Exocet: The lethal French anti-ship missile

One of the most important assets in a military, are its anti-ship missile systems, just like the MM38/MM40/AM39/SM39 variants of the Exocet. A family of anti-ship missiles with a huge global presence, different versions and many accomplishments in the field.

Exocet: The lethal French anti-ship missile
Photo By Ludovic Péron – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4462713

The development of Exocet

Development of the anti-ship missile began by Nord in 1967 as the MM38 with the design having several similarities to the air-to-ground AS-30. Development of the missile was completed a few years later and in 1975 the surface-to-surface (MM38) version entered service.

At the same time, in 1974, with Aerospatiale having entered the program, the air-to-surface version of the Exocet was developed, as the AM39. This version entered service in 1979 with the French Navy. Currently MBDA is in charge of the Exocet program.

New improved versions of the missile followed in the following years. In 1976, a year after the MM38 entered service, development began on an improved surface-to-surface version, the MM40.

Exocet: The lethal French anti-ship missile
Photo By David Monniaux – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2290369

Guidance and evasion of the ship’s air defenses

For its guidance the Exocet receives the general direction of the target and via inertial guidance (INS) follows the course to the target. In the terminal phase, the Exocet activates its own RF seeker to pinpoint the target.

In order to avoid the defenses of the ship, during its course the Exocet maintains a low altitude (sea skimming) so that its detection by the ship is difficult. In the terminal phase and after the missile’s detection is almost guaranteed, the Exocet maneuvers to avoid any fire from the ship.

Exocet: The lethal French anti-ship missile
Photo By Andréia Bohner – originally posted to Flickr as [1], CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6100359

Versions of the missile

To date there have been several versions of the missile for use by surface vessels, aircraft, shore-based launchers and even submarines. In short, the versions of Exocet are as follows:

  • MM38: The first version of the missile, with a range of 40+ km for use on ships and shore-based launchers.
  • AM39: The air-to-ground version of the missile for use by aircraft, with a range of 70 km. In their most modern form, AM39 Block 2 Mod 3 also incorporate improvements of the MM40 Block 3C.
  • SM39: The submarine-launched version of the Exocet, with a range greater than 50 km.
  • MM40: With a different body, the MM40 replaced the MM38 while having a range of 70+ km.
  • MM40 Block 2: Improvement of the “simple” MM40, with new electronics such as a new INS.
  • MM40 Block 3 and Block 3C: The newest versions of the missile and perhaps its biggest upgrades. In the “simple” Block 3 version, it acquired the ability to be guided by GPS, which allows it to attack a target from different directions simultaneously, as well as giving it the ability to be used against targets on land. At the same time, the range was greatly increased, to 180+ kilometers while there were other upgrades to its electronics. In the latest Block 3C variant, the missile got a new digital radar seeker and signal processor which increases the missile’s accuracy.
Exocet: The lethal French anti-ship missile
Photo By Tiraden – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26800117

The Exocet in service around the world

The Exocet has a long service history all around the world. A few of its major achievements took time during the Falklands War where Argentina’s Super Etendard successfully took down HMS Sheffield using the airborne variant of the missile. AM-39s were also credited for the sinking of SS Atlantic Conveyor.

You can read about HMS Sheffield’s sinking here.

The Exocet can be considered a great success in the global arms market as more than 30 countries have, at some point, operated a variant of the missile.

Tell us what you think in the comments!

For more articles by Bill K.

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