In the previous sections of this document I have concentrated not so much on the raids themselves, but the activities on the ground before, during and after.
This is deliberate, as described in the introduction, there are huge quantities of material in print and online that cover the ‘air aspects’ of the raids.
The Black Buck Vulcan missions tend to evoke strong opinions, and discussion can often descend into childish and narrow argument. I want to try and avoid that and present what I think is a fair-minded and reasonable look at their effectiveness and some of the claims and counter-claims made in numerous books, magazines, blogs and forums.
I intend to do this by looking at them from a ground perspective, engineering and logistics.
Before starting, I want to make clear a few things.
I am not a professional historian, aviation civil engineer or photographic analyst, have spoken to no one who was there, was not there myself and only had access to open source information when writing. This means that anything that follows this sentence must be viewed in that context. This is merely one opinion of many, not authoritative or final. Read my ‘working out’ and agree or disagree with the conclusions but please, do not lose sight of those limitations.
That they were superb examples of airmanship, skill, adaptability and determination is not in dispute, discussing their effectiveness does not detract in any way whatsoever from that.
Discussion tends to narrow down into single subjects but in viewing the effectiveness of the raids, one has to look at the bigger strategic and political picture. Information we know today may well not have been known then, there was no internet or immediate communications, planners and other personnel had to work on limited information at a breakneck pace, let’s not forget, it was all over in ten weeks.
I also think most commentary tends to a narrow focus on events immediately before and after Black Buck, ignoring what came before and after the conflict.
Both these aspects are neglected but they are all related to any analysis.
So, with that in mind, and as if the Internet doesn’t have enough Black Buck commentary, here we go, a few thoughts on that, and what went before…
Before the Invasion
The belligerence and attitude of the Argentine government were well known, so when the contract for the construction of Stanley Airport was let to Johnson Construction in 1973, it would not have been totally outrageous to ensure that pre-built demolition chambers were installed at key locations on the runway.
The concept of pre-built demolition chambers in major infrastructure projects was at the time, relatively common.
The cost of creating such chambers during the build phase would have been negligible.
These would have allowed the rapid denial of the runway using simple explosives, well within the non-specialist skill-sets of Naval Party 8901 (Royal Marines). However, given that LADE operated services from Stanley Airport this might not have been a politically acceptable solution, but there were other alternatives available.
One such alternative to a pre-built demolition chamber is the Rapid Cratering Kit, in service at the time, as they are today. Although the modern version is shown below, the principle is the same. A shaped charge (beehive) is used to, effectively, drill a hole in the asphalt or concrete runway surface. The cavity (or camouflet) is filled with a larger charge of explosives and when detonated, the resultant crater is much larger than simply placing the explosives on the surface.
They are very effective and quick to deploy.
Typically, the explosively drilled hole extends between two and three metres and with a charge of 30kg, the resultant crater can be up to 8m wide and 3.5m deep. The total packed weight is approximately 60kg.
If NP8901 had amongst their strength, a section from 59 Commando Squadron Royal Engineers, they may well have had some engineer stores, including RCK’s. There is no doubt they would have had the skills and time to use them on the runway, possibly on pre-surveyed and marked locations on the runway.
Placed on the centre-line and at regular intervals down it, repairs would be difficult and the ‘undermining’ effect would have created significant structural weakness simultaneously on both sides of the runway.
The Official History of the Falklands Campaign records some information about runway denial;
In the House of Commons, a year after the conflict had concluded, Dennis Healey MP made the following statement;
Hard not agree with Dennis.
This is my first observation, nothing at all to do with Black Buck;
Reinforcing the Argentine Garrison in April 1982
It is widely agreed that the root cause of Argentina’s rash actions in invading the Falkland Islands in April 1982 were four beliefs;
- That the UN and world opinion would fall behind Argentina,
- That in the interests of Pan-American and anti-Soviet Cold War relations, the United States would pressure the United Kingdom to accept the status quo and negotiate from a position of weakness,
- That Chile, despite poor relations with Argentina, would forget all that and in a show of Latin American solidarity, settle any differences quickly, and
- That the UK would not respond militarily, after all, it had been vacillating on the subject or many years with the Foreign Office trying its best to make side deals with Argentina and several factors such as the withdrawal of HMS Endurance, intended sale of HMS Invincible and the 1981 British Nationality Act merely serving as more encouragement.
Because it believed that all four would come to pass, the invasion plans did not include a serious defence plan, simply because it was not thought they needed one. So, whilst the UK was hastily putting together the Task Force in early April, Argentina was also putting together a hasty reinforcement plan and defence strategy for ‘Las Malvinas’
This is all well documented.
From the end of the first week of April, the realisation set in that the UK was not afraid to use force and had the will and wallet to prevail.
In recognition that they would be in a fight, and that the fight would not just be in and around the Falkland Islands, the Malvinas Operational Theatre (TOM) command was replaced by Teatro de Operaciones del Atlantico Sur TOAS), or South Atlantic Theatre of Operations command. At the same time, TOAS set about a massive mobilisation, moving and assembling forces throughout Argentina. The commander and deputy were both from the Armada, clearly, the naval forces of Argentina were still in the driving seat.
On the 7th, the UK announced a Maritime Exclusion Zone would come into force on the 12th
By the 10th of April, the number of flights into ‘BAM Malvina’s’ had increased dramatically
Knowing full well the capabilities of British nuclear attack submarines and likely transit times from the UK, very little freight would flow into the Falkland Islands by sea from this time. Civilian cargo vessels used by Argentina for transport tasks to the Falkland Islands included the Rio Cincel, Río Carcarañá, Formosa, Córdoba, Bahía Buen Suceso, Isla de Los Estados, Yehuín and the Mar del Norte.
The movements of the rest of the fleet are well documented but in summary, they took the MEZ seriously. Some blockade running was attempted by the civilian vessels listed above but after the middle of April, much of transport to the Falkland Islands by Argentine forces was conducted by air, through BAM Malvinas/Stanley Airport.
The Electra and Fellowship aircraft of the Armada 1 and 2 Escuadrilla de Sosten Logistico Movil, transported 500 tonnes and 1,500 personnel between the 2nd of April and 30th of April.
The ‘Cordoba‘ transport vessel was loaded at Puerto Deseado with Ejercito armour, heavy artillery, ammunitions and other supplies, ready to sail. But on the 12th was unloaded because of the inability of the Armada to guarantee her survival. She was unloaded and her cargo moved by road to Comodoro Rivadavia for transport by C-130 Hercules, an estimated 100 flights worth.
It was all flown to Port Stanley.
Equipment that was deemed critical, including radar, anti-aircraft systems, helicopters and artillery were all airlifted from the 12th onwards. The anti-aircraft guns of GADA601 and GADA101 were offloaded from ships and reloaded onto aircraft, arriving piecemeal by the 19th.
Between the 19th and 29th of April, the C130 Hercules, of the FAA Grupo 1 Escuadrón I de Transporte Aéreo flew 91 missions into BAM Malvinas, Grupo 1 F-28s, 74 missions, Aerolineas Argentinas 737’s, 36 flights, and BAC 1-11, 4 flights. Between them, in just 10 days, they transported 1,544 tonnes and 2,844 personnel.
Adding that to the Armada’s tally in the last half of May 1982, brings the total to over two thousand tonnes of high priority cargo and 4,300 personnel.
Turnaround times of 15 minutes were not unusual and every single aircraft would carry their maximum fuel load, any not needed for the return flight would be decanted into pillow tanks and drums to build up stocks.
S2-E Tracker, Pucara, MB-339A, T34C Mentor and Skyvan, either operated from or transited via, BAM Malvinas.
On April 28th, the Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ) was announced, this being up to the 12nm limit of the coast of Argentina.
Up until that point, and a few days beyond, the runway at Stanley Airport was absolutely critical to the hastily arranged, but extremely well-implemented reinforcement plan.
Clearly, the runway was a strategically important asset to Argentine forces. In exactly the same period, the UK was making assessments of how it would likely be used by Argentina, and what could be done about. The next section, therefore, takes place over the same time period as this one.
As a lead into the next section, a summary of Black Buck from the RAF;
RAF 2007 Falklands 30th anniversary Edition
It is this assessment that usually sits at the centre of much of the controversy because let’s face it, it paints a fairly rosy picture.
Initial UK Intelligence Assessment
Underpinning the planning for Black Buck was an assessment of capability and likelihood.
What were Argentine forces intent for the runway?
Key to subsequent decision making was a SECRET intelligence briefing document produced on the 7th April 1982 that set out the UK’s understanding of the potential to utilise Stanley Airport for enemy aircraft operations. Like many of the documents at the time, now available online at the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website. With the benefit of many decades of hindsight we can second guess the assessment.
Yes and no, the ‘AM2 aluminium surfacing expedient’ was not lifted and removed from the islands. AM2 was already available at the airport and was used as a general construction material and means of providing temporary aircraft parking, more on this later.
The assessment was correct in stating that the runway could be extended, after all, it is what we did, but underestimated by some margin the time taken to do so, and does not refer at all the enormous effort needed, again, as demonstrated by us.
Again, correct, it is what we did.
Fuel for the Argentine forces operating on the islands was never a problem.
A very accurate assessment, although it missed off a couple of aircraft used for the airlift
This is perhaps the most relevant, clearly, the UK intelligence assessment was that the runway at Stanley Airport could support all their combat aircraft and subject to fuel availability and engineering works, four of them could easily operate from Port Stanley.
No matter whether Argentina could or intended to, the UK’s view was that it could.
Therefore, on the balance of risk, something had to be done to make sure, whatever their intent or ability, they couldn’t do so.
And so the train of thought that resulted in Black Buck I left the station.
The Official History of the Falklands Campaign states;
The SECRET intelligence briefing and Official History establishes that during the period bounded by the second week of April 1982, whilst lead elements of the Task Force were en route, the UK assessed that the use of Stanley Airport for fast jet operations was possible.
Yet there is other evidence that would seem to contradict this.
An article by Air Vice Marshal Pat O’Reilly CB in the journal of the Worshipful Company of Engineers, states;
The paper describes the input to the intelligence process by the Engineer and Railway Staff Corps.
The Army website describes the role of the Corps as;
An Institute of Civil Engineers Paper called Military Engineering in the Falkland Islands 1982-83 by Major General G. B. Sinclair, Brigadier F. G. Barton and Lt Colonel L. J. Kennedy, all Royal Engineer officers, describes their input in more detail;
This advice to ‘Air Staff’ would potentially have come after the initial intelligence assessment was prepared and discussed on the 7th of April.
How the Royal Engineers clear statement was interpreted, how it made its way through the intelligence analysis process and how ultimately it came to be completely contradicted in the intelligence document, or ignored if received later, is not clear. Differing opinions, opinions formed hastily and a general degree of uncertainty has been one of the defining characteristics of armed conflict for thousands of years. With the speed of response, it is not surprising therefore that there are differences and contradictions.
My second observation is a question;
The Road to Black Buck
One of the most common criticisms of the Black Buck missions is that the RAF pushed hard for Black Buck in order to influence future defence reviews or simply, to steal the limelight.
The Special Ministerial Sub-Committee of the Defence and Oversea Policy Committee (OD) on the South Atlantic and Falkland Islands (OD(SA)), or more commonly, the War Cabinet, formed on the 6th of April, 1982. The War Cabinet met daily and was the principle civilian decision-making authority until August 15th, when it stood down.
To understand the inter-service relations at the time it is also important to understand the 1982 defence review, considered by many to be a triumph of the Royal Air Force over the Royal Navy, this is not the case, but there is no doubt the review had seen significant reductions to Royal Navy plans and capabilities.
In a Commons debate in May 1981, the then Secretary of State for Defence, John Nott, said;
The Official History develops the theme of one services opinion of the other;
It was reported that the initial Chiefs of Staff meetings did not go well, setting the scene for the reported disagreements to follow.
The Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) at the time was Admiral Sir Terence Lewin who fully appreciated the requirement for joint working, he reflected later, that the Chiefs meetings had a;
The point of detailing this is to establish that the inter-service political environment was subject to considerations of ‘slices of the pie’ after the conflict. All three service Chiefs had their mind on whatever spending plans would result from the Falklands Conflict. There were also issues of command, the Army particularly raising concerns that it was providing the bulk of the manpower yet was under the command of an Admiral and a Royal Marines General.
Woodward made a request on the 11th of April about how the Sea Harriers could be best employed and it was during this period that a more serious examination of using Vulcan was considered, it was considered earlier but then dropped, as early as the end of March, as the likelihood of conflict increased. As plans developed, many debates and discussions ensued. During these, the best use of denying the airport was initially thought to be using the Sea Harriers, indeed, the Official History records the Chief of the Air Staff being concerned about Sea Harrier not being used effectively if only used for air defence. It also records that an alternative option to use Vulcan’s was being investigated but many operational, technical and political obstacles remained.
The second intelligence briefing, one that would form the basis of advice to the War Cabinet, was finalised on the 15th. This again made it clear that potential existed for the use of Stanley Airport by jet fighters, but unlikely for attack aircraft.
On the 20th, the service chiefs were reported to be concerned about the impact of a Vulcan attack on the civilian population and the Chief of the Air Staff agreed a more detailed assessment would be carried out. By the 23rd, a single Vulcan raid against Stanley Airport was deemed to be the most sensible, politically acceptable and operationally suitable mission. The Official History records that at a meeting on the 23rd AVM Beetham was said to be;
A Chief of Staffs Committee meeting on the 23rd of April also considered the matter and concluded;
On the 24th April, the Official History records;
On the 27th, despite the advanced stages of planning and readiness, questions were still open on the raids, page 38-41 of this document for example.
Because of the threat to the fleet and overall success of the campaign, a maximum effort joint operation was planned to put the runway and airport out of bounds for the Skyhawk’s and Mirages, regardless of whether the Argentine forces could, or intended to do so.
Despite concerns and misgivings, the service chiefs agreed that the attack stood a reasonable chance of success and that it should happen as soon as possible. Once the diplomatic efforts by Haig had played out, the political path was clear for Black Buck and other offensive operations to commence.
Whilst the politics were settled, the operational matters were not.
Further debates ensued about the use of Sea Harriers for runway denial, based largely on a lack of understanding of the Vulcan’s capabilities and overestimation of the Sea Harriers capabilities. Issues of post-raid bomb damage assessment, the potential use for Vulcans in the anti-shipping role and concerns about Sea Harrier preservation also seemed to have been a cause for discussion and disagreement. Accusations of the RAF not appreciating the capabilities of the FAA and the FAA not appreciating the capabilities of the RAF were detailed in the Official History.
A toxic mix of opinion and personality which made decision making difficult.
But in the end, the Vulcan raid had both military agreement (CDS and Task Force Commander, both RN officers) and political approval (War Cabinet), without both, it would not have happened, it is as simple as that.
To the accusation of the RAF ‘muscling in’
Surely all three services wanted to get stuck in, by all and any means, there were even several attempts by soldiers to stowaway on ships before they departed.
Observation number three;
Argentine Intentions and Actions for Runway Development and Fast Jet Operations
Despite professional advice to the contrary, the UK intelligence assessment was that Argentina could operate fast jets from Stanley, and that this would be an extremely serious threat to contend with, but what were Argentina’s intentions.
There are many conflicting accounts of Argentine forces intentions for the runway, and specifically, operating fast jets (other than the MB339).
One account describes how a Canberra mission to South Georgia was planned for the 26th of April 1982 that would involve landing and refuelling at Stanley Airport, implying both intent and capability to do so. The mission was aborted because of the proximity of the Royal Navy task force.
There is anecdotal evidence that AM2 panels were loaded on the Rio Cincel and transported to the Falkland Islands between the 7th and 10th of April, which would, at least, suggest some intent to develop Stanley Airport and this may well have formed part of the UK intelligence assessments described above.
In the de-classified Rattenbach investigation report into the conduct of the armed forces and government of Argentina during the conflict, there is a small section on the runway, item 623, here (thanks to SP for the translation)
It would seem there was intent and, at least, some preparation to embark the necessary equipment and personnel.
We also know that some AM2 did arrive at the Falkland Islands, joined by that already there, left over from the Hookers Point airstrip. The AM2 was used to provide aircraft parking but whilst some claim that a 200m extension was created by Argentine engineers this seems implausible, given the soil engineering challenges we know from post-surrender surveys.
The three images below, all taken at Stanley Airport after the invasion, but before May, show AM2. Aircraft parking for the MB339 of Lt Crippa, the Fokker F-28 TC-53 that was damaged and parked to the east of the runway (seen in the recce photograph taken by Argentine forces on the 18th of April) and an image of a Puma sling loading fuel drums.
There is more evidence that the FAA also practised ‘touch and go’ landings with Dagger’s at Rio Grande on a simulated runway of the same length as Stanley.
In a paper for the USAF Air University, Argentina’s Tactical Aircraft Employment in the Falkland Islands War, Gabriel Green USAF stated;
In another paper, The Falklands 20 Years On, Phillip Grove, stated;
Quoting Anderson in a US Naval Postgraduate School paper called The Falklands War Understanding the Power of Context in Shaping Argentine Strategic Decisions, Scott Nietzel stated;
Scott also goes on to argue that it was a complete lack of inter-service cooperation and joint decision-making that caused the Argentine forces to make so many strategic blunders including the failure to better exploit the runway at Port Stanley Airport.
Citing Arquilla and Rasmussen he wrote;
Putting these fragments together and if I were to hazard a guess, it would be that Argentine forces did have an initial intent to use Stanley as a limited base for defensive and offensive counter air, possibly even some strike missions.
But, this intent was gradually eroded by a combination of factors;
- Wider analysis and calculation of runway length, fuel and weapon loads for the aircraft concerned vis a vis landing and take-off distances, weather predictions and runway strength,
- A more detailed survey following the invasion in early April that would confirm soil conditions to the West of the runway were extremely poor and would require removal of large quantities of peat and sand
- Availability of engineering plant and personnel to complete the required ground works, and
- Consideration of fuel requirements to sustain fast jet operations
After the attacks on the 1st of May, these factors would be joined by security, the need to marshal and preserve combat air power and deteriorating weather (which makes fast jet operations less safe at the extreme limits of runway length). The AM2 was by then available on the Falkland Islands, as discussed above, some new and some ex Hookers Point. Some work on a runway extension was started but stopped after 1st of May.
From the Zona Militar forum, an eyewitness account;
We can also see AM2 panels being used after the surrender, as shelter materials.
It may be that BAM Malvinas was not intended for ‘operating fast jets’ but as a divert location or ad hoc forward arming and refuelling point. That an attempted emergency landing, rather than eject nearby, was attempted (before being shot down by his own side) might add some weight to this theory.
The impact of Black Buck I AND the Sea Harrier/NGS attack on the 1st of May would have just put the cherry on top.
This is as far as Argentine forces got to operating fast jets (not including MB339) from Stanley Airport.
Observation number four;
Could the runway have been used by fast jets in any event?
Although an academic exercise, it is worth exploring whether or not the runway at Stanley Airport could have been used to support the operation of Argentine fast jets, other than the MB339.
The advice to the Air Staff from the Royal Engineers Staff and Railway Corps was that it could not, two factors precluding it, runway length and pavement strength.
We know from UK experience, that only Harriers could use the runway, Phantom operations required improvements in both length (including arrestor gear) and strength, but Argentina did not operate Phantoms.
The Comando de Aviación Naval Argentina – COAN (Argentine Naval Aviation) operated Aermacchi MB.339A, McDonnell Douglass A-4Q (B) Skyhawk and Dassault Super Etendard, Grumman S-2E Tracker, Beechcraft T-34C Mentor, Fokker F28 and Lockheed L-188 Electra aircraft. From photographs and other documents we know that of these, all but the Super Etendard and A-4Q Skyhawks operated from the runway at Stanley Airport.
Fuerza Aérea Argentina (FAA) and Aerolineas operated C-130H Hercules, Boeing 737, Boeing 707, Fokker F28, Fokker F27, English Electric Canberra, Learjet 35A-L, FMA IA 58 Pucara, McDonnell Douglass A-4C Skyhawk, McDonnell Douglass A-4P (B) Skyhawk, IAI Dagger and Dassault Mirage IIIE. From photographs and other documents, we know that of these, all but the Canberra, Skyhawks, Daggers and Mirages operated from the runway at Stanley Airport.
Knowing this allows comparisons to be made.
Of the Skyhawks, all were the B versions, except the C, the P and Q being designations specific to Argentina, even though they were the B variant. The specification sheet for an A4-D which had a slightly more powerful engine than those in Argentine service but it is still good for comparison and has a number of flight and load profiles. The data sheet shows that an A-4D can take off at sea level with zero headwinds, two 150 gallon drop tanks and two 1050lb stores in 3,050 feet in a sea level delivery profile. A number of other profiles and wind conditions are shown but most of them are within the runway length at Port Stanley.
Landing distances are also within the length of the runway.
Weather conditions, especially crosswind, runway drainage, landing aids availability, the slightly lower power output of the Argentine A4’s and other factors might still have made it not possible, there is always more to something like this than a simple table, but this information would have been available to UK planners. To be clear, I am not saying they could or could not, but looking at the table, it does seem like a possibility, at least on runway length.
For the other aircraft, Mirage IIIEA and Dagger (IAI Atar 9C engine Mirage V), information online indicates that Stanley Airport would be extremely marginal, leaving no room for error or poor weather.
Most people who have looked at this online have tended to concentrate on runway length as the single determinant of fast jet operability, but pavement strength is equally important.
From the intelligence report reproduced above, the runway at Port Stanley Airport was a minimum of LCN 16 and up to LCN 30 in places, unhelpfully, it doesn’t specify which places or whether LCN is LCN or LCN/LCG (they are not the same). The RE paper repeats this but doesn’t shed much more light on the subject except that in planning for post-conflict operations from Port Stanley Airport, the RAF specified Phantoms and Buccaneers who’s LCN was 45.
i.e. much higher than 16
The Phantom and Buccaneer were much heavier than the Skyhawk and other Argentine aircraft but the weight is not the only factor in matching runway LCN’s with aircraft, and what is an LCN anyway?
The British Load Classification Number (LCN) is a system devised in the mid-sixties to codify runways and other load bearing surfaces at aircraft operating locations. Simply put, if an aircraft’s corresponding LCN is smaller than the LCN of the runway, it is safe to operate without any risk of deformation.
The is the result of a mismatch
LCN was based on the Load Classification Group (LCG) devised by the ICAO but it does not take into account the differences between concrete (rigid) and asphalt (flexible) surfaces and was replaced by the ICAO (and pretty much everyone else) in 1980 with the Pavement Classification Number (PCN) /Aircraft Classification Number (ACN) system that provides information on both types of runway and tire pressures.
LCN is also relatively imprecise.
The airport today has its Pavement Classification Number defined as 14 FCXT
The first two characters are the PCN, followed by four letters which denote the pavement type, subgrade bearing strength category, maximum tire pressure and means of evaluation, which is 14 / FLEXIBLE / SUBGRADE CATEGORY C (LOW) / MAX TIRE PRESSURE 217 PSI / TECHNICAL EVALUATION.
If the ACN is lower than or equal to PCN, the aircraft can operate without restriction (depending on runway length and other factors). Exceeding them would result in cracking or deformation of the runway.
There is no simple method of converting between LCN, LCN/LCG and the newer ACN/PCN systems but we can apply some rough comparisons and draw simple conclusions. We know that F-28’s, 737, Hercules and Electra’s operated from the LCN 16 runway during 1982 and these have ACN’s that match a PCN of between 9 and 20, the PCN being extrapolated at a flexible surface and category C bearing strength. We can’t be certain that in 1982 the runway had the same bearing strength as it does today but by selecting the current ‘LOW’ figure, we can at least err on the side of caution.
NATO does publish the ACN for various aircraft, a 2007 edition is here
Have a look for yourself.
Observation number five…
Effects on the Runway
There are claims and counter-claims about where the bombs hit; various combinations of the words centreline, ‘runway centre’, ‘runway edge’ and ‘clipped the runway’ appear in articles and books. Aerial reconnaissance images also stand accused of being manipulated and even if people do accept that the runway was hit by Black Buck I, often, they claim that in any case it was repaired quickly.
Some even claim it did not hit at all.
Lt Col Ewen Southby-Tailyour, in his book, Reasons in Writing: A Commando’s View of the Falklands War, stated that he was unable to find ‘any sign of their vaunted crater’
Did Black Buck I hit the runway?
The strike was designed to straddle the runway at a specific angle in order to improve the statistical chances of achieving a hit. The angle of attack and release interval was such that it was extremely sensitive to timing and as can be seen from the image below, it was close, a fraction of a second earlier and it is likely that two direct hits would have been achieved.
Post-raid photographic reconnaissance by the Sea Harriers was required to provide a counter to potential Argentine propaganda that the RAF was indiscriminately bombing civilians and to assess damage, but was made difficult by cloud cover, a lack of training and interpretation facilities, it did happen, though.
According to the Official History of the Falklands Campaign Vol. II
The day after Rear Admiral Woodward submitted the following report;
In response to the claim from Ewen Southby-Tailyour, writing in the Telegraph;
An Institute of Civil Engineers Paper called Military Engineering in the Falkland Islands 1982-83 by Major General G. B. Sinclair, Brigadier F. G. Barton and Lt Colonel L. J. Kennedy, all Royal Engineer officers, stated in the section of the recovery phase;
This diary account from one of the MB339 aircrew discusses the impact (amongst other things) of the air strikes.
Where this gets interesting is trying to discriminate between the Vulcan and Harrier impacts.
The image is below.
This is the first reconnaissance image (rotated and cropped)
I have also marked, in red, two dark ‘patches’ on the north half of the runway.
Below, is a side by enlargement.
These images clearly show the first Black Buck I crater to be on the lower (south) half of the runway and another three Black Buck I craters to be on the grass runway shoulder. It also shows a crater to the north of the track to the south of the runway, before it changes direction.
For further comparisons, a set of spatial marker points are needed and the best source image for this is one taken by Argentine forces before May, reportedly, on the 18th of April.
The reference points are;
1, Braithwaite water tank. 2, Diagonal track to the south of the runway. 3, Prefabricated buildings to the south of the control tower. 4, Quonset. 5, Control tower. 6, Pitched roof hangar
There were a number of additional Sea Harrier reconnaissance sorties following Black Buck 2 that were much clearer and these can also be used to compare, using the reference markers established above.
IMAGE 1; Shows a large crater that has filled with water on the grass runway shoulder to the south of the runway, the camera is pointing to the terminal buildings and pitched roof hangar, establishing the crater on the south of the runway. One of the civilian registered Cessna’s is shown and an MB339A, again on the south half of the runway. This may be one of the three Black Buck I craters shown on the images above.
IMAGE 2; Shows another MB339A and Cessna, but the terminal building is on the far left and the image shows the Quonset hut, in Image 1 there is another Cessna with clear wing damage. This suggests the image is on the south side of the runway but further to the west. It may be a perspective issue but it is uncertain whether this is a Black Buck 1 crater.
IMAGE 3; Perhaps the most interesting because it is labelled (not by me) as being from the first Vulcan strike, but zoom in to the right of the image and clearly shown, is an MB339A and Cessna, which as has been established above, were on the south side of the runway. This would suggest it is incorrectly labelled
There are also a number of published impact diagrams from various sources.
I have seen these images in several places, different versions claim to show each impact and whether those impacts are from 1,000 pound bombs, 500-pound bombs, or combinations of rockets and cluster bombs. It also shows the location of the two decoy craters, one at each end of the runway, but curiously, does not show any impacts on the northern half of the runway.
In post-conflict images, there are what look to be significant repairs in progress with the group of Pucaras in the background, to the south of the runway. The Harrier take off strip is shown parallel to the runway, to the north.
This places the repair activity (shown below) on the northern half of the runway, this not being shown on the impact diagram.
My suggestion is that the images of repair activity above are the result of a Sea Harrier crater, shown in the first images with red squares, not a Vulcan crater.
The highest resolution image I could find ‘post-Black Buck 2’, am not sure of its origin, but enlarging it does show the craters, temporary repairs and dummy craters, quite clearly.
Enlargement 1 shows the Vulcan and Sea Harrier craters. Enlargement 2 shows the dummy crater at the west of the runway.
The image below is from current mapping; Google Earth and Bing Maps, via Flashearth, are very good.
You can click the link to have a pan and zoom, several craters are still there, water filled now of course. The remains of the runway extension and many buildings from RAF Stanley are clearly visible. When Mount Pleasant became operational and RAF Stanley became Stanley Airport again, the AM2 was lifted and eventually, some resurfacing work completed. The runway was also shortened, the reason the currently declared runway length is shorter than found in documents and text in the rest of this series. They also did not resurface the full width of the runway, again obvious from the image above. This means the original runway surface is still there, the new surface in the middle. Drawing a straight line (blue) through the existing craters to the south of the terminal buildings and extending that line to the runway leads to an area of the runway that is not the same colour as the existing runway i.e. a repair. The line also neatly travels through the crater to the left of the diagonal track and on the edge of the grass area, all in pictures above.
This leads me to believe that the dark patch is probably the Black Buck I crater.
Both of these notes (from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation) are dated 10th May 1982;
They show a high degree of confidence that the runway had been cratered but not certainty about repairs, the second note shows an intelligence assessment that lightly loaded Hercules would still be able to use the runway, a correct assessment as we know.
This also raises the issue of Black Buck 2, carried out on May the 4th.
It is claimed that the aim of the mission was to ensure an extension to the runway could not be made. If the assumption was that the main runway had been cut in two by Black Buck 1 and the primary objective achieved, why make post conflict reconstruction more difficult than it needed to be by hitting it again?
Black Buck 2 had the added disadvantage of the enemy being fully alert and aware to Vulcan attacks. Although Black Buck I was detected, confusion, inexperience and possibly, Rules of Engagement, prevented the ground-based air defences firing. That mistake was not likely to be made again.
In the Official History of the Falklands Campaign Volume II, Laurence Freedman stated [on Black Buck 2]
He also added that there was frustration about the bombs missing the runway.
This adds some element of doubt on the intended target for Black Buck 2.
However, this briefing note from the 4th of May does seem to confirm that the intent for Black Buck 2 was to prevent repairs.
Black Buck 7 was intended to destroy stores and troops in the open using an airburst fuze setting, and it is widely reported that an error meant the bombs exploded on impact, to the west of the runway. The point here is that war is waged with machines, not by machines. It is a very human endeavour, replete with human error, something all three services are more than familiar with.
To add to the controversy surrounding Black Buck 7 is the apparent lack of bomb craters, leading some to speculate that they failed to detonate at all. Adding yet more fuel to the fire is the Argentine bomb damage maps that seem to show two lines of 1000 pound bomb craters, the second close by those made by Black Buck 2.
Using Google or Flashearth, several craters in the general area are obvious, have a pan and zoom yourself.
Black Buck 7, a note from the archives;
Interesting to note where the request came from.
There are a number of confusing and contradictory statements and images above, no clear picture would seem to show the Black Buck I runway crater, although the various report extracts clearly indicate that there was one, in the centre of the southern half of the runway. Those images describing themselves as Vulcan craters are not, they look like they are the Sea Harrier craters as described by the bomb-damage assessment report and the Inst. of Civil Engineers paper. These both suggest the Sea Harrier strikes on the northern half and that these were easier to repair with quarry materials and AM2 panels to allow Hercules flights 10 days after the surrender.
This does raise a question, though, if the UK could not land a Hercules until after the northern half of the runways craters could be repaired how did the FAA manage to land its Hercules continuously since early May?
I put this down to the acceptance of risk between peace and war. During the conflict, the FAA would have accepted greater risk to aircraft and personnel. UK forces, post-surrender, were not prepared to accept that risk, rightly, and so a higher standard of repairs were needed before RAF Hercules operations could commence. One can also imagine an aborted landing due to weather would be less of a problem for an FAA aircraft, it would have enough fuel for the return to the mainland, an RAF Hercules would not.
A bomb crater is not just a bomb crater and not only will the weight of explosive have an impact (sorry about that) on damage, but so will angle of impact, fuzing, soil conditions and other factors. A thousand-pound bomb from a Vulcan may well have different terminal effects than the same thousand-pound bomb dropped from a Sea Harrier.
The images below, I think, show the Black Buck 2 craters to the north-west of the airport, because they are in the soft soil they do look rather deep!
The Royal Engineers report was quite clear about the repair requirements for the different attacks, Sea Harrier and Vulcan, and that Argentine engineers had made rudimentary repairs to all of them. Shallow scabs from rockets, cannon fire and cluster bomblets was repaired with a rapid setting magnesium phosphate cement grout called Bostik 276 but the craters were a significantly different challenge.
As can be seen from the simplified diagram below, a typical crater will contain material that has fallen back from the initial explosion and a rupture zone of disturbed soil; and on the surface, adjacent to the crater, will be ejected material. Paving materials will be included in the ‘fallback’ and ‘ejecta’. As can be appreciated, upon initial examination, and depending upon the amount of fall back, the crater can appear much smaller than it actually is.
There are two conventional methods of rapid crater repair, the clean bowl and dynamic compaction techniques.
The clean bowl technique requires the damaged paving to be cut back, fall back removed and the crater excavated back to the rupture zone. In short, making bowl larger than it initially appears. The ‘clean bowl’ is filled with graded aggregate and the top layer of finer material applied. The top layer is then levelled and compacted with a vibratory roller. Finally, a pavement replacement is applied, usually a bomb damage repair mat of some kind.
Dynamic compaction involves pushing all the ejected material into the crater and adding additional graded aggregate if needed. The material is then compacted using a vehicle high-speed hydraulic hammer and a pavement replacement applied, again, usually a bomb-damage repair mat.
Neither technique was performed by the Argentine forces, it seems they simply pushed the ejected material back into the crater because there were no vibratory or compaction items of plant available. The Royal Engineers, initially limited by the availability of materials and equipment, carried out the clean bowl technique and used Argentine AM2 panels, after cutting back the pavement and excavating the crater. As can be seen from Crater Repair Image 5, there is a vibratory roller being used.
A crater in soft soil is much easier to fill and compact to the same density than one on hard soil.
What is important to note is that whilst pushing the ejected material back into what seems like a small crater will produce a repair of sorts, it will not be reliable or match the bearing strength of the surrounding surface. If it is not compacted to the same density, settling will occur and bearing strength reduced. As the repaired surface is trafficked, this will get worse.
But, if one has nothing apart from a couple of bulldozers, it is all that can be done. Argentine forces did not bring any heavy plant with them, relying on what was there. This showed poor planning, Stanley Airport was an obvious target and better provision should have been made. That said, the repairs they carried out were sufficient for the transport and light aircraft such as the Hercules and Pucara.
Observation number six…
The raids forced Argentina to redeploy fighters jets
The generally accepted wisdom is that Black Buck 1 and 2 forced Argentina to redeploy fighter aircraft to protect Buenos Aires because of the threat posed by Vulcans. Thus, the task force was spared attacks by those same aircraft. Various documents claim a squadron and others, squadrons.
There is some anecdotal evidence from Argentine sources that a squadron of Mirage IIIEA from 8 Grupo redeployed, and importantly, redeployed because of Black Buck.
Others refute this claim.
Whilst there may have been some desire to keep options open and keep Argentina guessing about attacks on the mainland, in private, the reality was very different.
This note (Page 50) from the Margaret Thatcher archives describes the position as at the 24th of April
By mid-May, it was still on the table but not in any serious manner (see section on fuel, below)
The key question here, though, is did Argentina know this?
The Total Exclusion Zone had been declared but this was to the 12 nautical mile limit and although there was plenty of speculation in the media am certain the Argentine government would have had to make a number of calculations about intent and risk. They knew full well that Black Buck I comprised a single aircraft and could relatively easily have done the calculations on fuel demand. The threat was therefore from a very small number of RAF aircraft that would have very little military value. If one reads the Margaret Thatcher archives during this period, it is clear that rules of engagement and legal issues dominated the thinking and diplomatic discussion. There are several instances where the destruction of the Argentine aircraft carrier was considered but discounted time and time again because it was so far from the Falkland Islands we could not claim this fell under UN Charter Article 51, the right to self-defence.
Because a state of war did not exist between Argentina and the UK, and would not be, the legal situation for the UK, at a time when it enjoyed excellent worldwide support, would have been irreversibly harmed by committing such an act. We would no longer claim self-defence and would be at war, without the declaration of such.
Argentina would easily have made the same calculation and drawn the same conclusion as us.
From a political perspective, I find it hard to believe that the Argentine government thought an attack on the capital by RAF Vulcan’s was even remotely a possibility.
That said, for the same reasons that we mounted the Black Buck operations, risk mitigation, there might still have been a prudent reaction, a repositioning of a modest force and other activities, just in case.
That is entirely believable.
Grupo 8 de Caza received its first Mirage IIIEA in the middle of 1972 and were joined by two 2-seat variants (IIIDA) soon after. Their role was air defence of Buenos Aries, formed into a single squadron, 1 Escuadron de Caza, at Mariano Moreno. The second batch of seven Mirage IIIEA’s were also obtained in 1980, also based at the same location.
Both had a 30mm DEFA cannon but the missile fit varied between the two batches.
Batch 1; 8+2 of, Matra R530, either in semi-active radar or infra-red versions on the centreline pylon
The R550 missiles were only obtained in March 1982, obviously, there was not a great deal of time to build war stocks and conduct training for the newer missile, and there were only eight of the fleet capable of carrying it. At the beginning of the conflict, only eleven Mirage IIIEA, of both variants were serviceable. Of these eleven, eight were deployed south, first to Comodoro Rivadavia, and then to Rio Gallegos.
Initial flights on May 1st confirmed that despite carrying as many drop tanks as possible, useable time over the Falkland Islands was limited to 10-15 minutes, neither of the Mirage aircraft batches could be refuelled in flight. There is also some discrepancy between British and Argentine accounts of whether or not missiles were fired from the Mirages. A later set of flights on the same resulted in the destruction of two Mirage IIEA’s from Grupo 8, for no Sea Harrier losses. The first was from a Sidewinder and the second, friendly fire at Stanley Airport as a result of a Sidewinder strike forcing the pilot to seek to eject closer to friendly forces.
The results of the May 1st meeting between Sea Harrier and Mirage IIIEA came as a shock to Argentina, to say the least. They had significantly underestimated the potency of the Sea Harrier and, as a result, lost one pilot and two new aircraft.
As a result, the aircraft were moved from Rio Gallegos to Comodoro Rivadavia to provide air defence.
There seem to be a number of factors in this decision;
- The Mirage IIIEA was given a pasting by the Sea Harriers,
- The attitude of Chile had surprised the Argentine Government and so defence needed to be maintained should they mount an opportunistic attack,
- The Sea King incident at Punta Arenas on the 16/17th of May
- and, the threat of a Vulcan attack against one of the air bases used for Super Etandard’s
The Mirage IIIEA’s would be used over the Falklands in early June as decoys and later, as an escort for a Canberra flight, but apart from that, the Mirage IIIEA had a limited impact.
This data is derived from a number of sources, but primarily Falklands – The Air War, published in 1984.
If this data is correct, it would seem that Mirage IIIEA’s of Grupo 8 were indeed withdrawn following the 1st of May but not to protect Buenos Aries, instead, to provide general air defence for the south of Argentina for a variety of reasons, including, yes, a possible Vulcan attack.
The raids failed to put the runway out of action
This is certain, we know from Argentine records that the runway at ‘BAM Malvinas’ was in constant use throughout the conflict, regardless of Black Buck, regardless of Sea Harrier and GR.3 raids, and, regardless of harassing naval gunfire.
If there was a failure to close the runway it is a collective failure of the UK armed forces to do so.
The final supply flight by C-130, carrying 155mm ammunition, was flown into and out of Stanley Airport, the night before the Argentine forces surrendered on the 14th.
At the cessation of operations, Stanley Airport had suffered three Vulcan strikes, nine multi-aircraft attacks by Sea Harrier/GR.3 and many attacks using naval gunfire. The total munitions expended included 50 one thousand pound bombs, 135 five hundred pound bombs, many cluster bombs and over 1,000 4.5″ shells from Royal Navy vessels.
The garrison (25th Infantry Regiment and School of Military Aviation Security Company) suffered only three casualties.
The airport itself remained operational throughout the conflict, the F-28 force alone managing to transfer over 500 tonnes of supplies and hundreds of personnel. Between May 1st and June 14th, the C-130(H)’s of the FAA completed 31 flights into Stanley Airport, carrying 514 passengers and 434 tonnes of supplies in addition to evacuating 264 wounded personnel.
More importantly, eight Exocet missiles and their firing apparatus were flown in, leading to the death of fourteen sailors on board HMS Glamorgan.
None of these were likely to change the outcome of the conflict but it could be argued, the failure to completely deny the runway prolonged the conflict and indirectly, caused casualties that may have been avoided if the runway was not available for use.
Following the operations on May 1st, Argentine forces thought a ground-launched Exocet missile would deter the Royal Navy from attacking Port Stanley. Commander Julio Perez and two civilians designed and built an improvised firing device that used a telephone switchboard to allow an Exocet missile to be fired from a wheeled launcher.
The canisters containing the missiles were removed from a couple of corvettes and mounted on trailers.
The first attempt to fly it in was carried out on the 24th of May but was cancelled due to British activity in the area but were transported soon after, the 27/28th of May seems to be the most likely. Because the trailer was heavy, it needed a tarmac road and so was sited in Port Stanley. Each night, the trailer was moved from its hiding place and made ready for the nightly gunfire from Royal Navy vessels on the ‘gun line’
The FAA and Army radar in Port Stanley was used to provide search and target information.
After two failed launches, the third was successful, narrowly missing HMS Avenger on the night of the 28th May. Suspecting an Exocet, the Royal Navy created a 25 nautical mile ‘no sail’ zone to the south of Port Stanley. An additional four missiles arrived by C-130 Hercules into the airport on the 5th of June and made ready.
This was at a critical point in the land battle.
At 6.30am on the 12th of June, the system was used with some success.
The ships log of HMS Glamorgan records;
Commander Inskip, navigation officer records;
The video below shows footage of the missiles being fired.
Without the runway, the attack could not possibly have been made.
The MB339 parked on the runway verge at surrender and seen below was unscathed by the various attacks but was in fact, rendered unserviceable by ingestion of debris, debris a direct result of the bombing missions.
Although the simple fact the runway remained operational is widely known, what is less known is the impact on Black Buck I on Argentine civilian cargo vessels on Stanley Harbour. The raid precipitated the hasty departure from Stanley harbour of two Argentine merchant vessels without having fully unloaded their cargo. The 20,000 tonne Formosa was later attacked by the Argentine Air Force and sailed all the way back to Argentina with an unexploded bomb in her hull, alongside nearly 4,000 railway sleepers and 200 rails that were to be used for field defences in the hills surrounding Stanley. The other, the 10,000 tonne Carcaraña, departed Stanley with 50 tonnes of aviation fuel, all B Company GADA 10’s ammunition and vehicles, a multi launcher rocket system and various other stores
Argentine radar was forced to switch off as soon as aircraft came near
I have not mentioned the Shrike armed Black Buck missions because I was concentrating on the runway aspects and to be honest, have not done a great deal of reading on the subject.
The radars dotted around Port Stanley were part of an effective air defence system and some were also used for surface detection and gunfire control against Royal Navy shipping, especially those engaged in harassing attacks against the airport.
Black Buck 5 (31st May); was for all intents and purposes, another attempt at the Black Buck 4 mission that was cancelled, the destruction of the TPS-43 radar. After a lengthy game of cat and mouse between Vulcan and the radar operators, two Shrike missiles were launched and the radar system damaged. Reportedly, the strikes damaged a wave guide, with a replacement being flown out the next day, again, via the runway at Stanley Airport. The mission also identified a Skyguard fire control radar.
Black Buck 6 (3rd June); was an attempt to destroy the Skyguard fire control radar identified earlier.
For the Destruction of Enemy Air Defences (DEAD) task, Black Buck 4, 5 and 6, Shrike was selected because it had a higher probability of hitting the target and smaller warhead, important due to the enemy systems being sited amongst civilian housing. These were with improvised tactics and equipment, the Vulcan and their crews were not specialists in this most specialist of a task, that they achieved even limited effects is a testament to their skill and determination.
All that fuel
One of the recurring criticisms of the Black Buck raids were that they consumed an excessive amount of fuel that was both extremely expensive and could have been used better elsewhere.
Fuel for the helicopters was in short supply during the final few days of the campaign, this is well documented, although arguably, more to do with distribution than simple availability.
The amount of fuel needed was staggering, 635,000 pounds for Black Buck I, others would vary due to various factors, but they would be of the same order. There is no doubt that amount of fuel is expensive, but as we all know, war is.
The more serious claim is that the fuel could be used by Hercules, Sea Harrier, Nimrod or Victor (non-tanker) aircraft instead. For Black Buck I and 2, this is unlikely because the first airborne refuelled Hercules sortie did not happen until the 16th of May, and Nimrod, on or around the same period. The fuel was in the wrong place to be of any use to the Task Force and ferrying more Sea Harriers would have used significantly less fuel than Black Buck.
There were other constraints on parking space at Ascension and fuel tanker (of the floating kind) availability. All these factors would have been considered, especially the relative priority for fuel between Nimrod, Victor, Hercules, ferry flights for Harrier and Black Buck. A Black Buck demanded every single Victor tanker, which is why, self-evidently, there were not many of them in comparison with Hercules and Nimrod flights. The issue was described in a pair of notes to Margaret Thatcher on the 14/15th May.
Finally, those priorities were decided by Admiral Fieldhouse, it was his call on the fuel and what it was to be used for.
Were Harriers better suited?
Another criticism is that Sea Harriers and GR.3’s could have done a better job.
Certainly, there was a high degree of confidence in the ability of Sea Harriers in the planning and discussion stages of Black Buck in April. Experience would show that the Sea Harrier force was not well suited to high altitude bombing although when used in combination with GR.3’s were effective. The Sea Harrier had no high altitude bomb aiming sight, which means a low-level approach, exposing precious and valuable air defence aircraft to what was at the time, a very competent air defence system with radars, guns and missiles. The GR.3 was also not well suited to high altitude bombing, lacking a toss bombing system.
A claim made by proponents of the raids is that they had a disproportionate impact upon Argentine forces morale, this being deliberate and one of the reasons for the mission, not a post-facto justification.
Some of the more strident, claim that morale was ‘shattered’
When we discuss Argentine forces, we have to be clear what this means, is it the 25th Infantry Regiment and FAA Security Company guarding the airport, forces in the Port Stanley area, or the entirety of the garrison.
It is easy to imagine that morale did suffer, there is nowhere to hide from a thousand pound bomb dropped from high altitude but did this lead to a collapse locally or in a wider context?
It would seem unlikely.
Argentine forces did suffer morale issues, but only some of them. Others remained effective right to the end, no major morale issues with many of them. Of course, they were beaten, but I can’t find any accounts that link Black Buck to that defeat.
There were many turning points, Goose Green, Pebble Island, South Georgia, the San Carlos landings, the General Belgrano, HMS Sheffield and the final battles in the high ground around Port Stanley. It was also reported that the simple fact that the islanders did not welcome the Argentine forces with open arms came as a big shock to many. The reputation of the Marines, Paras, Guards and Gurkhas also played its part.
Naval gunfire, another significant factor, a good account of the impact of naval gunfire here
A short one…
First; we missed a golden opportunity to completely change the character of the conflict by failing to adequately deny the runway shortly before the invasion. This would not have been difficult to do, requiring only the bare minimum of defence stores.
Second; professional advice from the Royal Engineers and the civilian organisation that built it regarding the suitability of Stanley Airport for fast jet operations was completely discounted by the intelligence process.
Third, inter-service rivalry raised its ugly head, but to single out the RAF is unfair, all three services (of both nations) indulged in this most corrosive of activities that resulted in adverse outcomes.
Despite this, however unlikely the ability of Argentine forces to exploit Stanley Airport for fast jet operations, the potential impact if they did manage could have been decisive. Hence, on balance of risk, we were right to mount the operations.
The crews and support personnel planned and executed the missions with bravery, adaptability and skill.
Since then, their effects have both been both exaggerated and belittled, contributing to an unhealthy environment between the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.
The truth, at least in my opinion, is that the actual utility of the Black Buck missions lies somewhere in-between the extremes of opinion.
They contributed to the overall JOINT effort to defeat Argentine forces and liberate the islanders, like everything else that went south in 1982.
The message to the Junta was clear, time for negotiation had passed and Great Britain was about to smash its back doors in (to coin a phrase!)
I will leave the final word on Black Buck, not to a politician or member of the armed services, but a Falkland Islander, Tony Chater