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Airpower was going to be fundamental to success or failure in the 1982 Falkland Islands conflict and the Black Buck raids by RAF Vulcan’s against Stanley Airport and the occupying Argentine force were indicative of the importance of denying occupying forces a functional runway.
The Black Buck Vulcan missions tend to evoke strong opinions, and discussion can often descend into a childish and narrow argument. There are numerous books and online resources that look at the actual missions, and that they demonstrated superb airmanship and improvisation is not in doubt, but not much that examines their actual effectiveness. So I want to 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…
Falkland Islands Aviation
To provide some context and background information, please read the companion article to this one
This article describes the aviation on the islands, especially in and around Port Stanley and Stanley Airport
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;
On the other hand, having been given no advice other than to dispose his meagre forces and do what he could, Hunt might have appreciated a bit more information. No guidance was given on how the Argentine forces might arrive, including their likely use of amphibious personnel carriers, though this might have helped when choosing which beach to defend. The only suggestion received was to crater the runway, but there was no time to do this properly: it would have involved drilling holes in order to insert dynamite. All that was possible was to attempt to block the runway with vehicles.
In the House of Commons, a year after the conflict had concluded, Dennis Healey MP made the following statement;
When the Argentines finally invaded the islands, they did so with a comparatively small force of marines. Yet at that time we did not even have sufficient explosives on the islands to crater the airfield. The result was that the Argentines used the intervening weeks before the task force arrived to build up a formidable force of arms on the islands.
Hard not agree with Dennis.
This is my first observation, nothing at all to do with Black Buck;
For want of a couple of thousand Pounds worth of explosives and some forethought on combat engineering, over two thousand tonnes of highly important enemy war material and four thousand personnel would have had to travel on ships, running the gauntlet of the five Royal Navy SSN’s in the area. Or maybe, the defenders would have had to do without those reinforcements (men and materials), thus changing the character of the entire campaign. There is no guarantee that the merchant ships would have been detected and attacked, but the simple fact remains, without the runway, the defenders may well have looked very different in terms of capability and size than they did. It should also be noted that AM-2 runway repair matting was available at the airport, surplus from the airstrip at Hookers Point. AM-2 is a valuable commodity; that it was not adequately secured and disposed of prior to the invasion, may also have been a large mistake, if the Argentine combat engineers had made better use of it. As we know, these opportunities were not taken and so, we must look at the next chapter in the story, the role of the runway after the invasion.
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 was 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, ammunition 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, and 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 it. 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
Was it worth it? Little credit is usually given to the effect of the BLACK BUCK missions (three bombing attacks and two Shrike (anti-radar missile) attacks). Most military historians fail to mention that ‘BLACK BUCK 1’ opened the UK’s action against the Argentine forces. The actual damage caused by all the attacks was small, but their effect was considerable. Port Stanley airfield was denied to fighter aircraft for the rest of the war. But, possibly more importantly, Britain demonstrated an ability to attack the Argentine mainland, and for this reason, squadrons of Mirages were redeployed from the south to defend airfields and HQs in the north of Argentina. This significantly reduced the numbers of fighter aircraft capable of operating over the Falklands, which could have supported their fighter-bombers, and made life very different for our aircraft. After the Shrike attacks, all radars were turned off whenever any aircraft was seen approaching within about 40 miles, thereby denying the enemy a clear picture of what was going on in the air around the Islands. The final BLACK BUCK mission, on 12 June, two days before the final surrender, will have been a further blow to morale, by demonstrating that while our ground forces may have been running out of supplies and munitions, Britain could continue to mount attacks from Ascension ad infinitum
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.
Airfield Development by Argentine Engineers. Argentine Air Force Engineers constructed a temporary airstrip 4000 ft long 50 ft wide in 1971 near Rookery Bay between Port Stanley and the existing airfield. This airstrip was surfaced with US AM2 aluminium surfacing expedient which was lifted and removed from the Falkland Islands in 1978.
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.
With the engineer plant available on East Falkland, augmented by extra plant which is known to be in transit from Argentina, the Air Force Engineers could level and surface a completely new airstrip on a suitable site like the one previously used at Rookery Bay. Alternatively, in 2 to 3 weeks it is estimated that the existing airfield could be extended to 6000 ft maximum if a surfacing expedient such as the US AM2 was imported.
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.
We have no knowledge of Argentine ability to provide bulk refuelling facilities onshore. There are several sites near the airport where an LST could beach, and this could be one way of bringing in a large quantity of fuel in drums or tanks. Even if they have no dracones and pillow tanks they could very quickly set up a significant reserve of aviation fuel near the airport
Again, correct, it is what we did.
Fuel for the Argentine forces operating on the islands was never a problem.
Argentine Air Force Air Transport Operations from Stanley. If pressed, the Argentine Air Force should be able to operate C130 Hercules into Stanley Airport carrying a maximum payload of 17000kg. In addition, the Fokker F27 and F28s could fly in fully laden. All this assumes that the aircraft do not refuel at Stanley and that they arrive from the nearest mainland base. Because there is no perimeter track and the apron is restricted, the number of sorties will be limited. They should have no difficulty however in unloading and clearing a minimum of say 12 aircraft per day, which could give an inward airlift in the order of 200 tons of stores per day
A very accurate assessment, although it missed off a couple of aircraft used for the airlift
Argentine Offensive/Defensive Air Operations. The Argentine Mirage III, Mirage V and their A4 Skyhawks could operate from Stanley Airport with almost full payloads to defend the Island. The limited parking area would again be a problem. If the Argentine Air Force Engineers chose to improve this, however, there is no reason why, say, 4 of these fighter aircraft could not operate from Stanley. The factor most likely to limit the sortie rate is that of fuel supply. With forward planning and the engineer work described above, it must therefore be assumed that the Argentine Air Force could give themselves at least some air cover.
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;
It was unlikely that attack aircraft would be based on the airfield at Stanley since the pressing need there would be for air defence and the ground facilities would be critically over-stretched by a mixture of air defence, attack and transport aircraft. DCDS(I) assessed that the best form of air defence for Stanley would be afforded by stationing, say, four Mirage aircraft on the airstrip there. Because of the lack of night operating facilities and as it was the simpler as well as the lighter of the two types, these would probably be Mirage V. There was some intelligence suggesting an intention to extend the runway at Stanley by the 19 April to 4,000 metres using ‘fulminated concrete’ and if this were achieved it would open the possibility of operating 10 Mirage Vs, 58 Pucaras, and Super Etendards (with the Exocet capability) from the airfield, as well as four S2s (mid-1960s ASW technology). The best estimate, however, was that only a limited air defence capability was likely to be available to the Argentines at Stanley, and even then only in daylight and good weather
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 as 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;
Originally a grass strip, Stanley Airport’s runway (4,100 by 150 feet) had been built by a British contractor in the 70s and intelligence on its construction was provided, before it was attacked, by courtesy of the Engineer and Railway Staff Corps. A 60 strong corps of the Territorial Army, composed exclusively of unpaid officers of major to colonel rank (“all rank and no file”, as they would have it). The Middle Warden is one of their colonels. The Corps brings together technical experts, generally at an executive level, to provide advice to our Armed Forces in key engineering disciplines. Fortuitously, one of their number, a senior partner with the consulting engineers that designed and oversaw the build, was able to provide not only details of its construction but valuable information on where surplus equipment and materiel had been disposed of locally. Ironically, the airfield was developed to allow the Argentineans to provide a short-haul Fokker aircraft service to the mainland
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;
The Engineer and Railway Staff Corps was founded in 1865, when there were many private railway companies, with the principal objective of ensuring “the combined action among all the railways when the country is in danger” and one of the main duties was “the preparation, during peace, of schemes for drawing troops from given distant parts and for concentrating them within given areas in the shortest possible time”. In 1972 the Royal Engineers requested that the base of expertise be widened to include, where possible, engineers and other experts in the fields of airport design and construction, electrical and mechanical services, petrol and oil engineering, geology and soil mechanics, water and sewerage
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;
At the same time the RAF began asking questions about Port Stanley, Airport. Initially they were interested in the capability of the Argentines there and, through contacts in the Engineer and Railway Staff Corps of the Territorial Army (TA) with the consultants involved in the building of the airfield at Port Stanley, copies of the drawings for the airfield were obtained which gave details of its construction. There was a runway 4100 ft long and 150 ft wide designed to load classification number (LCN) 16 although, in places, it could be as high as LCN 30. The Air Staff were therefore advised that the Argentines would be able to operate lightly loaded Hercules transports from the airport but not fast jets, which was just as well for the Task Force.
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;
Regardless of the input of the civil engineers and construction company that built the runway, and regardless of the professional opinion of the Royal Engineers, the prevailing intelligence assessment somehow formed that it was still possible to operate fast jets from Stanley Airport. This professional advice would later be completely vindicated by the effort needed for UK forces to do the same
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, was formed on the 6th of April, 1982. The War Cabinet met daily and was the principal 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;
]Again as I said in my speech, we cannot continue to have frigates costing £130 million a time, excellent though they are. With my right hon. Friend, I repudiate press reports that our modern ships are poor weapons platforms and not properly armed. They are first-class ships, but, frankly, we cannot afford them in the numbers that we need. In the Navy debate last June I advanced the case for the type 23 frigate at half the cost, for the much cheaper minehunter and for seriously considering converting tankers to helicopter carriers for anti-submarine purposes, which is a sensible dual-purpose role for them. All that makes a great deal of sense. Inevitably, the resources that any Secretary of State has are limited. The best being the enemy of the good has all too often been the rack upon which Secretaries of State for Defence have been laid.
The Official History develops the theme of one services opinion of the other;
The active role of the First Sea Lord in persuading the Government that there was a serious military option available had inevitably been assessed by the other services in the light of the defence review. Henry Leach was seen to have seized the opportunity to demonstrate the Royal Navy’s continued worth to the United Kingdom, with a degree of confidence that even senior members of his own service did not share.
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;
tendency towards post-operational arguments
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 using 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;
an extremely hawkish proponent of the idea
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;
Intelligence indicated that there had been few improvements to the Stanley runway.
On the 27th, despite the advanced stages of planning and readiness, questions were still open on the raids, pages 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 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 stow away on ships before they departed.
Observation number three;
Black Buck was clearly an RAF suggestion and was pushed forward as an option because obviously, the Vulcan was an RAF aircraft. The option was considered in a joint decision-making framework and ultimately, authorised by the War Cabinet on advice from the Chief of the Defence Staff. It would not have reached that far unless it was also agreed by the Task Force Commander, an Admiral of the Royal Navy. Simply put, it would not have happened unless everyone agreed. It also seems to me that despite the obvious main task at hand, there was a degree of post-conflict positioning from all three services. Glasshouses and all that. Any objective analysis of the conflict would conclude that inter-service rivalry on both sides produced adverse outcomes.
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)
Regarding the enlargement of the Puerto Argentino RWY, major measures were taken in order to improve the airfield in order to be used by attack aircraft; while materiel for such works was allocated, only part of it was transported to the Islands due to the blockade (see the case of M/V ELMA Cordoba), and even that partial shipment was not unloaded on time. Nevertheless, (the AAF?) Should have stressed within COMIL (The Military Committee) on this aspect of aerial warfare, which fell under its exclusive jurisdiction
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, leftover 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.
ONE; 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)
TWO; Aircraft parking for the MB339 of Lt Crippa
THREE; 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;
While maintenance worked on the modification, the pilots worked on employment options. This included practice of short-field takeoff and landings to determine if sustained operations from the 4100-foot runway at Port Stanley were feasible. They learned it would only be suitable for emergency landings
In another paper, The Falklands 20 Years On, Phillip Grove, stated;
More importantly Argentina had no intention of using fast combat aircraft from the runway following tests earlier in April
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;
Argentina had ample supplies of steel matting and enough time to ship it Stanley, but when Air Force engineers studied the practicalities they decided it would be too difficult to sustain high-performance jet aircraft from such a primitive airfield
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;
Some evidence exists that the FAA refused to base out of the islands because it would have come under some degree of Navy operational control. Indeed Admiral Carlos Busser, who led the invasion, points out the FAA pilots rebelled at this notion, even to the point of refusing instruction from naval aviators in how to attack ships at sea
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 was extremely poor and would require removal of large quantities of peat and sand
Availability of engineering plant and personnel to complete the required groundworks, 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 airpower 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 the 1st of May.
From the Zona Militar forum, an eyewitness account;
In the western end some of them (the plates) were placed but when the raids started, works were abandoned, many of them were used to reinforce the positions. Thank two of them I´m alive at the moment, as they stopped shrapnel direct right on my head in the night of 29
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;
Argentine forces did seem to make some plans to develop and use the airport at Stanley for more aircraft types than they eventually did, but these plans were gradually changed over time as more information became known and circumstances changed. What plans had started to be implemented were abandoned and the materials (existing and shipped in) were used for general construction purposes.
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 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 datasheet 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 were LCN 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 the 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 are no simple methods 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…
I have taken some huge liberties with what is a very technical and complex subject, but it would appear that the lightweight A4 Skyhawk, based only on pavement strength and runway length, could have operated from Stanley Airport with some augmentation and absolutely minimal weapons payload and fuel, but it would be marginal. Mirage and Dagger, based on the same assumptions, and backed up with FAA decision making, would be highly marginal, dependable on good weather and pretty unsafe in anything but the most benign conditions. There are also other factors to consider, none of which point to an answer that contradicts the Royal Engineers advice on viability.
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 the 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
Visual assessment, however, was ‘long scar 250m long 70m wide across the airfield straddling centre of runway north-east-southwest with three apparent craters one on runway, and one each side’. Follow up Sea Harrier raids, which destroyed the two Falkland Islands aircraft that had been captured by the Argentines, were also difficult to assess due to bad weather, but the ‘general observation was area devastated’
The day after Rear Admiral Woodward submitted the following report;
]Vulcan attack made single crater with first bomb halfway down runway just south of centre, remaining bombs landed over to SW over 1000m run without further damage. 3×1000-lb retard bombs laid down by one SHAR during suppression attack all hit runway centre line causing damage over 150m in area of Vulcan hit. Other damage done in stores and dispersal area at west end of runway by cluster bombs
In response to the claim from Ewen Southby-Tailyour, writing in the Telegraph;
RAF hit the target. Sir – Ewen Southby-Tailyour (Letters, May 5) is wrong in his description of the damage to the Stanley runway. As Commander, Royal Engineers, I was responsible for its repair immediately after the surrender. There was one large crater caused by a 1,000lb bomb from the RAF Vulcan raid, and four smaller craters resulting from earlier Harrier attacks. (The Argentines had also created dummy craters to confuse our aerial reconnaissance.) Repairing the large crater and the large area of runway took about two weeks and 1,000 square metres of captured Argentine runway matting. Lt Col Southby-Tailyour is, however, correct in stating that Argentine aircraft were able to continue to use the runway, despite the bombing raids, by temporarily backfilling the craters. This, perhaps, is why his “recce” did not spot the true extent of the damage.
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;
The first task was to carry out a reconnaissance of the airfield and, in spite of it being a gigantic prisoner-of-war compound, this was started on 17 June. There was a single large crater on the runway caused by a 1000lb bomb dropped by an RAF Vulcan, as well as other smaller craters and hundreds of scabs caused by rockets and cannon fire. A plan was devised to repair the northern half of the runway first, thus avoiding the Vulcan crater in order that Hercules could land as early as possible. The craters had already been filled by the Argentines and work was limited to cutting out soft patches and heaved pavement areas around the craters and filling with waste from the old quarry. In addition, the asphalt surface was cut back to a size to accommodate aluminium panels left behind by the Argentines which provided a good surface. The northern half of the runway was repaired in three days and the first Hercules landed on 24 June right on schedule. The remaining repairs to the airport runway, including the large Vulcan crater, took longer but all emergency repairs were completed by the end of June.
This diary account from one of the MB339 aircrew discusses the impact (amongst other things) of the airstrikes.
We went out with Captain Anselmi in the jeep, and found the platform covered with shrapnel and the tails of beluga type grenades. We went down the runway in the direction of the aircraft, and to our surprise, we discovered that a single bomb had impacted in the centre of the runway, on the southern side; the rest was ok, albeit dirty.
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 in 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 or there is some error elsewhere
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 is ‘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 was 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 the 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 of Vulcan attacks. Although Black Buck I was detected, confusion, inexperience and possibly, Rules of Engagement, prevented the ground-based air defences from 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]
but the higher altitude adopted, to stay clear of Argentine Roland surface-to-air missiles, meant that the attack itself was less successful
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 the 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 was 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 the 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 northwest 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 were 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 the bowl larger than it initially appears. The ‘clean bowl’ is filled with graded aggregate and the top layer of finer material is applied. The top layer is then levelled and compacted with a vibratory roller. Finally, a pavement replacement is applied, usually, 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-damaged 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 as 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…
Although much of the published imagery and available documentation lacks provenance and is contradictory in parts, the sheer amount of it, and several other authoritative sources, all point to Black Buck I hitting midpoint on the south half of the runway with a single 1,000-pound bomb. Three also hit the grass verge to the side of the runway. Sea Harrier strikes hit the runway on the same day. Taken together, the damage was considerable, despite dummy craters and initial appearances. The target for Black Buck 2 remains unclear although the logic for its location is obvious. Black Buck 7 remains controversial but the evidence does exist for impacts and if human error was to blame for fuzing issues, so what, war is a human endeavour.
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 the 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 the 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 was 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 was 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 airbases 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 was 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.
Did Black Buck 1 and 2 contribute to an increase in defensive counter-air taskings for the Mirage IIIEA’s, yes, but contribute is the operative word and it seems not for the capital in any case. Did this change materially impact operations over the Falkland Islands, you can make your own mind up, but I don’t think it had a huge impact one way or the other.
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 was 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 of 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 at the airport on the 5th of June and were made ready.
This was at a critical point in the land battle.
At 6.30 am on the 12th of June, the system was used with some success.
The ships log of HMS Glamorgan records;
11 June,17:00 – Detached at 26 knots to support 45 RM Cdo on Two Sisters.
12 June. 06:37 – Hit by Exocet missile. Hole blown in deck outside hanger, Aircraft and Port Seacat destroyed. Hanger and main galley burnt out. Serious flooding in Magazine and other compartments below. Thirteen men dead with fourteen wounded. Casualties evacuated to HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. 10:00 – Proceeding in excess of 20 knots with all fires extinguished. 19:35 – Thirteen members of the ships company of HMS Glamorgan buried at sea
Commander Inskip, navigation officer records;
If the missile had been three inches lower and if I had not ordered full rudder it would have exploded in the Sea Slug (missile) main magazine and the ship would have blown up with the loss of 450 lives
The images below show the missiles and damage
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, the 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 of 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 tonnes 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 tonnes 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
Obviously, the runway was not completely put out of action but if it was a failure, it was a joint failure. It was still operational the day before surrender despite three Vulcan strikes, nine multi-aircraft attacks by Sea Harrier/GR.3 and many attacks using naval gunfire. The total munitions expended included 50 1000lb bombs, 135 500lb bombs, many cluster bombs and over 1,000 4.5″ shells from Royal Navy vessels. But it should be noted that whilst Hercules was able to use the runway, any opportunity for fast jet operation, however marginal, was completely lost after Black Buck I.
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 was damaged. Reportedly, the strikes damaged a waveguide, 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 the 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 of 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 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, with 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
It is only an opinion but I think the Vulcan strikes did have an impact on morale, possibly a serious one, but it was most likely localised and ultimately, one small part of the overall picture.
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 the 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 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
The whole house shook, as though there had been an earthquake. There was terrific jubilation. From then on, we felt confident the British forces would come to our rescue
Table of Contents
|Change Date||Change Record|
|02/03/2018||Additional RAF Stanley images|
|21/07/2021||Split from aviation in the Falklands and reformat|
Acknowledgements and Sources
RAF Historical Society, Journal No 30
Air War in the Falklands, 1982
The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, Sir Lawrence Freedman
US Department of the Navy, Falkland Islands Lessons Learned
Falklands Aftermath: Picking up the Pieces, Edward Fursdon
Air Scene UK
Vulcan to the Sky
Argentina’s Tactical Aircraft Employment in the Falkland Islands War, Gabriel Green USAF
The Falklands War Understanding the Power of Context in Shaping Argentine Strategic Decisions
Radar Malvinas (a great site with lots of information)
Zona Militar (an Argentine military forum that is serious about historical analysis, not at all jingoistic and a fantastic resource, including many posts where veterans from both sides discuss the conflict. There are many excellent contributors and I would like to say thank you to a number of selected forum members whose comments helped me a great deal in researching some of the specific points in this series of articles). I really cannot thank them enough.
PPRUNE, Fighter Control and Military Photos discussion forums, as with Zona Militar, are an invaluable reference for anyone interested in the subject.
Images; many of the images in these posts seem to float around the internet on forums and image sharing sites so it is difficult to properly attribute. I am normally quite picky about image grabbing from sources where ownership is uncertain but because I think this is a pretty important subject I have lowered the normal threshold. Please accept my thanks in advance to the photographers and if you are the original owner please let me know if you want it removed or properly attributed.