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Handbrake! – Mariano Sciaroni and Alejandro Amendolara

Review by Takis Diakoumis.

As soon as this recent release from Helion and their @War series was in my hot little hands, I struggled to put it down. This full-colour addition to the series covering Latin American conflict is a fabulous study of this important French aircraft and the weapon system that was quietly feared by the British Taskforce in the South Atlantic – so much so that a specific codeword was shouted on board Royal Navy vessels when the aircraft was detected: ‘Handbrake!’

As noted in the preface, this book does not attempt to cover the specific history of the conflict or its origins, but rather hones in on the procurement and operation of the Dassault Super Étendard and the Exocet missile during the Falklands conflict in 1982. 

The Super Étendard was an evolution of the much-earlier Étendard IVM and was hastily developed following the failure of the navalised version of the Anglo–French Jaguar. First flying in 1972, France would eventually deploy 71 examples that would see action from Lebanon to Kosovo, and Libya to Afghanistan, retiring the type only fairly recently in 2016. Key to the initial success of the aircraft was the pairing with the Thomson-CSF/EMD Agave single-pulse, multi-mode radar; while it could easily carry a myriad of air-to-ground weapons, the most powerful was the AM-39 Exocet missile.

The Exocet was designed as a sea-skimming missile with a modest warhead capable of knocking out a 3,000–4,000 tonne vessel. Developed from the surface-launched MM-38, the missile was adapted for air-launch and delivered for operation from both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.  

The Argentine Navy had begun talks with Dassault for procurement of the new Super Étendard by around 1977. Initially intending to purchase the A-4M Skyhawk to supplement its already in-service A-4Bs, discussions with the US stalled and the Argentine Navy began to look elsewhere for aircraft to equip its air wing for the aircraft carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mao. The Navy’s options to operate fixed-wing aircraft from the carrier were limited to smaller types that could be suitably launched and recovered, as well as use the two lifts. The final contract that included 14 new Super Étendards and ten AM-39 Exocets was signed in September 1979.

Amendolara and Sciaroni start to unpack the signs of conflict that began to emerge from around March 1982, by which time the Argentine Navy had only four aircraft, five missiles and barely ten trained pilots. Problems also began to emerge around integration and employment of the Exocet from the Super Étendards – the French embargo from 9 April would hamper efforts further. The British would also later receive from the French information regarding the supply and status of the aircraft and missiles delivered to date. All these emerging issues notwithstanding, the Argentine Navy managed to prepare and make operational all four aircraft and their missiles by the beginning of April, just days after Argentine forces landed and began to occupy the islands.

British tactics would initially focus on preventing the Exocet-equipped Super Étendards from getting into a firing position. The plan called for positioning a Lynx helicopter between 40 and 80 nautical miles from the ships that could detect the Agave radar of the incoming attacker – the issue here being that the radar broadcast wouldn’t actually happen until close to the last moment of the attack. Once launched, the Exocet was difficult to detect, with only some of the British fleet actually capable of doing so;  in any case, this would only ever leave around 30 seconds to launch a Sea Dart missile against it. It is noted here that, even with all of this tuned and working to perfection, the Sea Dart still only had around a 25 percent chance of hitting the incoming missile once launched. 

Handbrake continues, chronologically working through the stages of the conflict. The sinking of the light cruiser ARA General Belgrano by the nuclear-powered attack submarine HMS Conqueror on 2 May would be quickly followed by the first successful Super Étendard Exocet attack on HMS Sheffield. Amendolara and Sciaroni walk through this in great detail, covering the large number of surveillance flights preceding the attack by overworked P-2 Neptunes. Upon detection of Sheffield by a surveilling Neptune, preparations were made to attack with two Super Étendards launching from the southern base at Rio Grande with tanker support from KC-130s. The Neptune would stay on station to monitor and continuously update the position of the target as the attackers flew in at low level. The two Super Étendards launched their weapons towards Sheffield using the hastily developed tactics. One of the missiles struck the vessel three metres above the waterline as planned, with the other missing the target and splashing nearby with no effect. This critical and riveting part of the story is carefully delivered with a number of accompanying images, maps and schematics, and includes narrative from the flight lead of the Super Étendards, Captain Augusto Bedacarratz, as well as Lieutenant Peter Walpole, Signals Communications Officer on Sheffield, who was the first to detect the incoming missile. 

The next major action for Super Étendards crews wouldn’t occur until the end of May – the prize remaining one of the two British carriers, Hermes or Invincible. With the Neptunes now unserviceable and out of action, surveillance and tracking fell on a Grumman S-2E Tracker and Embraer EMB-111 that were quickly leased from Brazil. With only three Exocets remaining, their employment was strictly controlled with rules stipulating they would only attack targets where their position was known, a task made all the more difficult with the less capable surveillance aircraft, as well as the fact the Super Étendard had an effective attack radar, but not one that could be as effectively employed in a search mode. This meant that if the target could not be located, it would be far too expensive to continuously expose the aircraft for prolonged periods searching for a suitable target. 

Atlantic Conveyor was a container ship pressed into service ferrying aircraft and other supplies to the task force. By May 25, the ship was repositioned closer to the carrier battle group as it moved in on the islands to support the continuing assault. While the British press wondered if the SAS had surgically put the Super Étendards out of action with a clandestine assault on their base, Argentine forces were tracking task force movements towards the islands. The call to attack a large important target 110 miles from Port Stanley arrived in the morning with plans for what would become a long, four-hour mission drawn up immediately. With KC-130 tanker support again, two Super Étendards took off, carrying an Exocet each, towards the task force now slightly north-east of the islands. The Super Étendards attacked from the north. The action here is riveting and includes detailed narrative from the attacking lead, Captain Roberto Curilovic. As they approached the target area, the largest vessel on the radar screen was engaged. At the time, both pilots imagined this was either Hermes or Invincible. The Exocets found Atlantic Conveyor sinking the ship with its valuable stores intended to support the ground campaign. Tragically, the ship’s captain, Ian North, a Second World War veteran, drowned while struggling to reach a raft. In all, 12 crew were lost and 133 rescued. 

The overwhelming complexity in integrating an advanced new missile like the Exocet with the Super Étendard, with no assistance from the supplier, was a challenge well met by Argentine forces. With tactics developed on the run, the careful planning and employment of just four aircraft and five missiles was a success even though the prized sinking of one of the British carriers was never achieved. Crews flew unescorted on long, harrowing missions, guided by long-range surveillance aircraft, themselves at the end of their useful life. Like their A-4 brethren with their brazen low-level attacks against the British fleet, Super Étendard crews proved their worth amid an overall unsuccessful campaign.  

This is without doubt the most-detailed account of the Super Étendard and the Exocet missile in the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. The inclusion of so much first-hand commentary from both sides lends weight to the careful analysis by the authors. The enormous number of maps and schematics detailing attack vectors and fleet positions had me engrossed while I played armchair strategist studying the maps and reading and re-reading the narrative. The 40-year anniversary of the conflict in 2022 reopened much of the continuing debate on the campaign and in particular the role of the French and the Super Étendard and Exocet missile system that proved instrumental in denting parts of the British task force. This fantastic contribution to the story by Amendolara and Sciaroni will ensure future debates are balanced and well informed.

ISBN 978-1-80451-1-299


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