The destroyer HMS SHEFFIELD on fire after being struck by an AM39 Exocet missile fired by an Argentine aircraft ©
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Right up to the last day of the Falklands Conflict, the Argentinean Air Force was a potent threat, especially to British ships. It sank or destroyed six ships and damaged fourteen.
Argentina started the war with overwhelming air superiority, deploying 121 strike aircraft out of a total of 219, of which 74 were ultimately lost. Britain started the war deploying some 20 fighters, eventually rising to 46, of which nine were lost.
Argentinean pilots had the advantage of operating from land bases that were never attacked by Britain. But the majority flew single-seater aircraft, which meant there was no-one to help with navigation over long stretches of water. Even if they were able to refuel from C-130 'Hercules' tankers, of which only two were available, Argentinean strike aircraft invariably arrived over their targets with very little fuel to allow them to loiter, or accelerate using afterburner to escape.
By contrast, the British could launch closer to their operating area from the carriers HMS ‘Hermes’ and HMS ‘Invincible’, but had no early warning system to give them notice of approaching enemy aircraft. So many Argentinean aircraft were able to carry out their strikes before being engaged by Sea Harriers.
The Argentine pilots were brave, but their strategy was flawed. By initially attacking the warships of the British task force, they missed the opportunity to deal a crippling blow by sinking supply ships and troop carriers. This would have struck at the weakest link in Britain’s plans – the over-extended, 8,000 mile supply line.
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