Exocet might be old, but its war record shows it’s not to be messed with
by PAUL HUARD
In French, the word exocet means “flying fish” — the sea-skimming fish that glides across the waves on elongated fins that look like wings. In the vocabulary of 20th century warfare, the Exocet was simply the deadliest anti-ship missile in the world.
During the Falklands War in 1982, an Exocet fired from an Argentine Super Étendard attack jet struck the British guided-missile destroyer HMS Sheffield, killing 20 sailors and damaging the ship so badly it eventually sank. The missile’s warhead hadn’t even detonated.
Just two weeks later, two more Exocets sank the British cargo ship Atlantic Conveyor, depriving British forces of badly needed equipment and supplies.
In the Persian Gulf, the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s saw more than 100 Exocets fired at Iranian ships and off-shore oil platforms. However, even the United States felt the Exocet’s punch when an Iraqi F1 Mirage fighter launched two of the missiles at the guided-missile frigate USS Stark, killing 37 crewmen, wounding 21 and nearly sinking the ship.
“The Exocet has consequently become one of the most tried and tested ASMs of the postwar period, and it demonstrates how a few missiles can change the fate of an entire naval campaign,” military historian Chris McNab wrote in A History of the World in 100 Weapons.
The French-designed and produced missile is still going strong. Its launch platforms include surface vessels, submarines, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft — versatility that makes it attractive to the 32 nations that still have it in their arsenals.
Exocet derives its name from a little fish, but it represents the fulfillment of a big dream in naval warfare. The missile is a “fire and forget” weapon that can launch from beyond the horizon, fly just feet above the waves, find its target with radar and then kill its prey.
Under ideal circumstances, the men aboard the target vessel won’t even know it’s coming until it’s too late.
Anti-ship missiles made their first appearance during World War II. A little-remembered Wunderwaffe today, Nazi Germany’s Henschel Hs 293 was literally a “flying bomb.” After dropping from an aircraft, the rocket-powered Hs 293 flew by remote control to its target.
The Hs 293 was primitive … but it worked. On Aug. 25, 1943, the Shoreham-class Royal Navy sloop HMS Bideford became the target of the first successful guided missile attack in history after an Hs 293 struck it.
Later attacks with the missile either damaged or sunk 28 American and British ships, including an attack that sent the troop transport HMT Rohna to the bottom of the Mediterranean, killing more than 1,000 people.
The Soviets were leaders in the further development of ASMs after World War II. One of their most durable designs is the П-15 Термит — P-15 Termite — better known by its NATO designation SS-N-2 Styx.
First deployed in 1960, the 5,100-pound, radar-guided Styx carries a 1,000-pound high explosive charge. Despite its bulk, the Styx’s war record is impressive — the Egyptians sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat in 1967 with their variant of the Styx, and the Indians used the missile with great success against Pakistani targets during the 1971 India-Pakistan War.
In comparison, the Exocet seems a bit of a lightweight. It weighs a little more than 1,000 pounds and is about 15 feet long with a three-foot wingspan.
But its solid-fuel rocket motor powers the missile to speeds above 700 miles per hour, and can propel it nearly 40 miles. An updated version has a turbo-jet engine, GPS guidance systems and a range up to 100 miles.
Once launched, its inertial guidance system sends it toward its target. Then it dips down to almost wave-height altitude, only turning on its active radar later in flight to find and hit its target.
At that altitude, the Exocet is lost in radar “clutter,” making it difficult for many early warning systems to detect. When the active radar turns on, there might be only seconds left in the terminal phase of the Exocet’s flight.
“The Exocet was an eye-opener for Western navies,” James Holmes, a naval historian and analyst who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College, told War Is Boring.
“Weak naval powers like Argentina and Iraq used them against the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy respectively. I was commissioned the week before the Stark incident in 1987 and that’s about all we talked about.”
First developed in 1967 by the French aerospace company Nord, it wasn’t until 1974 that Frances added the perfected Exocet model to its inventory. But as old as the missile is, navies of the world — including the U.S. Navy — still consider it a substantial threat.
The Navy has still ships on patrol in the cramped confines of the Persian Gulf, a place that is already well-established as the perfect hunting ground for adversaries wielding the Exocet.
That includes Iran, whose air force has Exocet missiles captured during the Iran-Iraq War. As for the Russians, they maintain a keen interest in new ASM systems such as the advanced radar-guided SS-N-22 Sunburn and SS-NX-26 Oniks.
Watch out — both have warheads large enough to threaten aircraft carriers.