The French Super Étendard fighter aircraft, manufactured between 1974 and 1983, earned a prominent place in the military arena by proving its effectiveness in the May 1982 Falkland Islands conflict. Although originally designed for the French Navy, it was with the Argentine Navy that this fighter achieved its greatest success, sinking a Royal Navy warship. Let’s learn more about this aircraft and its impact on war history.
The birth of the Super Étendard
The Super Étendard was born as a response to the need to replace the French Navy’s fleet of Étendard aircraft, whose life cycle was coming to an end at the end of the 1960s.
The original replacement project, the carrier-based Jaguar M, was hampered by political issues and difficulties in deployment tests. As a result, the development of the Super Étendard arose, although it’s characteristics and load capacity were inferior to those of the Jaguar.
The arrival of the Super Étendard in Argentina
Despite these limitations, the French government was not concerned since the Super Étendard used components of national origin for the most part. Although Dassault, the aircraft’s manufacturer, intended to export it globally, Argentina became its sole export customer.
The Argentine Navy acquired 14 attack fighters destined for its aircraft carrier, of which only four were operational when Argentina seized the Falkland Islands.
The Super Étendard in action
The Super Étendards were in service with the 2nd Squadron and 3rd Aeronaval Squadron, based in Río Grande, Tierra del Fuego. Although the planes were new and the pilots had recently completed their training in France, the lack of preparation for a winter war in the South Atlantic became apparent to both Argentina and the UK.
On 2 May 1982, the first attempted attack on the British fleet approaching the Falklands was carried out, but the attack was canceled due to an in-flight refueling problem. That same day, the Royal Navy submarine Conqueror scored a major victory by sinking the Argentine light cruiser General Belgrano.
Two days later, a pair of Super Étendard fighters took part in Argentina’s only notable victory of the war. Some considered it retaliation for the loss of the cruiser. At around 1:00 a.m., Argentine aircraft, flying low and at high speed to avoid detection by enemy radar, launched two Exocet missiles toward the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, located approximately 60 nautical miles south of Port Stanley. Although one of the missiles missed its target, the other successfully hit HMS Sheffield, a Type 42 destroyer serving as a radar surveillance ship for the carrier. Sheffield’s radar only detected the Exocets ten seconds before one of them hit her stern.
Unfortunately for the crew of the Sheffield, it was too late to react. Although the missile’s warhead did not explode, the impact ignited fires that quickly got out of control. Twenty sailors lost their lives in the attack, and the ship had to be abandoned. On 10 May, under tow, the Sheffield sank, becoming the largest Royal Navy warship lost since World War II.
The legacy of the Super Étendard
This action left an indelible mark on the reputation of the Super Étendard, which continued to provide reliable service in the French Navy for many years. Sixteen aircraft were assigned to each French aircraft carrier, Foch and Clemenceau, and later to Charles de Gaulle.
Even today, Argentina maintains some modernized Super Étendard aircraft from that Cold War era. And with good reason, for what other post-war aircraft can claim to have sunk a Royal Navy warship?
The Super Étendard, while having limitations compared to other combat aircraft of the time, proved its worth in the Falkland Islands conflict by sinking the Royal Navy’s HMS Sheffield. This historic episode cemented her reputation and gave her a prominent place in military history. The Super Étendards are still part of Argentina’s arsenal, recalling their crucial role in that war.