Fire in the Sky: The 5 Greatest Air Battles in Military History

December 2, 2014 Topic: HistoryDefenseState of the Military

Fire in the Sky: The 5 Greatest Air Battles in Military History

Changing history—one bomb at a time. 

Operation Linebacker II may or may not have forced Hanoi to the peace table. But it was the first time that jet-powered strategic bombers were used in a massive, strategic bombing campaign.

Falklands 1982:

Britain should have lost the Falklands War. Argentina's air force should have sent the British fleet to the bottom of the South Atlantic, near that handful of bleak and sparsely populated rocks that became the epicenter of one of history's most pointless conflicts.

On the one side was a British fleet doing what fleets were not supposed to do since World War II, which was to sail within 300 miles of land-based enemy aircraft. The Royal Navy scraped together the thinnest layer of air cover, in the form of twenty or so Sea Harrier jump jets on two aging aircraft carriers that were just months away from being scrapped when Argentina invaded the Falklands. British warships were also equipped with 1970s-era anti-aircraft missiles, such as Sea Dart, but SAMs couldn't hope to stop a determined Argentine onslaught.

Facing the British fleet was an Argentine air force that could muster almost 600 aircraft, including almost 150 Mirage and Dagger (Israeli-modified Mirage) fighters, A-4 Skyhawks attack aircraft, Super Etendard naval strike aircraft, Canberra bombers, Aermacchi and Pucara ground-attack aircraft and KC-130 tankers. The Super Etendards were armed with a few Exocet anti-ship missiles that made history by sinking the destroyer HMS Sheffield.

Argentina would probably have won, but for some crucial mistakes. Their bombs were improperly fused for the low-level Skyhawk strikes (a fact revealed during the war by the British press, to the fury of Royal Navy commanders). Argentine Mirages and Daggers could have but didn't engage the Sea Harriers in high-altitude dogfights, leaving the Skyhawks free to come in low to pummel the British fleet and its vulnerable troop transports and merchant ships. Perhaps the biggest Argentine deficit was in tradition: the Royal Navy had been winning battles for 500 years, while the only enemies the Argentine military had fought in more than a century were its own citizens.

As even British commanders admit, it was a victory by the slimmest of margins.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy Magazine and a writer for the War is Boring defense blog. Follow him on Twitter: @Mipeck1

Image: Flickr/mashleymorgan/CC by-sa 2.0