Argentina Wants to Keep This 1970s Jet Fighter Flying
The world's last Super Étendard operator considers buying retired French jets
Just one year after France retired its last Super Étendard carrier-based strike planes from service, Argentina announced it is considering buying six of the retired warplanes.
The Dassault-Breguet Super Étendard has always been more distinguished by its armaments and technical capabilities than by its performance specifications. While it ably served France in six wars over 38 years, the Super Étendard will always be remembered foremost for its role in sinking two British ships during the Falklands War—an event that would shake up naval planners for years to follow.
The Étendard, or “Battle Standard,” was first developed as proposed successor to the ’50-era Dassault Mystère fighter-bomber. While the French Armée de l’air passed over the single- and twin-engine Étendards II and VI in favor of the iconic Mirage III, Dassault later managed to sell the French Navy on the IVM variant for service onboard its new home built carriers, Foch and Clemenceau.
The Étendard IV was a light attack plane in the same mold as the A-4 Skyhawk, capable of flying just shy of the speed of sound powered by an Atar 08 turbojet engine. It had two 30-millimeter DEFA cannons and could carry an unimpressive maximum weapons load of 3,000 pounds. The original 74 Etendard IVs never saw combat.
However, the longer-serving 22 IVP photo-recon variants did serve, with two of them making it home to base after being struck by missiles over Lebanon and later in Bosnia.
By the 1970s, the French Navy wanted something a bit more capable, and was leaning toward purchasing the American A-7 Corsair. However, Dassault successfully lured France away in 1973 with an offer to simply make a cheaper, upgraded version of the Étendard IV.
This turned out to be a classic arms-procurement bait and switch, as the new Super Étendard turned out to be at least as expensive, causing the order of 100 to be downsized to 71 by the time it entered service in 1978 with the French Navy’s Flottille 11F squadron.
The Super Étendard had modestly better performance than its predecessor. Though lacking an afterburner, its upgraded Atar 08L-50 turbojet allowed it to fly just above the speed of sound at 860 miles per hour, and its maximum bombload when taking off from carrier was increased by 50 percent across five pylons—though still far below that of the A-7 Corsair.
A retractable in-flight refueling probe allowed it to operate across long distances.
However, its most important upgrade lay in its weapons and avionics—the Super Etendard boasted a then-advanced Etna navigation/attack computer system, and a multi-mode Agave radar that could track both air and surface targets. The Agave allowed the Super Étendard to fire Matra Magic short-range air-to-air missiles for self-defense, and more importantly, the AM39 Exocet anti-ship missile.
The Exocet was then one of the most advanced weapons of its kind. The Exocet skims just two meters above the surface of the water across a distance of 43 miles—or 110 in the latest version—to avoid radar detection while approaching the speed of sound. It relies on an inertial guidance system for most of its trajectory, before activating onboard active guidance radar at the terminal stage.
As a result, the missile is only likely to be detected less than four miles away, giving air-defense systems only 20 seconds to react before impact. The Super Étendard can carry one 1,480-pound Exocet under one wing, with a fuel tank on the other for balance.
War in the Falklands
Air-launched anti-ship missiles first saw action in World War II, where they scored some notable successes, notably sinking the Italian battleship Roma, despite the limited scale of their use. Cold War navies continued developing the technology, but could not rely on firsthand experience to gauge their effectiveness—though ship-launched missile attacks in Arab-Israeli and Indo-Pakistani conflicts suggested they were formidable.
Argentina purchased 14 Super Étendards in 1981 to serve in its Second Pursuit and Attack Squadron onboard the carrier 25 de Mayo. The choice of the French fighter was motivated by a U.S. arms embargo instituted due to the ruling military junta’s brutal Dirty War, in which the Argentine Navy played a major role by tossing hundreds of leftists and suspected rebels off airplanes into the Atlantic Ocean.
Argentine Navy aviators received flight training in France, and the first five of their aircraft were in Argentina, with one Exocet missile apiece, when on April 2, 1982, Argentine troops seized the Falkland Islands—the Malvinas, according to Argentina—from the United Kingdom. In the subsequent crisis, the Argentine technicians had to install the Exocet missiles themselves.
On the morning of May 4, an Argentine P-2H Neptune maritime patrol plane detected the British destroyer Sheffield on its radar. At 9:00 a.m., two Super Étendards piloted by Frigate Capt. Augusto Bedacarratz and Lt. Amando Mayora took off from their base in Rio Grande, heading for the contact. After refueling with a KC-130H tanker, they began skimming just above sea level to evade radar detection.
At one point, they popped up to acquire targets on their radars, only to be alerted that they had been acquired themselves by the British destroyer HMS Glasgow. They quickly ducked back to sea level to avoid detection, then popped up a second time at 500 feet. This time they acquired a radar lock on a British ship between 20 and 30 miles distant. The Argentine pilots released their missiles and then belted for home, convinced the attack had failed because they had not seen the solid-propellant rockets on the Exocets ignite.
In fact, they simply had a delayed ignition cycle.
Their target, the Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield, never picked up the Étendards, and had not gone to action stations after the Glasgow reported her radar contacts. The Sheffield’s onboard radar only picked up the Exocets 10 seconds before one of them slammed into its stern. Even though an investigation later found that its warhead had failed to detonate, the impact killed 20 of the crew and caused the ship to catch fire.
The survivors sang “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python as they awaited evacuation. The Sheffield sank under tow several days later.
After this incident, the Thatcher government was ready to take drastic measures to deal with the Exocet threat. This led to Britain conceiving Operation Mikado, which envisioned using two C-130 Hercules transports to land 55 operators of SAS B squadron onto the Rio Grande air base to kill the Étendard pilots and destroy their planes, before fleeing to Chile for asylum.
However, on May 18, a helicopter on a scouting run for the raid crash landed in Chile at night and its crew was captured. The United Kingdom scratched the obviously suicidal mission at the last minute. In a separate endeavor, British intelligence agents posed as Exocet arms dealers in an effort to sabotage Argentine attempts to acquire more of the missiles.
A week after the helicopter crash, the Super Étendards of Capt. Roberto Curilovic and Lt. Julio Barraza were dispatched to attack a contact acquired by a radar in Port Stanley. Reportedly, a British submarine observed their departure and warned the surface fleet, but the British warships stood down when an air attack was not immediately apparent.
However, the Argentine pilots had simply detoured for inflight refueling. After 4:00 p.m., they popped up, acquired three targets on their Agave radars and released their missiles at the largest one from from a distance of 39 miles. This time the British warships picked up the Étendards on their radars and frantically began pumping chaff decoys into the air.
The countermeasures may have saved the frigate Ambuscade and the transport Regent—but they appeared to have redirected the missiles to the 15,000-ton Atlantic Conveyor. Both missiles struck the container ship on her portside, causing a massive explosion that set the ship ablaze. Twelve sailors out of the crew of 33 perished, including Capt. Ian North.
The Conveyer had been carrying Wessex and Chinook helicopters for use by British ground forces, and her loss forced British paratroopers to advance upon Port Stanley by foot.
On May 30, the Argentine Navy launched its last remaining Exocet, reportedly targeting the carrier HMS Invincible, but failed to hit. Two weeks later, the war ended with the United Kingdom in possession of the islands.
Still, with just five missiles, the Super Étendards had sunk two ships. The experience led other navies to hasten the deployment of Close-In Weapon Systems—autocannons which give ships a chance to shoot down incoming missiles at close range, even given little advance warning.
In case international alarm was insufficient, in 1983 Iraq leased five Super Étendards from France for use in the infamous Tanker War, in which Iran and Iraq did their best to sink each other’s petroleum transports.
The Iraqi Étendards attacked more than 34 tankers with Exocets, typically fired from maximum range without confirming the identities of their targets. Fortunately, the medium-sized missile lacked the punch to easily sink massive seagoing tankers. Iran claimed it shot down three of the maritime marauders, but in fact all but one of the Super Étendards were returned to France once Iraq acquired Mirage F.1 fighters that could launch Exocet missiles.
The Étendard in French Service
The Étendard also gave decades of reliable service in combat to the French Navy, with 16 each serving in the carrier air wings of the Foch and Clemenceau, and later the Charles de Gaulle. The attack planes were upgraded to carry AN-52 nuclear gravity bombs during the ’80s, as part of the French deterrence force, later upgraded to the supersonic ASMP missile, which has a range of 60 miles and can carry a 100-kiloton nuclear warhead.
Eight of the strike planes first saw action in French service in 1983, hitting Syrian artillery positions in Lebanon which had opened fire on French troops, followed by a second strike on an Islamic Amal terrorist training camp.
They went on to fly 415 combat missions over Bosnia and Serbia during the 1990s, making increasing use of laser-guided bombs. The type was commended for its high operational readiness and accurate delivery of precision-guided weapons in combat missions over Kosovo, where the Super Étendard scored its only aerial victory—an Mi-8 Hip transport helicopter shot down by cannon fire.
Following the 9/11 attacks, Super Étendard planes flew reconnaissance and close air support missions over Afghanistan for nearly a decade, even as they were gradually replaced by far more capable Rafale-M multirole fighters. The carrier-based aircraft needed to refuel four times in flight to accomplish the 3,000-mile round trips to the Afghan war zone.
The Étendard was also active in the French intervention against Qaddafi in 2011 and the war against Islamic State in Iraq in 2015. An Étendard catapulted from the flight deck of the Charles de Gaulle for the last time on March 16, 2016, before the plane was finally retired from French service.
Upgraded Étendards for Argentina
France gradually began instituting a series of modernization measures for the Super Étendard known as SEM. These started with new Anemone radars boasting twice the range of the Agave system, and ATLIS and DAMOCLES laser-targeting pods.
By 2002, the SEM4 upgrade added an advanced automated countermeasure system including chaff dispensers, Barracuda jammers, ECM pods and an improved Radar Warning Receiver, as well as new panoramic lens reconnaissance pods. Finally, SEM5 brought in GPS navigation and a new PCN90 flight computer.
In 2009, France agreed to upgrade the Argentine’s Étendard fleet. Argentina still operates 10 or 11 Super Étendards—one of them is a museum—having received the rest of its initial order after the Falkland War. However, it no longer has a carrier from which to launch them. For a while, Argentine pilots still practiced carrier operations onboard the Brazilian carrier Sao Paolo—the former French carrier Clemenceau—but this has been decommissioned as of February 2017.
For years, the upgrade process languished, possibly due to British pressure. Though the days of the military junta are long gone, the Argentine government still maintains its right to the disputed islands.
However, press reports appear to signal that Argentina will accept a French offer of six upgraded Super Étendards retired from French service. The naval attack plane may have flown its last mission for France, but it looks set to serve many more years in the South American country where it made its reputation.