French Jets Head to Old Stomping Ground for One Last Fight
After Syria mission, the Super Etendard is unlikely to ever see combat again
More than three decades ago, the France’s Super Etendards flew their first combat missions against Syrian artillery in Lebanon. Now, France is sending eight Super Etendard Mordernises – a.k.a. SEMs – back to the Middle East for what may be their final fight.
On Nov. 18, the French Ministry of Defense formally announced that the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and its aviation group were heading toward the Eastern Mediterranean. Once in position, the flattop’s aging Super Etendards – along with the more modern Rafale Ms – will attack Islamic State in Syria and possibly Iraq.
After more than 40 years in service, the deployment will be the last combat outing for the SEM jets, according to an official fact sheet. Since the French navy received its first Super Etendards in 1978, the aircraft have fought in more than a dozen different conflicts.
And after the French retire the warplanes next year, Argentina will be the only other country flying them. With the fighters long out of production, this could be the beginning of the end of the Super Etendards.
The SEM is the last in a family of aircraft that stretches all the way back to the 1950s. Despite its long service in the French navy, the jets had an inauspicious start.
In 1955, Dassault delivered the first Etendard II prototype to the Armee de l’Air, France’s air force. The Paris-based plane maker hoped to supply the country’s next major fighter jet. The firm already had an impressive portfolio. After World War II, Dassault had designed France’s first two major jet-powered combat aircraft, the Ouragan and the Mystere.
The confusing nomenclature of the first Etendards – the French word for a military unit standard or battle flag – comes from the fact the Dassault originally treated them as part of the Mystere family. The Etendard II had started life as Mystere XXII.
Like many early jet fighters, the Mystere had a single engine that sucked in air through a large intake in the nose of the plane. While the Etendard was a similarly shaped aircraft, it had two smaller intakes on either side of the fuselage, allowing for a far more aerodynamic nose.
The new warplane was larger than the Mysteres and Super Mysteres and powered by two engines. Unfortunately, even with the extra motor, the French air arm found the jets underpowered during tests. The Armee de l’Air ultimately selected another Dassault aircraft – the Mirage III — instead.
At the same time, the company offered a smaller, single-engine version to NATO as an option for member states. The Etendard IV proved no better than its twin-engine cousin.
But even with the massive success of the delta-wing Mirage design, Dassault persisted with the Etendard family. A year after failing to find any buyers for its first two models, the company pitched a larger version of the Etendard IV to the French government.
More than satisfied with its Mirages, the French air force had no interest in buying a different but similarly sized jet. On the other hand, the French navy was intrigued with the improved design.
Paris had two new aircraft carriers in the works and it needed modern jet fighters for them. Limited by their size and basic features, older World War II-era French flattops had been limited to aging propeller driven aircraft.
In 1962, the French navy began buying Etendard IVM fighter bombers – the M standing for “Marine” – and IVP reconnaissance jets. With their single Atar 08 jet engine, the Etendard IVs had a top speed of nearly 700 miles per hour. The IVM’s had two 30-millimeter cannons and could carry up to 3,000 pounds of bombs, rockets and missiles.
The new aircraft also had the ability to refuel in flight. To give extra range, the IVMs could fly with extra fuel tanks in place of their surveillance cameras.
Together with faster-flying American-made F-8 Crusaders, the Etendards were the mainstays aboard the carriers Clemenceau and her sister ship Foch for the early part of the Cold War. But after a decade in service, Paris was again in the market for newer aircraft for the two flattops.
Having already sold the French navy on the F-8, the Dallas, Texas based Vought Corporation offered up the A-7 Corsair II. Similar to the Crusader in its basic design, the stockier Corsair II was more suited to blowing up targets on the ground and could lug some 15,000 pounds of weapons.
The Anglo-French cooperative SEPECAT – which Breguet Aviation and the British Aerospace Corporation founded as joint venture in the 1960s – countered with a naval version of its popular Jaguar. The French air force was already flying this twin-engine attack plane.
Having absorbed Breguet in 1971, Dassault campaigned for an all French upgrade to the Etendard IV. To sweeten the deal, the firm said the new jet would share many of the components from the earlier jets. Looking at the prospect of getting a new jet and doing it on the cheap, Paris jumped at the opportunity in 1973.
The Super Etendard came into being.
Unfortunately, five years later, French authorities learned that Dassault had almost completely overhauled the design. While the shape remained similar, the new Super Etendards had little in common with their predecessors.
One of the bigger changes was the addition of a more powerful Atar 08K-50 engine. Though similar to the 09 version in the company’s Mirages, the new version lacked an afterburner. The Super Etendard tops out at a speed of just under 860 miles per hour – hundreds of miles per hour slower than the Mirage III.
The new, heavier motor required an all new wing to produce more lift. Along with the same twin 30-millimeter gun pack, the jets could handle 1,000 pounds more ordnance than the older IVMs. Even so, the Super Etendards couldn’t carry a third of the A-7’s maximum payload.
Like the previous jets, Dassault’s new jets came in two flavors, a fighter bomber and an aerial spook. As before, the spy planes could carry the tanker gear in place of their cameras.
With the relatively slow speed and small bomb load, Dassault found few customers for the aircraft compared to its wildly successful Mirage family. In 1979, Argentina ordered 14 of the aircraft. Four years later, France loaned five Super Etendards to Iraq.
Argentinian authorities only selected the French jet after the United States refused to deliver A-4 Skyhawks because of human rights abuses during the Dirty War, when state-sponsored death squads kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands of left-wing dissidents. Baghdad got its aircraft to make up for delays in deliveries of Mirage F.1 fighter bombers.
The warplane saw action while in service with both countries. But in each case, France’s advanced Exocet anti-ship cruise missile was the real star.
The Exocet is still in production. The latest versions fly just below the speed of sound and can hit targets from more than 100 miles away.
After seizing control of the Falkland Islands from the United Kingdom in 1982, Argentine pilots attempted to stop a British task force from retaking the archipelago. Bad weather prevented the Argentine carrier Veinticinco de Mayo from launching her Skyhawks against the British fleet, and fears of submarine attack kept her in port for the rest of the war. The job fell to land-based Super Etendards.
On May 4, 1982, two Super Etendards attacked the British destroyer HMS Sheffield with two Exocets. Though only one of the missiles found its mark, the strike caused a massive fire that burned for days even after the crew had abandoned ship. Sheffield eventually sank in heavy seas as the frigate HMS Yarmouth tried to tow her to port on the island of South Georgia.
On May 25, 1982, another pair of Super Etendards struck the freighter Atlantic Conveyor with two more Exocets. The British had pressed the merchant ship into military service during the campaign to carry helicopters for the ground invasion. She sank with those helicopters — including four Chinooks — on board, forcing British troops to “hump” across East Falkland on foot.
Two years later, Iraq sent Super Etendards into battle against Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf. During these raids, both countries attempted to strangle the other by attacking oil tankers in what became known as the “Tanker War.”
As had been the case for Argentina in the Falklands conflict, Baghdad’s weapon of choice was the sea-skimming Exocet. After more than a year of operations, Iraq sent the jets back in exchange for Mirages. Iranian fighters had shot down one of the Super Etendards.
In the midst of these fights, France’s own Super Etendards got their first state of combat in Lebanon. On Sept. 22, 1983, French jets took off from Foch to blow up Syrian artillery positions that had been shelling Paris’ peacekeepers. During the next two months, the jets attacked other militant groups in the country.
In addition, the Dassault aircraft formed an important part of France’s nuclear deterrent in the period leading up to the end of the Cold War. The Super Etendards could carry a single AN-52 tactical atomic bomb.
“The tactical nuclear forces are an indispensable complement to the strategic forces,” noted defense analyst Robbin Laird, quoting an “an authoritative French publication,” in a report written for the Center for Naval Analyses in 1983. “Their use is a key political action by which France is advertising in advance its resolve to use strategic weapons.”
In 1992, the nuclear-tipped Air-Sol Moyenne Portee – medium range air-to-surface missile – replaced Paris’ older weapons. France now relies on ballistic missile submarines and nuclear-capable Rafale strike jets for its nuclear deterrent.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Super Etendards found new, more conventional battlefields. In response to human rights abuses against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Paris sent Foch and her aircraft to join NATO’s bombing campaign over Serbia in 1999.
A year later, France retired both Clemenceau-class carriers, leaving the newer Charles de Gaulle as the only French flattop in service. The carrier supported NATO’s invasion of Afghanistan. As the fighting dragged on over the next decade, the Super Etendards made regular trips to the region.
The French had also upgraded the jets to the SEM standard. By 2002, the Super Etendard Mordernise had new radars, a laser and television camera to guide smart bombs, and improved electronic jammers to defend against surface-to-air missiles.
Four years later, the French navy made plans to retire the Super Etendard with the Rafale M. The new, sleeker jets had already taken over from the F-8 Crusaders in 1999. The new Rafale Ms do everything the old Super Etendards can do and more.
In 2011, Charles de Gaulle and her mix of new and old aircraft went to the Mediterranean to bomb Libya. In February 2015, the carrier launched France’s first strikes against Islamic State in Iraq from the Persian Gulf. After some two months of strikes, the carrier moved to the Indian Ocean for a training mission.
Now de Gaulle and her Super Etendards are heading back to Syria. After that — if everything goes according to plan — the carrier will return to France. Then the Super Etendards will go away … permanently. With one exception.
The retirement will leave Argentina as the sole operator of the type. But with the problems Buenos Aires has trying to replace its similarly dated Mirage fighter jets, the Super Etendard could easily become too difficult to keep airborne much longer.
When France’s jets finish their upcoming tour of duty over Syria, the Super Etendard may never fire another shot in anger ever again.