Strategy and Tactics
Anti-Exocet Naval Strategy and Tactics (1982)
MoD planners and senior officers were well aware of the threat Exocets posed to the British aircraft carriers and other high value units. So they employed a number of strategic and tactical Naval policies to reduce the risk of critical loss.
Safe Patrol Areas
Air launched Exocets posed the greatest danger to the British Task Force. These were configured to be launched by French built Super Etendard jet aircraft flying from the Argentine mainland. As the ranges of the Etendard aircraft and the Exocet missiles were known it was possible to work out the distance the aircraft carriers should stay away from the Argentine air bases to avoid being attacked. Accordingly, ‘safe’ patrol zones were set up for the Carrier Group to the north-east of the Falklands that were just out of range of missile attack. Unfortunately, this also meant that British Harriers had to fly some distance to be on station above the beachhead supply sites at San Carlos which often left warships operating there exposed to attack by bomber aircraft. The resulting loss of ships provoked criticism of British timidity in failing to fully commit the carriers.
Where possible, other military and civilian support ships were held even further east to ensure their safety.
The modern frigates HMS Broadsword and HMS Brilliant were the only two ships of the Task Force equipped with short range Sea Wolf missiles capable of taking down Exocet missiles in flight. Each was initially allocated to a British carrier to provide point defence. The frigates became known as ‘goalkeepers’ because of their instructions to place themselves between any threat and the carrier they were defending to either eliminate incoming missiles with Sea Wolf or to be destroyed in the attempt.
When the landings commenced, the available British air cover became stretched and Admiral Woodward dispatched HMS Brilliant to help defend ships in San Carlos from bomber attack. She was withdrawn after she suffered weapon system failure and rejoined the Carrier Group to undertake repairs. On 25th May, the other ‘goalkeeper’, Broadsword had also been dispatched, this time to provide short range cover for the destroyer HMS Coventry as she acted as an anti-aircraft missile armed picket ship and decoy to the northwest of the beachhead.
Tragically, HMS Coventry was found and sunk by Argentinian bomber aircraft when the two ships’ weapon systems interacted and locked up. A subject well covered in publications and documentaries.
As warships were deployed to support the landings, the British Task Force Commander rearranged the defences of the Carrier Group. He lined up some of the larger Royal Fleet Auxiliary and merchant ships just to the west of the carriers to act as decoys. The idea was that if Argentinian aircraft operating at maximum range managed to spot the Carrier Group they might launch their Exocets at the lesser units having misidentified them as carriers. Atlantic Conveyor was not one of these vessels. She was on station at the heart of the Carrier Group providing helicopter support.