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How Effectively Did Argentina Employ Its Air Power During the Falklands Conflict of 1982?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Military
Wordcount: 2856 words Published: 18th May 2020

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How effectively did Argentina employ its air power during the Falklands conflict of 1982?

 On 2 April 1982, Argentinian forces invaded the British overseas territory of the Falkland Islands. The British rapidly deployed a task force 8,000 miles across the Atlantic to reclaim the Islands. During the Falklands conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom, neither side could establish command of the air.[1] To fully answer the question, this essay will examine how effectively Argentina employed its air power, in 2 of the 4 roles of air power: Attack and Air Mobility. The Argentinians were tactically sound but couldn’t translate that into strategic effect, resulting in successful attacks on the Royal Navy but didn’t turn this into a long-term military advantage. This essay will examine how the reach of the aircraft was affected when they were forced to deploy from mainland Argentina, resulting in limitations of air mobility. The second part will explore the bombing campaign concerning the Exocet missiles and why the Comando Aviacion Naval Argentina (CANA) only operated 5 missiles and why 75% of bombs failed to explode on hitting the target,[2] resulting in the failure to strike the British carrier group and immobilising the Sea Harriers. The final part of the essay will examine the condition of the air force: the Fuerza Aerea Argentina (FAA) with 2 weeks’ notice to operations, the lack of training the pilots received and the serviceability of aircraft, resulting in air attacks on land being poorly planned and executed.

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It is important to understand how the reach of the aircraft affected Argentina’s air mobility, therefore affecting their employment of air power. ‘At the beginning of the conflict, one of Argentina’s missed opportunities between successful invasion and the arrival of the British task force was its failure to construct a temporary runway at Stanley Airport accommodating its more capable aircraft. Such construction was not beyond Argentina’s capability.’[3] The Argentinian’s had made preparations, but the junta decided to increase the land forces, which meant a shift in logistical priorities. The pilots had to work on deployment options. ‘This included practice of short-field takeoff and landings to determine if sustained operations from the 4,100ft runway at Stanley were feasible. They learned it would only be suitable for emergency landings.’[4] The consequence of not extending the runway meant that the FAA had to take off from Argentina’s mainland airfields, Rio Grande and Rio Gallegos; 440 miles away from the Falkland Islands, close to maximum operational radius of its aircraft.[5] The FAA had Air to Air Refueling (AAR) capabilities, but they only had 2 KC-130H tankers refuelling the Super Étendards and a few Skyhawks. ‘Having only 2 tankers meant that the FAA could only refuel a limited number of strike or combat aircraft at any given time.’[6] The FAA was forced to refuel at higher altitudes to save fuel, at the expense of being exposed to British radar. HMS Coventry had tracked a Skyhawk and launched a Sea Dart at long range achieving a hit, resulting in the rest of the aircraft aborting the mission and returned to Rio Gallegos.[7] The FAA operated Mirages and Daggers which had no inflight refuelling capabilities, meaning that the Argentine aircraft could spend only minutes over their target zone before fuel shortages forced them to return to their base.[8] This resulted in the first air combat of the conflict being aborted; the Dagger pilots broke away as they were concerned about their fuel state. The Argentinian Navy remained out of the fight when the British government gave the order for HMS Conqueror to torpedo the General Belgrano. To protect the only carrier Argentina had from submarine attack, the Navy sent its aircraft carrier, the de Mayo back to port.[9] The CANA lost the short range capability of their aircraft and as a result the aircraft were flown ashore and used in the same manner as the FAA’s aircraft. The Argentinians air mobility effected their air power. The aircraft were operating at their maximum capabilities. Furthermore, if Argentina had extended the runway at Stanley, they would have improved their air mobility and increased their strike capabilities.

The bombing campaign had an impact on the employment of air power, however only having 5 Exocet missiles, and bombs failing to detonate, affected their air strike capabilities. After HMS Sheffield was struck by an Exocet missile, one of the most formidable anti-ship missile systems in the world, Sheffield was scuttled. The British military realised that the computerised guidance system, could hand Argentina victory in the war for control of the Falkland Islands.[10] Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward’s biggest fears concerned the aircraft carriers Hermes and Invincible. Major damage to either of those vessels “would probably cause us to abandon the entire Falkland Island Operation”.[11] The Exocet was the weapon likely to inflict that fatal blow. At the start of the conflict, Argentina had only 5 Exocet missiles and 5 Super Étendards. French President Mitterrand declared his country’s support for the UK and placed a rigid embargo on the delivery of more Exocet missiles and expertise to Argentina. On the orders of President Mitterrand, a delivery of Exocets to Peru was delayed because the British feared that Peru will pass the missiles on to Argentina.[12] It is undoubtedly the case that if Argentina had acquired more Exocets, the losses for the British would have been greater, resulting in the task force abandoning the operation. To mark Argentine Navy Day, 2 Super Étendards with one Exocet missile each were on a mission to attack the British carriers. The incoming attack was spotted only belatedly, the British used chaff as a countermeasure to an Exocet attack, except that having been diverted from their intended targets, the two missiles found the Atlantic Conveyor.[13] This was a significant blow to the British, leading to the critical loss of the transport helicopters onboard.[14] As a result the British lost some of the air movement of its armed forces and logistical supplies. The carriers where well defended and at the time it was hit, ‘the Atlantic Conveyor was less than 2 miles from Hermes with Invincible 8 miles further south.’[15] It was noted repeatedly during the conflict that the Argentine bombs weren’t detonating. The Super Étendards had the Exocet, but other aircraft had only old-fashioned bombs and unguided rockets.[16] The only force which was trained to attack ships was the CANA. The FAA ‘had been forbidden to train over the sea as this was considered the navy’s role.’[17] The CANA hosted hurried training programmes to teach the FAA pilots the way of the sea.[18] The pilots had to learn how to fly low and deliver the bombs at low altitude to fuse the bomb. Insufficient training meant that throughout the campaign their aircraft were plagued with bombs failing to detonate due to an incorrect fuse setting.[19] In Bluff Cove on 8th June, Sir Galahad, Sir Tristram and HMS Plymouth were all critically hit, bringing about the biggest British troop losses of the war.[20] Due to the hurried training of the pilots, the bombs missed or did not detonate on impact. The 50 British casualties were a result of secondary explosions from munitions and fuel. The attacks had put pressure on the Royal Navy, but the Argentine air power was not used to its full potential with bombs not detonating, which was the result of bombs released at the wrong height and incorrectly fused. In total during the conflict, 6 British ships were destroyed with 11 damaged. It would have been catastrophic for the Royal Navy if the 13 bombs that hit ships and failed to explode had detonated.

Argentina was ineffective in planning air attacks, training of their pilots and the serviceability of the equipment that was available to them; which was a factor in the failure to win air superiority. The only part of their air power that was effective was their tactics against the British surface fleet. Argentina worked to reduce the capability of the British radars, the pilots flying at 50ft to avoid detection. The pilots identified where the British were vulnerable and effectively disrupted the British fleet. ‘The damage to the British warships was severe and caused immense anxiety in London.’[21] At the start of the conflict the FAA was only informed of the operation 2 weeks before.[22] This resulted in little time to plan, or how to fight the conflict. At the start of the conflict the Super Étendard pilots had only about 45 hours of basic training.[23] The pilots had no night flying experience and had flown no tactical training missions. When the FAA thought the British were engaged in a manoeuvre to establish a presence on the Falklands on 1st May, the Argentines triggered a wave of attacks. The air attacks were poorly planned and executed. Of 56 planned sorties, only 35 reached targets, and what they reached was irrelevant.[24] British air superiority had been demonstrated with the loss of a Canberra and 2 Mirages. As a result, the Argentinians did not want to risk any more aircraft until the British tried a proper landing of its troops. The FAA had 208 aircraft but only 82 combat aircraft were operationally ready. The significant drop in aircraft was due to low serviceability rate and shortage of spare parts resulting in the cannibalising of airframes.[25] The poor state of readiness of many of the Argentinian aircraft may have been a result of a high percentage of conscripted personal who did not have the same level of experience or training as the permanent service personal. The FAA had 10,000 conscripts in its strength of 19,000 (53%).[26] This evidence proves that the Argentinian air power was not effective enough. Over half of Argentina’s aircraft were not operationally ready and the planes that were used were flown by pilots with no tactical training. The consequence of the poor planning of sorties resulted in wasted time and resources. The Argentinians could have carried out more attacks where the British were already under pressure, by targeting the Royal Navy.

It can be concluded that the Argentinians’ overall air power was not effective enough to win air superiority. The Argentinians were at a disadvantage before the conflict started because they underestimated the UK’s reaction and was not prepared for the UK to send a task force to re-claim the Islands. This resulted in the pilots going into combat with inefficient training and any training the pilots did receive was hurried. The military commanders made decisions that affected their air mobility to employ the use of air power. A good example of this; the junta increasing the land forces instead of extending the runway at Stanley. The Argentinians did achieve tactical success in damage and disruption to the Royal Navy. This was not enough to win air superiority. The Argentinian pilots proved to be immensely brave and highly professional in attacking the Royal Navy at low level, but this resulted in the bombs not fusing in time, consequently the British losses were not more serious.[27] If Argentina had more than 5 Exocets and had they accomplished the strikes on the 2 carriers, HMS Invincible and Hermes, and immobilised the Harrier strike force, Argentina would have won air superiority.



  • Boyce, George (2005), The Falklands War (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian).
  • Chant, Christopher (2001), Air War in the Falklands 1982 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing).
  • Ethell & Dr. Alfred Price (1983), The Falklands War: The Full Story (London: Sphere Publishing).
  • Freedman, Lawrence (2010), ‘Air Power and the Falklands, 1982’ in John Andreas Olsen, ed., A History of Air Warfare (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books), pp. 157-176.
  • Green, Gabriel V. (2005), ‘Argentina’s Tactical Aircraft Employment in the Falklands Island War’ https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a475901.pdf, accessed 13 May 2019.
  • Hezsely, Csaba B. (1988), Argentine Air Power in the Falklands War (Alabama: Air War College), http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a202551.pdf, accessed 17 May 2019.
  • Hobson, Chris & Noble, Andrew (2002), Falklands Air War (Hinckley: Midland Publishing).
  • Ledwidge, Frank (2018), Aerial Warfare, The Battle for the Skies (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Lessons of the South Atlantic War (1982), Defence & Foreign Affairs (London: The Magazine of International Strategic Management).
  • Perrett, Bryan (1982), Weapons of the Falklands Conflict (Poole: Littlehampton Book Services Ltd).
  • Olsen, John Andreas (2010), A History of Air Warfare (Washington, D.C: Potomac Books).

[1] Olsen (2010), p. 82.

[2] Hobson & Andrew (2002), p.155.

[3] Freedman (2010), p.160.

[4] Green (2005), https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a475901.pdf.

[5] Ethell & Price (1983), p.27.

[6] Lessons of the South Atlantic War (1982), p.69.

[7] Hobson & Andrew (2002), p.94.

[8] Perrett (1982), pp.8-9.

[9] Green (2005), https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a475901.pdf.

[10] ‘How the War was Won’, The Times, 8 September 1996.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Freedman (2010), p.171.

[14] Chant (2001), p.55.

[15] Hobson & Andrew (2002), p.97.

[16] Boyce (2005), p.74.

[17] Ledwidge (2018), p.129.

[18] Green (2005), https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a475901.pdf.

[19] Hezsley (1988), p.16.

[20]Lessons of the South Atlantic War (1982), p.73.

[21] Freedman (2010), p.159.

[22] Ledwidge (2018), p.129.

[23] Boyce (2005), p.74.

[24] Freedman (2010), p.163.

[25] Hobson & Andrew (2002), p.19.

[26] Id.

[27] Ibid, p155.


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