The Sinking of HMS Sheffield
After the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano, there was no question but that there would be a fight for the Falklands. The Argentine Navy, stung by the loss of life with the sinking of the General Belgrano, had retreated to port. The British task force, operating east of the Falklands themselves, began operations to prepare for an amphibious landing. Air strikes and naval gunfire missions would prep the battlespace, while SAS and SBS troops performed reconnaissance missions to determine the best locations to make the main effort. While the task force was awaiting the main body of the amphibious forces, they also struggled to gain air superiority above the islands and adjacent waters.
As we’ve seen in earlier posts, the Argentinians had far more aircraft available in theater than the British. But operational constraints meant they could not get those aircraft into the fight in large numbers at any one time. Since the Argentinians failed to improve Stanley airfield to operate fast jets, they had to operate from mainland bases, only just in range of the Falklands. By standing off to the east, the British task force was out of range from Argentinian strike planes unless they were refueled in the air. But Argentina’s best supersonic fighters were not capable of air-to-air refueling, and in any event, Argentina’s only tanker assets were two KC-130 tankers. This imposed a finite (and very small) limit on the numbers of aircraft that could range to the task force in any one strike.
The primary Argentinian strike aircraft was the A-4 Skyhawk, but it had no anti-shipping weapons other than free-fall dumb bombs. The Argentine Navy had been in the middle of transitioning from the A-4Q to the French built Dassault Super Etendard light attack jet. The Super Etendard was carrier capable, and could be refueled in flight. But the big advance was its ability to carry the AM39 Exocet sea-skimming anti-ship missile. But they had only accepted five jets into service, and worse, they’d only received 5 Exocet missiles. British diplomatic efforts prevented the Argentinians from securing any more air-launched Exocets on the international market.
The Argentinians also had to face the problem of simply finding the British task force. While the task force operated relatively close to the Falklands, that still left an enormous area for them to hide in. Argentina’s only long range patrol planes were two ancient surplus P-2 Neptunes. These Neptunes had a decent long range search radar and good ability to passively detect the British through Electronic Support Measures (ESM) but were hampered by a lack of spare parts. Argentina had been subject to an embargo since the “Dirty War” against internal dissidents, and spare parts for their surplus US aircraft were unavailable. Indeed, both Neptunes would be withdrawn from service before the end of the war because of this lack of part. This lack of search capability greatly hampered the Argentine ability to attack the task force. In fact, a large percentage of strikes launched were abandoned because they simply couldn’t find the British. Further, the Argentinians were having difficulty integrating the Exocet with their Super Etendards. They weren’t certain the weapons would even work.
The Argentinians weren’t the only ones facing challenges. The British had several tough nuts to crack as well. Since their light carriers only carried Harriers and helicopters, they had no Airborne Early Warning (AEW) radar planes to cover the task force. Radar range, particularly against low level targets, is a function of the height of the antennae. The curvature of the earth means that shipborne radar can only detect low flying aircraft at very modest ranges. If the Royal Navy had not decommissioned HMS Ark Royal six years previously, her airwing of Phantom fighters, Buccaneer strike jets, and Fairey Gannet AEW planes would have been vastly more formidable than the airpower aboard the two light carriers. Alas, since that was not to be, Admiral Sandy Woodward, commander of the task force, had to make other dispositions. In an effort to extend his radar coverage, Woodward had three of his Type 42 anti-air warfare destroyers deployed ahead of the main body to serve as radar pickets. The Type 42s had the best long range air search radars of the task force, and a long range missile system to go with it, the Sea Dart. But if the Argentinians came in low enough, the Type 42s might not see them in time to successfully engage with Sea Dart. On the other hand, they were likely to spot any Argentinians long before they reached the absolutely priceless carriers of the task force. The frigates escorting the carriers carried the very short range Sea Wolf missile, which was in its own way better suited for this “goalkeeper” mission. Optimized for quick reaction to close in threats such as jets and anti-ship missiles, Sea Wolf equipped escorts would be cued to inbound raids by the Type 42s, and ready to prevent any attacks on the carriers. The carriers contributed to their own defense as well, by maintaining a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) of two Harriers armed with advanced AIM-9L Sidewinders. Any Argentinian intruders detected were in grave danger from these jets. The small number of Harriers in the task force meant they weren’t always able to maintain a CAP, but as much as possible, the patrol was maintained during daylight hours.
The first Argentinian air raids on the task force, on 1 May, had been made at a fuel efficient medium altitude. After heavy losses to the British CAP, further raids would be made at wave top level.
Early on 4 May, 1982, an Argentinian SP-2H Neptune detected what it thought was the main body of the British task force. Instead, it had detected the picket screen of Type 42 destroyers. A strike by two Exocet armed Super Etendards was quickly launched. To this day, there are conflicting accounts of what transpired. Some sources have claimed that the Sheffield’s main air search radar was shut down briefly to reduce interference with the ship’s satellite communications. The two Super Etendards were able to close within launch range (about 25 miles) of HMS Sheffield. Two Exocets were launched. At about 11:04am local, one of the missiles impacted the starboard side of Sheffield a few feet above the waterline. Most sources say the warhead failed to explode, but others claim it did. At any event, the missile severed the fire main, and started violent fires amidships. Photographic evidence tends to support the contention that the warhead failed to explode. The crew of Sheffield were unable to control the fires. After several hours, the decision was made to abandon ship, and take the hulk under tow. Twenty crewmen, mostly in the galley area of the ship, lost their lives. The other Exocet missed and crashed into the sea.
HMS Sheffield was taken under tow, but six days later, progressive flooding from high seas through the breach in the hull caused her to founder.
After the air raid, Argentina actually had no idea if the attack had been successful. It wasn’t until the British Ministry of Defense announced the attack that Argentina realized they had been successful (at least, in attacking a ship, if not the carrier they thought they were attacking). While an open society such as Britain has a responsibility to keep the public informed, had Britain not informed the world of the attack, Argentina might well have concluded that the Super Etendard/Exocet combination still had not been mastered, and foregone further attempts at using their Exocets.
The loss of Sheffield caused navies throughout the world to sit up and take notice. The need to be able to detect and rapidly engage sea-skimming missiles was abundantly clear. Further, the hit to the Sheffield should have been survivable. Every professional navy in the world, and particularly the US Navy, rededicated itself to learning the lessons of damage control, and particularly firefighting at sea. I can personally attest that lessons from the attack were closely studied, and techniques to fight fires at sea were being taught in 1989. And of course, the attack on the USS Stark in 1987 (by Exocet missiles, no less) showed that many lessons had indeed been learned. In spite of two devastating hits by Exocets, the Stark survived. Fires ravaged her, but she was saved to serve again.
First blood had been drawn on the British task force. It would not be the last. The British would continue to conduct softening-up strikes on the Falklands, and attrit the strength of the Argentine forces.