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Exocet AM.39 / MM.40 - Combat

Many modern fighting ships are equipped with Electronic Warfare Systems (EWS) and with Radar Counter Measures (RCMs) as a protection against incoming threats such as guided missiles. The significance of the threat imposed by pinpoint precision weapon systems aimed against naval units was vividly demonstrated during the Falkland War. The best known incident of the Falklands War is the sinking of HMS Sheffield.

On May 4, 1982, the HMS Sheffield was hit by an AM-39 Exocet missile launched by an Argentine Super-Etendard. HMS Sheffield was assigned a radar picket station along the Argentine coast. An Argentine Super Etendard attack aircraft fired two AM-39 Exocet air to surface missiles indiscriminately at the British force. One missile did not acquire a target. The other missile hit HMS Sheffield. Although the missile warhead did not detonate, rocket fuel ignited and caused extensive fires to bum out of control. Due to limited battle space and lack of forewarning, HMS Sheffield did not take any actions to counter the incoming Exocet missile. After fighting the fire for more than five hours, the ship was abandoned and sank six days later when being towed. A total of 20 crewmen died and 24 were injured.

On May 25, the Argentines launched a major air attack on the British force. Skyhawks (A-4s) and Super Etendard aircraft attacked the British ships guarding the entrance to Falkland Sound. The A-4s attacked the picket ships, while the Super Etendards punched through and attacked the main British fleet which was patrolling farther to the east. The Super Etendards attacked the first major ship to appear on their radar. Two Super Etendards fired dne Exocet missile each. Their target, the HMS Ambuscade, detected the missile launches and launched chaff to decoy the missiles. The chaff was successful in seducing the missiles away from the HMS Ambuscade. This incident is classified as a defended target, which was successfully defended.

Once through the chaff cloud, the Exocet missiles that had been fired at the HMS Ambuscade looked for another target. The target they acquired was the converted VTOUhelicopter carrier SS Atlantic Conveyor. Both missiles locked on this target, and both missiles hit and detonated despite the use of small arms and machine guns to fire at the missiles. Twelve sailors were killed, and the Atlantic Conveyor sank six days later due to uncontrollable fires. Both the escort ships and the Atlantic Conveyor took measures to counter the incoming missile, but to no avail.

Although the Argentines did not have the shore launched version of the Exocet missile, they managed to produce a trailer-mounted MM-38 Exocet missile. On May 27, this missile was launched at the HMS Avenger. The HMS Avenger neither took evasive action nor tried to engage, but the Exocet did not hit its target. Although the missile did not hit, this incident is classified as a defendable target because the HMS Avenger took no measures to engage the incoming missile.

Argentine Skyhawks and Super Etendards attacked the British task force on May 30. Their aim was to sink or damage HMS Invincible, the British carrier. One Exocet missile was launched from a Super Etendard, but it did not hit its target.

On 12 June 1982, as she returned from a bombardment in support of the last major battle of the Falklands War, county-class destroyer HMS Glamorgan was struck by an Exocet missile launched from a mobile launcher near Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands. HMS Glamorgan attempted to shoot down the incoming missile with a Sea Cat missile, but it failed. The Exocet detonated near the helicopter hangar, killing 13 sailors and injuring 17 sailors. HMS Glamorgan suffered slight damage and was out of action for 36 hours. Unlike the Sheffield and Atlantic Conveyor, sunk during the previous month by air-launched Exocets, Glamorgan remained afloat, making her the first ship in history to survive an Exocet hit.

The plan was to use the Exocet missiles against the RN ships, specifically, the aircraft carriers to quickly stop or defeat any British's attempt to retake the Falkland Islands. Argentine's deployment of the five air launched AM39 Exocet missiles and its large fleet of A4 Skyhawks, Mirage 5s, and eleven Mirage 3s ultimately failed to deter the B1itish fleet from retaking the Falklands. Bearing heavy losses in pilots and aircrafts despite valor and some tactical successes, the FAA was ultimately unable to compensate for the limited quantity of the Exocet missiles.

In September of 1980, the Iran-Iraq War began. The major naval involvement was the so called Tanker War. It was conducted by both Iran and Iraq. The Tanker War was designed to stop the export of oil through the Arabian Gulf. Attacks concentrated on transiting unprotected oil tankers and freighters. Although there are no exact numbers of missiles fired and hits, reports through 1984 show 52 of 53 Exocet anti-ship missiles hit their targets, and 50 of the 52 hits detonated properly. Results of missile hits differ with the size of the vessel hit. Among smaller freighters/tankers of 13,000 to 30,000 tons displacement, a split of 20% sinking, 60% major damage, and 20% minor damage was produced. Of large tankers 70,000 to 300,000 tons displacement, 60% of the ships were heavily damaged, and 40% saw minor damage.

The Oliver-Hazard Perry class guided-missile frigate, USS Stark (FFG-31) was commissioned on October 23, 1982. While in the Persian Gulf on May 17, 1987, she was struck by two Iraqi Exocet missiles, killing 37 sailors and wounding 21. The pilot fired two Exocet anti-ship missiles approximately 30 seconds apart. Both missiles hit the USS Stark, but only one warhead detonated. Rocket fuel from both missiles kept the fire burning uncontrollably for many hours. The fires were eventually extinguished and the ship brought into port. Heroic efforts of the crew saved the USS Stark from sinking, but it was out of action for nearly one and a half years. This incident is classified as a defendable target. The USS Stark had the necessary equipment to engage the incoming missile, but, due to inattentiveness and complacency, the missiles were not countered. Brought under control, the frigate sailed to Bahrain and was successfully repaired at Ingalls Shipbuilding, Pascagoula, Mississippi. Following repairs and subsequent tours in the Atlantic and Middle East, Stark was decommissioned on May 7, 1999, and was scrapped in 2006.

Special attention is therefore wisely devoted to protection against radar-guided missiles and to missiles with radar seekers.

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Page last modified: 28-04-2019 18:50:13 ZULU