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The SAS vS the Exocet

When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982, A British Naval Task force was dispatched to the South Atlantic to recapture them. The Argentine Navy had no anti-submarine capability and so was effectively out of the war due to the presence of British Nuclear-powered submarines in the region. The main threat to the British flotilla came from the Argentine Air force. Of particular concern were the newly acquired Exocet anti-ship missiles. These French-made sea-skimming missiles were known to be highly effective and hard to defend against. The Argentine Super Etendard was known to be capable of firing the missiles. Operating from the Rio Grande Airbase on the Argentine mainland and able to reach the British task force, it was not long before they began to mount attacks.

When HMS Sheffield was hit and disabled by an Exocet, fear arose within the task force and at home that the Exocet could cause an humiliating defeat. The British believed that Argentina had 5 air-launched Exocets in its Arsenal. If just one hid one of the 2 carriers in the task force, the war might be lost.

To counter this threat, the British Secret Services, the SAS and the SBS were called in.

MI6 Operations

Whilst plans were drawn up to neutralize the existing missiles in the Argentine inventory, The Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6, were tasked with ensuring that Argentina could not get their hands on any more. Posing as black market weapons dealers, British agents endeavored to buy up all the Exocets on the open and black market. The agents also offered black market exocets to Argentineans in order to waste their time and resources on wild goose chase to buy them.

Operation Mikado & Plum Duff

map of tierra del fuego
Map of Tierra del Fuego

Eager to get in on the action, the 22nd Special Air Service drew up plans to destroy the exocets, and the planes that could deliver them by carrying out a suprise attack on the Rio Grande airbase.

SAS planners, including Brigadier Peter de la Billiere, the then Director, Special Air Service, cooked up an audacious plan, codenam Operation Mikado. Inspired by the Israeli operation at Entebbe, it was proposed that the SAS perform an air-land assault against the Rio Grande air base at Tierra del Fuego.

This would entail loading most of B Squadron, 22 SAS, into 2 RAF Special Forces Flight C-130K Hercules at Ascension Island. The 2-ship formation would fly towards the Argentine east coast, taking on fuel mid-air along the way via Victor tankers (the 2 SF flight C-130Ks earmarked for Op Mikado were the only RAF Hercules at that time capable of air-to-air refueling (AAR)).

Flying at ultra-low level to evade radar, the Hercules would set down on the Rio Grande runway and dscourge their cargo of SAS troopers, some riding on motorcycles and heavily-armed 'Pink Panther' Series IIA Land Rovers. The ground force would destroy any Super Etendard jets, Exocet missiles and pilots they could find. Following the attack, the SAS would then escape and evade to friendly Chile, either on the C130s, if they survived, or on their own.

Before the attack would go in, a preliminary reconnaissance mission, code named 'Operation Plum Duff' was launched. On the 16th of May, an 8-man team drawn from 6 Troop, B Squadron, 22 SAS was flown from Ascension Island to the Royal Navy Task Force via a SF Flight Hercules, joining the fleet after parachuting into the South Atlantic ocean. They are subsequently embarked on HMS Hermes. On May 18th, a stripped-down Sea King Mark IV, operated by 846 Naval Air Squadron, flew the SAS team towards the Argentine mainland. The plan was to put the SAS team ashore and for them to march to the Rio Grande air base, put in an OP and send back intel on the defenses or, if possible, carry out a direct action mission to destroy the targets themselves.

The Sea King barely had enough fuel to reach the mainland and the 3-man air crew, from 846 RNAS, knew this was a one way mission. The Sea King reached the Argentine coast without being detected but was soon enveloped in fog. 7 miles short of the intended drop-off point, and with the air crew and the SAS arguing over navigation, the Sea King headed for Chile where it landed, a few kilometers over the border. The SAS patrol decided to attempt to complete the mission, moving off on foot towards Argentina. The Sea King crew subsequently attempted to sink the helicopter in a lake but was unable to do so. They instead set the helicopter on fire on the lake's shore and then preceded to implement an escape and evasion plan. When the burnt out Sea King was subsequently found by the Chileans, the MoD tried to cover up the real purpose of the mission by claiming that the Sea King had suffered mechanical difficulties whilst on an anti-submarine patrol and had to make an emergency landing in Chile. Meanwhile, the SAS reconnaissance mission was eventually canceled and the team were extracted from Chile.

Whilst Plum Duff was underway, B Squadron began practicing for 'Operation Mikado'. Earlier air-land exercises had highlighted a major risk in such operations. Every time it was tried, the large C-130s would appear on the target bases's radar screens while they were still many miles distant, giving the defenders ample time to prepare to repel the attack. This was true even with the C-130s flying at tree-top level. To land on the runways, the lumbering cargo planes would have to slow to around 100 knots, making them easy pickings for AAA cannon or surface to air missiles. The Argentines might also simply block the runways with vehicles. Op Mikado-specific test runs against RAF Marham and RAF kinloss confirmed these issues. Despite this, the planning continued.

Another problem was that a lack of on-site intel would mean that there would be no guarantee that the Super Etendards or the Exocets would even be at Rio Grande when the assault force arrived. The SAS would also have no idea where the Exocets were kept or even where the pilot's mess was situated.

It eventually dawned on the SAS that Operation Mikado would most likely fail which would have been a propaganda disaster for the British. The mission was duly scrubbed. It later became known that, as one might expect, the Argentines had taken suitable precautions to protect Rio Grande. A large number of well-trained troops were stationed there, along with considerable air defences, including radar-guided cannons that almost certainly would have blown the British force out of the sky before it even landed. The Super Etendards were dispersed among a large number of other aircraft at the field,. The missiles were constantly moved around as were the pilots, who were billeted off-base.

But still the threat from the Exocet remained, and British losses continuted to mount. SAS planners took a previously developed plan to parachute troopers onto the Falklands and set about adapting it to the anti-Exocet effort. One of the 2 AAR-capable Hercules would first insert a B Squadron reconnaissance party via low-level parachute drop around 16 miles to the northwest of Rio Grande. The 5-man SAS team would get eyes on to the target and assess if they could feasibly attack it themselves. If not, they would establish an ad-hoc landing strip suitable for the 2 Hercules which would bring the rest of the squadron in the following day. The SAS assault force would then move overland to the target. Following the attack, B Squadron would escape and evade across the border to Chile. Like the Mikado Op, this plan was, perhaps fortunately, never put into action.

SBS Operations

In ex-SBS operator Duncan Falconer's memoirs, First into Action, the author describes how the Special Boat Service were involved in the effort against the Exocet. When MI6 discovered that a shipment of Exocets bound for Argentina were onboard a cargo ship moored in a foreign harbor, the SBS were tasked with destroying it. SBS divers were to swim into the harbor and place limpet mines on the ship's hull with the aim of sinking it. The mission was apparently called off at the last minute when it looked as if the campaign on the islands was drawing to a close and it was calculated that the missiles would not reach Argentina in time to be of help to the Argentineans.

Another SBS mission that almost came to pass was codenamed Operation Kettledrum. Located on mainland Argentina, the airbase at Puerto Deseado was thought to possibly be playing host to Exocet-carrying Super Etendard jets.

The plan was for a 6-man SBS team, embarked on Royal Navy O-class diesel submarine, HMS Onyx, to perform an amphibious insertion via gemini inflatable, approach and observe the airbase and, if feasible, destroy any relevant aircraft. For the return phase, the SBS raiders would use the Gemini, which would have been cached, to rendevous with Onyx.

Operation Kettledrum was eventually cancelled, and the SBS were retasked with supporting operations on the Falkland Islands.

Recommended Reading

The following books are recommended reading about British Special Forces vs the Exocet...

Exocet Falklands: The Untold Story of Special Forces Operations

by Ewen Southby-Tailyour

This book details British efforts against the Argentine Exocet threat. It goes into exquisite detail on the planning for Operations Mikado, Plum Duff and Kettledrum. This meticuoulsy-researched boook includes the perspectives of the Plum Duff SAS patrol leader, RAF Special Forces pilots, SBS commanders and many others. It is, in part, a disturbing read as it clearly shows how disconnected with reality some of the Special Forces planners were. Exocet Falklands reveals how the need by some to maintain the myth of the Special Forces took precedence over realistic military thinking. An absorbing and fascinating read.

Special Forces Pilot: A Flying Memoir of the Falkland War

by Colonel Richard Hutchings

This book is written by one of the NAS 846 helicopter pilots who flew the SAS team to Argentina for Operation Plum Duff. His account of the flight and subsequent escape and evasion in Chile makes for a gripping read. He also details many other missions flown in support of the Special Forces in the South Atlantic. These include inserting and extraction SBS and SAS reconnaissance patrols onto the islands, supporting the SAS raid at Pebbel Island and the SBS storming an Argentine spy ship. A real insight into a special forces aviator's war.

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