The combat backbone for decades of French Naval Aviation, the Dassault-Breguet Super Étendard, made its final carrier launch of its service carreer last week when aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle returned home in the port of Toulon on Thursday 17 March 2016.
Being replaced by the sleeker and modern Dassault Rafale M, the Super Étendard has been protecting French interests overseas ever since it entered service in June 1978. Keeping the value of the naval air asset somewhat up-to-date, 48 of this Marine strike aircraft underwent extensive modifications in the 1990s and early 2000s. The adjustments included a new on board computer and a new radar, heads-on-throttle-and-stick controls (HOTAS), a new electronic counter measures suite, night vision goggles, a laser designator pod, a reconnaissance pod and air-frame life-extension.
Nuclear weapons and Exocet
France kept the aircraft at hand for any thinkable action, including the release of free-fall nuclear bombs and nuclear missiles. Despite being in numerous conflicts on behalf of La France, the Super Étendard’s most impressive action was done by only four of them flying for the Argentine Navy. Armed with the Exocet missiles they crippled the British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Sheffield and sank the chartered British merchant vessel Atlantic Conveyor during the 1982 Falklands / Malvinas War.
A total of 71 of 85 built Super Étendards were delivered to the French navy since the first flight of the type in 1974. Only one was lost in battle, downed by an Iranian F-4 Phantom II in 1984 on loan to the Iraqi Air Force. After its full shore-based retirement later this year in France, only 10 Super Étendards will soldier on, flying missions every now and then for the Comando de Aviación Naval Argentina.
Argentina is catching the eye these days for some extraordinary dance moves. Not the marvelous tango, but a Russian folk dance at the pay-back party seems to be the case. Here’s the tale of the Typhoon against the Fencer.
This autumn it came to light that Argentina was denied even to negotiate to buy up to 24 SAAB JAS 39 Gripen fighters by the British government. Since the Swedish planes are made and marketed with backing and cooperation of BAe Systems (the former British Aerospace), London has the power to block the export of a “typical” Swedish product.
But because of the war over the Falkland Islands / Islas Malvinas 32 years ago and the still ongoing political statements made every once in a while from Argentina, the British government doesn’t want to help selling stuff that it fears might someday bite back. With only a quartet of Royal Air Force Typhoons at QRA, a Voyager tanker and two Sea King choppers at RAF Base Mount Pleasant on East Falkland, other modern jets like the Gripen might just cause to much trouble if the British-Argentinian discussion over the islands turns sour.
12 Sukhoi Su-24
In a rather surprising move the Argentinians might now actually go for something that looks potentially more threatening: knock on the rent-a-plane store in Russia. Not your everyday sports plane either: rumour has it 12 Sukhoi Su-24s (NATO-name “Fencer”) are about to make their way to Fuerza Aérea Argentina in return for food supplies. With Moscow already being annoyed by NATO’s projection towards Ukraine in – what the Kremlin sees as interference – the Russian leadership is very likely not to put up any political barriers if Buenos Aires says “si”.
Half armed the Fencers with external fuel tanks could make it to the Falklands and supersonic speed, for example from Rio Gallegos Airbase in the south of the country, drop their bombs and make it back without even having to refuel. A fully armed Fencer doesn’t make it further than about 400 miles (630 km), but if the Argentina Air Force is able to use its KC-130 for in-flight “gas” it will be fuel on the fire of British worries.
Moreover, the Su-24 is quite capable of not only to bring drop-and-forget bombs, but also advanced air-to-air and air-to-ship missiles. True, the Argentine Air Force’s Mirage IIIs can do it too and maybe even with more finesse, but they are getting older, less airworthy and can carry less stuff on long-range missions. Neither the Mirages or the possible Su-24s have to fear much apart from the less than a handful Typhoons at Mount Pleasant. The UK’s Rapier ground-based air-defence missile system won’t make a difference if attacking planes stay above 15,000 feet and out of 5 miles (8 km) radius.
Moscow’s in tensions about the possible lease of the Fencers might even be to have Argentina opening up to even more sophisticated hardware. A future scenario where a pack of Su-24s are escorted by Sukhoi Su-27 air superiority fighters is not entirely unthinkable, even though it still seems far-fetched at this moment.
What is a fact is that Buenos Aires is in big need of new air assets. The current very much aging fighter and attack fleet is no match for the modern battlefield. The Argentine Navy Exocet-equipped Dassault Super Etendards might have caused havoc amongst the Royal Navy in 1982 and might do that again, but weapon systems of the British air and naval forces have advanced ever since.
It is commonly known that the Argentina Air Force has issues keeping it’s even less impressive fighter and attack fleet airborne. Buenos Aires feels its time for the Dassault Mirage IIIs and IAI Fingers / AMD M5 Daggers from Tandil Airbase and the McDonnell Douglas (O)A-4AR Fightinghawk (Skyhawk in the US) from Villa Reynolds Airbase to make way to something new. Russian supplied bombers – and fighters – with not so many strings attached might just make the dancing party extra interesting.