Tag Archives: Exocet

Falklands 30 – Pebble Island and Mikado: Special Forces in the Falklands

One intriguing element of the Falklands War is the use of Special Forces during the conflict. In some cases the SAS – and SBS – punched well above their weight. In other cases, they were misused and suffered significant losses. Due to their very nature, much of the story of the special forces in the Falklands is yet to – indeed may never – be told.

The SAS in particular was experiencing a high profile in 1982, shortly after the Iranian Embassy. Many of the men in the Regiment in 1982 had served in places such as Aden, Borneo and Northern Ireland. The SAS were among the first units into action, on South Georgia. On 21 April a troop was landed on Fortuna Glacier on the island, but had to be exfiltrated due to the blizzard conditions. Two Wessex Helicopters crashed attempting to lift them out. The third, from HMS Antrim, managed to take off, heavily overladed with SAS men and the crews of the other two crashed helicopters.

Although the Argentines had sunk HMS Sheffield with an Super Etendard-launched Exrocet misseile, it was knocwn that tchey possessed at least several more. Whilst EC arms embargos prevented Argentine procuring any ore from France, and secret service agents were outbidding the Argentines on the black market, the attention of military planners turned to neutralising the threat posed by the Etendard/Exocet combination. To lose one Destroyer was bad enough; but to lose an Aircraft Carrier might have meant the end of the war.

Operation Mikado was a plan to use the SAS to attack the Argentine’s Super Etendard bases at Tierra Fuego. On 17 May 1982 a Sea King of 846 Naval Air Squadron took off from HMS Invincible, which had steamed to within 500 miles of the Argentine mainland. The Sea King was carrying a recce party of B Squadron SAS, who were heading to scout the Super Etendard airbase at Rio Grande. It would be a one way trip for the Sea King – lacking the range to make it back to the task force, she was stripped down to the bare essentials. Landing west of the Chilean border, the aircraft was ditched in a lake. Even though the aircrew punched holes in her fuselage, she refused to sink. The aircrew were picked up in Chile and flown home.The SAS men believed that they had been spotted by the Chileans, and messaged their HQ in Hereford informing that the mission was being aborted. They had indeed been spotted, and 1,300 Argentine Marines sweeped the area searching for them.

This failure meant that the main party would have to go in blind. The fact that the recce party might have been compromised also meant that the Argentines might be suspicious and on alert. The Rio Grande area was believed to be defended by four Battalions of Argentine Marines. Despite this, the Squadron OC ordered the raid to go ahead. The operation had been rehearsed thoroughly for the past week.

The Mikado plan seems to have been strongly pushed for by Brigadier Peter de la Billiere, then director of British Special Forces. The plan called for two RAF C130 Hercules to fly from Ascension Island with 55 men of B Squadron SAS onboard. The Hercules would land on the tarmac of the runway, keeping their engines running while the SAS men destroyed the Etendards. If somehow the C130′s survived they men would re-board the aircraft and fly to neutral Chile. If not, then the survivors would have to cross the border on foot. The proposed plan was extremely sensitive, as it extended the war to the South American mainland – something that would not find favour among international opinion.

Tying up to Hercules transport aircraft meant that they would at best be interned in Chile for the duration, at worst be destroyed entirely. But perhaps worse than that, 55  expensively trained SAS troops – a significant proportion of Britain’s special forces – were being put in serious danger. Would the loss of these men and two aircraft have represented a good exchange for five Super Etendards?

One cannot help but feel that de la Billiere was taking his inspiration from raids on Axis airfields in North Africa. The situation in 1982 was quite different – the Argentines surely expected some kind of attack on their air bases. Perhaps DLB was inspired by Operation Entebbe, an Israeli operation to recover hostages on a hijacked airliner in Uganda. The Ugandan Forces in 1976 posed far less of a threat to the Israelis than the Argentines did to the SAS, both in terms of early warning and anti-air defences. The Argentine radar might give them a six minute warning of the incoming aircraft – ample time to throw up stout defences.

The SAS men – a lot more sensible and less bloodthirsty than popularculture would have us believe – do not seem to have liked the plan one bit, seeing it as a suicide mission. One Sergeant went as far as handing in his resignation. One RAF Pilot assigned to the mission is believed to have suffered a nervous breakdown. The Squadron Commander agreed with the concept, but did not like the specifics of the plan that he was being pressured into implementing. The Squadron Commander was removed and replaced with the Regiment’s second in command. According to some accounts, De la Billiere made himself very unpopular in some quarters, as it was felt that he was trying to engineer a high-profile mission for the Regiment. After the war De la Billiere delivered a extremely ill-judged – some might say bad taste laden – speech to the SAS men, near enough accusing them of mutiny. He was laughed out of the room.

In hindsight, taking the war to the Argentine mainland in such a manner would have escalated the war, and not reflected well on the British effort to retake the islands. The Argentines were almost certainly on their guard against such an event, and it would be hard to believe that the slow, unarmed Hercules would be sitting ducks for the Argentine air defences. If they guarded Stanley airport with Roland and Tigercat missiles and radar-laid Rheinmetal cannon, what would they be guarding a mainland Super Etendard base with?

By contrast with Operation Mikado, the raid on Pebble Island was an outstanding success. Off West Falkland, Pebble Island hosted a small airfield with Pucara light attack aircraft and Mentor reconaissance craft. These aircraft were will within range of the chosen landing site at San Carlos, and could have compromised the amphibious task group on its way to the landings, and then launched attacks on the ships and troops at their most vulnerable point. According to Sandy Woodward’s memoirs, he was pondering the problem with his planning team when a ‘talking tree’ SAS officer chipped in, ‘I wonder if we might be able to help, Admiral?’. After convincing the SAS that they could not spend two weeks planning, the raid was set for the night of 14 and 15 May.

Boat Troop of D Squadron carried out prior reconaissance, via cockleshell-style Klepper canoes. On the night HMS Hermes sailed to off the north of West Falkland, accompanied by HMS Glamorgan. Sea King helicopters carried 45 members of D Squadron of the SAS, dropping them off just under four miles from the airfield. The raiding party were heavily armed, including mortars and anti-armour weapons. The party reached the airfield without being spotted, and managed to place explosive charges on all of the aircraft. Once the charges had been placed the SAS men opened fire with small arms, followed by gunfire support from HMS Glamorgan offshore.

The party were exfiltrated succesfully, with only one SAS man wounded. According to British sources the Argentine commander was killed – this is denied by the Argentines themselves – and 11 aircraft were destroyed. The raid was considered a complete success, with the objective neutralised and virtually no casualties suffered.

A further tragedy befell the SAS the night before the landings at San Carlos. Crossdecking between ships, a Sea King loaded with SAS men apparently struck a seabird in mid-flight. Of the 30 men on the aircraft, only eight got out alive. It was the largest loss of life for the Regiment since the Second World War. Many of the men lost were veterans of South Georgia and Pebble Island.

Other SAS patrols were out on the Falklands prior to the landings at San Carlos, carrying out the arguably less glamorous work of surveillance and survey work. Men ofthe SBS were on the landing beaches to guide the amphibious force in on D-Day. That the landings were succesful and unopposed was down very much to their work with the mark one human eyeball.

The profile and connections of the SAS do seem to have caused some problems for the force commanders on the ground. When more than one SAS Squadron deploys on an operation the CO accompanies them. In this instance he had direct satellite communication with Hereford and London, and hence was able to communicate with Britain quicker than any of his superiors. And in De la Billiere the SAS had a vociferous supporter who was not afraid to knock down doors in the interests of ‘his’ Regiment. Was Operation Mikado a political construction to aid the Regiment’s profile?

The experiences of special forces in the Falklands would suggest that there is much value in having highly trained, very capable special forces on call for unforseen eventualities. When tasked to do a job properly and given the resources to do it, the investment more than pays dividends. But, and this is a big but, they need to be properly used, and employed with care. As with most things military, it is about knowing your tools, and what jobs to use them for.


Filed under Falklands War, special forces, Uncategorized

Falklands 30 – The loss of HMS Sheffield

HMS Sheffield (D80)

HMS Sheffield (D80) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the sinking of the Belgrano and the Vulcan raid on Stanley airfield, there certainly seems to have been a feeling that the gloves were now off in the South Atlantic.

HMS Sheffield, the lead ship of the Type 42 class of Destroyers, was built at Vickers at Barrow, being launched in 1970 and commissioned in 1975. She was a Portsmouth based ship, as were the rest of the Type 42′s. The Sheffield had been away from home for quite some time, having been taking part in Exercise Spring Train on her way home from an Arabian Gulf Patrol when she was diverted down south.

When the Task Force entered the Exclusion Zone on 1 May, the three Type 42 Destroyers – Sheffield, Coventry and Glasgow – were ‘up front’ performing radar picket duty. Their Type 965 radar in particular gave good long-range coverage, and in that sense the Type 42′s were they eyes and ears of the task force, and the outer layer of the air defence ‘onion skin’ based around protecting the vital aircraft carriers. A very important task – which the modern Type 45′s are very much suited for – but a very lonely and dangerous job too.

It was known that the Argentines had purchased a number of French Exocet anti-ship missiles, which could be launched from Super Etendard aircraft flying from the Argentine mainland. Although the French had withdrawn their technical support as part of the EEC arms embargo, it was expected that the Argentines would at least attempt to use them. After the loss of the Belgrano, this suspicion was even more keenly felt.

HMS Sheffield was first spotted by an Argentine Navy Lockheed Neptune maritime patrol aircraft at 7.50am on 4 May. The Neptune tracked the Sheffield for the next two hours, obviously undetected. At 9.45am two Exocet-armed Super Etendard’s took off from Tierra del Fuego, refuelling from a KC-130 Hercules tanker on their way to the target. At 10.50am both aircraft ‘popped up’ from their low-level flight. After failing to sight the target initially, 25 miles later the Sheffield appeared on the Etendard’s radar screens.

Both Etendards launched their Exocet’s at 10am, at a range of 20 to 3 miles. The sea-skimming missiles raced towards the Sheffield. The Etendard’s had not been detected by the task force as had been expected – it was intended that anti-Exocet procedures would begin once the Etendard’s radar signature was detected. The missiles, however, were spotted by the other Type 42 Glasgow. Sheffield, however, appeared to be silent and inactive. She had been using her satellite communications, which rendered her Typ3 965 radar inoperable for a short time. Sheffield was silent, until the anonymous message was heard ‘ Sheffield is hit’.

One of the Exocets was eventually picked up by the Sheffield, but far too late to do much about it. Five seconds later, the missile struck Sheffield amidships, tearing a gash in her hull feet above the water line. Evidence suggests that the missiles warhead did not explode, but the ships fire main was fractured. The combination of this and the burning of un-spent missile fuel caused a fire to spread through parts of the ship. Eventually the fire was so hot that the ships paint bubbled and blistered, and the heat on the deck could be felt through boots. The Sheffield was effectively dead in the water.

Sheffield was taken in tow by HMS Yarmouth, but sank days later after water flooded through the gash in her side. She was the first Royal Navy ship to be sunk in action since the Second World War. Twenty of her crew were killed, most of whom were in the Galley at the time of the missile strike. As a Portsmouth based ship all of them were either from Portsmouth or had Portsmouth connections. Looking back, it is difficult not to form an opinion that the loss of the Sheffield – the first havy loss of the conflict – delivered a serious reality check to officials and public, many of whom might have been under the illusion that the Falklands might be an easy war.

As a result of the strike on the Sheffield, the Task Force changed it’s missile defence procedures. As soon as the Etendard’s radar signature was picked up, the codeword ‘handbrake’ would start the wholesale launching of chaff decoys, thousands of tiny metal strips that were intended to divert any missiles away from ships. The Argentines launched other Exocet strikes, but the only other ship to be sunk by one was the merchant vessel Atlantic Conveyor, later in the war.

The official MOD report into the sinking – as is cutomary whenever a ship is damaged or lost – found that the ships fire-fighting equipment, training and procedures were poor, and criticised certain anonymous members of the crew, who are difficult to positively identify and the report is heavily redacted. When the Sheffield’s Captain, Sam Salt, landed on the flagship HMS Hermes, he was received in a cold manner, and all but left on his own according to eyewitnesses. This coldness would suggest that their was a feeling at the time that the Sheffield was caught with her pants down. It’s probably difficult for those of us who have not commanded a Destroyer in war to form any kind of opinion on this, except perhaps that in the ‘fog of war’ unfortunate events do sadly happen.


Filed under Falklands War, Navy

Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Frigates and Destroyers

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Image via Wikipedia

In my 2009 review of the possibility of fighting another Falklands War, I identified a lack of escorts – Frigates and Destroyers – as a critical problem that might inhibit Britain’s ability to retake the Falklands after a hypothetical Argentine invasion.

In order to assess whether the Royal Navy has a suitable number of hulls, we need to assess what tasks Frigates and Destroyers are needed to perform. I can think of the following off the top of my head:

The Technology

In 1982 the type 42 Destoyers were used as up-front radar pickets ahead of the main force. It was in this role that HMS Sheffield was sunk by an Exocet Missile, whilst acting as a radar picket along with her sister ships HMS Coventry and HMS Glasgow. The Type 965 air surveillance radar carried by the Type 42‘s in 1982 had a reasonable range of 230 nautical miles, but was becoming obsolescent and was due to be replaced by the more advanced Type 1022 system with a range of 225 nm. But using their radars three ships could still provide a reasonable radar screen, ahead of the main force. True, HMS Sheffield was hit, but that was partly due to her radar being ineffective at an unfortunate moment, and in addition, better to lose a destroyer than a carrier.

Fast Forward to 2012, and the Royal Navy has three Type 45 Destroyers in commission having passed all sea trials, with another – HMS Dragon – due to be commissioned in Spring 2012. The Type 45′s use a SAMPSON air surveillance radar, far in advance of anything that the Royal Navy possessed in 1982. It has been reported that SAMPSON is so effective, that in exercises with the US Navy a Type 45 Destroyer was asked to switch it off as it was ‘inhibiting training’. Specifications for SAMPSON are hard to come by, the best I can find is a range of 400 kilometres, which translates to around 250 miles. But apparently the picture is much more detailed, the false-alarm ratio is much lower, and it is all-round more effective.

In 1982 the Royal Navy could only deploy two of its new Type 22 Class Frigates, carrying Sea Wolf close range missile system. Both of these carried the original GWS-25 conventional launch system, fired using type 967/968 radar combinations. The rest of the Task Force’s Frigates and Destroyers were only armed with obsolete Sea Slug and Sea Cat systems. The Royal Navy’s Type 23 Frigates now fire vertical launch Sea Wolf, controlled by Type 996 radar. A combination of SAMPSON/Sea Viper and Type 996/VLS Sea Wolf is far in advance of what could be offered in 1982, especially when we consider that the Argentine Navy and Air Force’s equipment has hardly improved.

In an ironic sense, the likely lack of an aircraft carrier would release a couple of escort vessels from air defence duties, although the same role would still need to be performed escorting the amphibious group, or any other valuable or vulnerable group of ships in the Task Force. In a similar manner, ships would have to provide initial air defence for any invasion and subsequent landing zone, before Rapier could become effective – much as in 1982.

One problem I identified back in 2009 was the presence in the Argentine fleet of 13 Excoet equipped Destroyers and Frigates. One would hope that the advanced Type 45 and Type 23 technology would prove to be more than a match for this – and any Exocet equipped Super Etendards – but it does show up a shortcoming in anti-surface capability in the Royal Navy today. Exocet has a range of 43 miles, or 110 if fitted with a booster. This should be well within the range of SAMPSON in the long reach and Type 996 in the short distance, but do we have enough ships to provide defence against so many possible threats? However, since 1982 all RN ships DO have improved Close in weapons defences – be it Goalkeeper, Phalanx or Chaff.

The Type 23 Frigates carry Harpoon anti-surface missiles, which have a range of up to 136 miles, depending on which variant is carried (which I am struggling to find out). Hence Harpoon seems to outrange Exocet by some distance, but following the withdrawal of the Batch 3 Type 22 Frigates, there are only 13 Type 23′s in service. Not all of them would be available at any one time thanks to standing commitments and refits, and when we consider that at least a couple would be required for close-in air defence, only a few at most would be available for forming a surface-action group to combat the Argentine Exocet ships. The Typ3 45 Destroyers are designed to carry Harpoon as an upgrade – there is even space in the ops room for the operators desk – but they do not currently carry them. With the decomissioning of the four Batch 3 Type 22′s, I wonder if their Harpoon launchers and systems could be utilised? The the MOD would only need to purchase two new systems. It depends if the Type 22′s are to be scrapped or sold as going concerns.

The Argentine Navy does have a paucity of Submarines compared to 1982, fielding only three diesel electrics of TR-1700 and Type 209 class. If the performance of the Argentine submarine arm in 1982 is anything to go by, the Royal Navy need not fear too much. The Royal Navy has an expertise in anti-submarine warfare, a legacy of the Cold War. However, of the 13 Type 23 Frigates, only a number of them actually carry towed-array sonars for anti-submarine work – this could be something of a problem. All Frigates or Destroyers carry Merlin or Lynx helicopters for ASW, which one should imagine would provide good defence against submarines. However, the lack of an aircraft carrier might inhibit the carrying of further ASW Sea Kings as in 1982. In the same manner, a lack of AEW might be a problem.

In terms of naval gunfire support, the Royal Navy learnt a big lesson in 1982 – you can never have too many ships with a traditional main gun. As a result the Type 22 Class was modified to carry a 4.5 inch gun, and the Type 23 and Type 45 Classes all have the up to date Mark 8 4.5 inch gun. At Navy Days 2009 I was informed that the 4.5 inch gun direction actually has an offset built in, as in the Falklands it was found that the fire was too accurate – pretty much putting roundsi nto the same holes. Obviously for harrassing fire this is no good. A Task Force in the South Atlantic should be able to provide reasonable gun fire support, but a lack of Tomahawk LAM equipped surface ships is lamentable – although these are carried on our SSN’s, more of them on surface ships would really put the fear up the Argentines.

The verdict

Technologically, the Royal Navy has progressed in leaps and bounds since 1982, and can offer up radar and weapon systems that should more than prove a match for anything it might encounter in the South Atlantic. The only problem I can identify is a lack of hulls. With advances in technology, the number of ships keeps getting cut to subsidise the improved systems on each hull. With Four Type 45 Destroyers, three Type 42′s, and 13 Type 23′s, that gives only 20 Escort vessels in total. We would do very well indeed to get ten or twelve of them into action for a task force. Whilst one Type 45 Destroyer could probably do the job of two Type 42′s, if it is hit, it can’t do the job of any. A ship can only be in one place at any one time, and hence the politicians and admirals boasts that advances in technology make a lack of ships irrelevant should be treated with caution.

Ggiven that the Argentine Air Force and Navy haven’t really progressed since 1982, I wouldn’t imagine that any Type 45′s or Type 23′s down south would encounter too many problems. The problem would be getting enough of them there in the first place to do everything that we would need them to do. In recent months the RN has struggled to have ONE escort available in coastal waters alone. It could indeed be a close run thing once wear and tear and possible losses come into play.


Filed under debate, Falklands War, Navy, Uncategorized