Air War in the Falklands

Grand miscalculations, unknown odds, miserable weather, vast distances—and unlikely adversaries

A Royal Air Force Avro Vulcan strategic bomber. (Sgt. David S. Nolan, US Air Force)
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The two sides skirmished throughout the day until Barton scored with a Sidewinder that shattered everything aft of one Mirage’s cockpit. Wingman Steven Thomas fired at and crippled a second Mirage just as it entered cloud. The pilot limped toward Port Stanley, where Argentine guns shot him down—the first of many incidents of friendly fire.

Meanwhile, three Daggers managed to damage some British vessels with cannon fire but narrowly missed with their bombs. Two more Daggers with Israeli Shafrir heat-seekers engaged Flight Lieutenant Tony Penfold and Lieutenant Martin Hale, but the Argentine pilots fired at extreme range. One missile followed Hale into cloud before losing its lock. Moments later, the offending Dagger was nailed by Penfold and the other turned for home. Six attacking Canberra bombers were scattered, but not before one of them was dropped by a Sidewinder.

Thus ended day one, with both sides wiser. Britain had learned that little of its high-technology arsenal worked quite as the brochures had described. Shipboard anti-aircraft radar, designed for fights at sea, lost small, fast targets against the terrain, and, like all computerized entities, the units sometimes sulked. The Sea Harrier’s radar also lost aircraft that were flying over land.

But so far, the Sea Harrier and AIM-9L Sidewinder had easily defeated the Mirages and Daggers sent against them. Part of that was attributable to the Argentine pilots’ lack of combat experience. As they improved—and if they pressed their attacks—they would start getting hits, and by June the world would be bereft of Sea Harriers. As the British CAPs thinned, the carriers would become more exposed. But positioning the carriers out of range would sacrifice air superiority. The farther the carriers were from the islands, the less time the Sea Harriers had to fight.

The generals in Buenos Aires also had much to ponder. Surface-to-air missiles—the Sea Dart and Sea Wolf—had been their main worry, but the Sea Harrier and Sidewinder had cost them four aircraft. The French Magic and Israeli Shafrir missiles, launched at great range, had proved useless. And then there was the Vulcan.

Like the Doolittle raid on Japan, the Vulcan strike had an effect. A nation mad enough to fly 4,000 miles to hole a runway might send Vulcans to bomb Buenos Aires. And the 4,100-foot runway at Port Stanley, already marginal for high-performance jets, was now closed to them.

The next morning, about 200 miles northwest of the British fleet, 25th de Mayo prepared a strike, but with no wind, her catapult couldn’t loft a fully laden Skyhawk. General Belgrano was eastbound 30 miles south of the combat zone, trailed by the British nuclear submarine Conqueror. Sensing an Argentine pincer movement, the Royal Navy ordered the sub to strike. It hit the cruiser with two torpedoes, and two hours later Belgrano went down, along with 321 souls and all hope that war could be averted. With her escort, 25th de Mayo headed to port, never to fight again.

Now all of Argentina’s aircraft would have to fight from the mainland. The Super Etendards and Skyhawks could be refueled by tankers, but the Daggers couldn’t; they would have barely enough fuel for the trip. The Mirage IIIs were pulled back to protect Buenos Aires from Vulcan raids—and, perhaps, to save them from the Sea Harriers.

Two days later, on May 4, an Argentine Lockheed P2V Neptune detected British warships about 85 miles south of Port Stanley. Near noon, the old airplane climbed high enough to sweep the fleet one last time, and passed its position to a pair of Super Etendards, each of which had an Exocet. The pilots were less than a year out of training at Landivisian, in Brittany. “When they left France,” recalls Ramón Josa, the French navy pilot who trained them, “they were 50 hours old on the Super, and not in the least ready for a South Atlantic war. But when they ran the Exocet attacks, they had something like 110 hours with the Super and they were ready.”

For 200 miles, the two Supers flew only 50 feet above the waves, then, near the target, popped up to about 120 feet and briefly switched on their Agave radar units. They saw a white block: the destroyer HMS Sheffield. With a range of less than 20 miles at this height, the radar evidently missed the carriers. Josa says a larger radar echo is not necessarily a larger ship; the echo is smaller when the radar sees a ship head-on and larger when in profile. “After the pop-up and looking to my radar image,” he says, “I have to choose between two alternatives: launching the missile at the first target I see, or…get the carrier into missile range.” The latter entails flying another 20 miles, over the missile-armed frigates—in other words, “I die before launching,” says Josa. By staying low, the Argentine pilots gambled nearly half their Exocet arsenal on a small destroyer.


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