grande airbase to kill the Étendard pilots and destroy their planes, before fleeing to Chile for asylum. However, on May 18, a helicopter on a scouting run for the raid crash-landed in Chile at night and its crew was captured. The UK scratched the obviously suicidal mission at the last minute. In a separate endeavor, British intelligence agents posed as Exocet arms dealers in an effort to sabotage Argentine attempts to acquire more of the missiles.
A week after the helicopter crash, the Super Étendards of Captain Roberto Curilovic and Lieutenant Julio Barraza were dispatched to attack a contact acquired by a radar in Port Stanley. Reportedly, a British submarine observed their departure and warned the surface fleet, but the British warships stood down when an air attack was not immediately apparent.
However, the Argentine pilots had simply detoured for inflight refueling. After 4 p.m., they popped up, acquired three targets on their Agave radars and released their missiles at the largest one from from a distance of thirty-nine miles. This time the British warships picked up the Étendards on their radars and frantically began pumping chaff decoys into the air. The countermeasures may have saved the frigate Ambuscade and the transport Regent—but they appeared to have redirected the missiles to the fifteen-thousand-ton Atlantic Conveyor. Both missiles struck the container ship on its portside, causing a massive explosion that set it ablaze. Twelve sailors out of the crew of thirty-three perished, including Capt. Ian North. The Conveyer had been carrying Wessex and Chinook helicopters for use by British ground forces, and its loss forced British paratroopers to advance upon Port Stanley by foot.
On May 30, the Argentine Navy launched its last remaining Exocet, reportedly targeting the carrier HMS invincible, but failed to hit. Two weeks later, the war ended with the UK in possession of the islands.
Still, with just five missiles, the Super Étendards had sunk two ships without having so much as a shot fired in return. The experience led other navies to hasten the deployment of Close-In Weapon Systems (CIWS), Gatling autocannons which give ships a chance to shoot down incoming missiles at close range, even given little advance warning.
In case international alarm was insufficient, in 1983 Iraq leased five Super Étendards from France for use in the infamous Tanker War, in which Iran and Iraq did their best to sink each other’s petroleum transports. The Iraqi Étendards attacked more than thirty-four tankers with Exocets, typically fired from maximum range without confirming the identities of their targets. Fortunately, the medium-sized missile lacked the punch to easily sink massive seagoing tankers. Iran claimed it shot down three of the maritime marauders, but in fact all but one of the Super Étendards were returned to France once Iraq acquired Mirage F.1 fighters that could launch Exocet missiles.