Falklands War: The battle for Air supremacy over the islands


The Falklands War can be considered one of the most important conflicts of the last decades, with the Air Force playing an important role. The aircraft of both sides had a great contribution to the outcome of the war.

The aircraft available on the two sides

In the Falklands War Argentina had at its disposal a wide range of aircraft, both under the command of the Air Force and under the command of the Navy. The Air Force had, among others, 36 A-4 Skyhawk, 27 IAI Dagger (Israeli variant of the Mirage V), 16 Mirage III, 8 B-62 Canberra, 24 Pucara. At the same time, the Navy had 4 Super Etendard, 8 A-4 Skyhawk as well as a number of helicopters, MPAs etc.

On the other hand, Britain had to deploy around 28 Sea Harriers (800, 801, 809 Squadrons) as part of the expeditionary force on the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. At the same time, there were 14 Harrier GR.3, 3 F-4 Phantom GR.2, 4 Avro Vulcan and 20 Victor on Ascension Island which acted as a middle point between the British Isles and the Falklands.

Numerically, we can see that the balance between the two was overwhelmingly in favor of Argentina, especially when we consider that at the start of the war the only aircraft available to Britain were around 20 Sea Harriers.

Falklands: The battle for air supremacy over the islands
Photo By Martín Otero – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2963784

Shifting the balance to Britain’s favour

This fact was also evident to the British who realized that before sending troops to recapture the Falklands they would have to gain air superiority over the islands. In the Falklands there were 3 airfields of which the one in Stanley was the most important, so on May 1st it was the target of an Avro Vulcan.

Based on Ascension Island, assisted by 11 aerial refueling aircraft, 2 Vulcans began, as a part of Operation Black Buck, a 16 hour ‘journey’ to target this airfield. Of the 2 bombers, one had to return to base, but the other managed to bomb Stanley airfield.

Thus, it became apparent that Britain was capable of potentially bombing even mainland Argentina, forcing the Air Force to hold back some of its aircraft. At the same time, the sinking of the cruiser Belgrano led the Argentine Navy to suspend the operations of the aircraft carrier Veinticinco de Mayo.

Falklands: The battle for air supremacy over the islands
Photo By Horacio Claria – commons file, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65144832

On the same day there was also the first air battle between the two countries. An Argentine strike force of 36 aircraft was sent to the islands with the aim of striking British forces. The mission had mixed results as only some of the IAI Daggers managed to locate British ships which were positioned near the island.

On the other hand, the British Sea Harriers managed to shoot down 1-3 fighters (Dagger or Mirage) and 1 Canberra.

The sinking of HMS Sheffield

Argentina’s response can be considered an attack on the British fleet and the sinking of HMS Sheffield. Three days later, an Argentine MPA SP-2H spotted the British destroyer. The attack was carried out cooperatively between two Super Etendards, two IAI Daggers, a KC-130 and a Learjet.

Super Etendards were the strike force armed with Exocet anti-ship missiles. In order to reach the target, aerial refueling from the KC-130 was necessary, which was accompanied by 2 IAI Daggers. Finally, the Learjet was in the area as a decoy.

The Etendards were flying very low to avoid the craft’s radar while receiving position information from the SP-2H. Finally, and after the fighters climbed higher, an Exocet from each was fired towards the ship.

Countering the attack from the ship was non-existent since it was unable to detect both the aircraft and the missiles. The battle stations were not manned, neither the main gun nor Sea Dart were fired. The first Exocet missed, but the second hit the ship’s engine room.
The ship sank on May 10th, while 20 people lost their lives in the attack. It was the first ship loss for the British Navy from WWII. The set of events led to an investigation into the sinking of the ship.

The sinking of HMS Sheffield forced the Navy to operate even further from the islands, which created many “gaps” which Argentina exploited.

The sinking of HMS Sheffield was not Argentina’s only successful attempt to attack the British fleet. During the landing of the British forces at San Carlos, Argentine Mirage IIIs, IAI Daggers and especially A-4 Skyhawks carried out continuous raids against the fleet.
During these operations Britain lost 3 ships while 8 more were damaged. It is thought that the very low altitude at which the bombs were dropped prevented a large number of them from detonating. If things had turned out differently then the British navy would have suffered many more losses.

Falklands: The battle for air supremacy over the islands
Photo By Armada Argentina – A4-Q-decolando, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45113636

The ships sunk in San Carlos, which was nicknamed “Bomb Alley” because of the raids, were HMS Ardent, HMS Antelope and HMS Coventry. At the same time, Britain lost 4 helicopters while 22 Argentine aircraft were shot down.

Also of great tactical importance was the sinking of the MV Atlantic Conveyor by two Exocets. The ship was carrying critical equipment, fuel, ammunition as well as Chinook, Westland Wessex and Westland Lynx helicopters.

The technological superiority of the Harrier

Ultimately, despite their small numbers, the Harriers and Sea Harriers at the disposal of the British Navy played a huge role. In the air, thanks to their more capable radar, the AIM-9L Sidewinders and their better maneuverability, the Sea Harriers could beat the comparatively weaker Argentine aircraft. At the same time, the Harrier GR.3s that operated from the aircraft carriers mainly undertook bombing missions of the enemy positions.

A total of 28 Sea Harriers accounted for at least 20 kills, with none lost against an Argentine fighter. But, 2 aircraft were lost to anti-aircraft fire and 4 in accidents.

Falklands: The battle for air supremacy over the islands
Photo By clipperarctic – RAF Harrier GR. 3, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28485597

The aftermath

The Falklands War ended with the surrender of Argentine forces on the island. The battle in the air ended with 24 helicopters and 10 aircraft lost for Britain. On the other hand, Argentina lost 25 helicopters and 75 aircraft.
For Argentina, the most important accomplishment could be considered the success of striking British ships, while for Britain the achieving air superiority over the islands despite the small number of aircraft available.

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