An Exocet heading for the frigate HMS Ambuscade was knocked down by the use of chaff, strips of aluminum exactly half the wavelength of enemy radar, which would present an alternative target for the missile but which would not not explode.
An Exocet intended for Ambuscade passed it, but then locked onto another ship, the poorly defended merchant ship Atlantic Conveyor, which was hit, caught fire and sank within three days.
Twelve sailors were killed and 10 helicopters were lost, meaning the army had no Chinook helicopters carrying troops intended to ferry them across the Falklands, rather than having to cross on foot.
Other ships were defended against Exocets with a blanket of radar-absorbing material, while others used a decoy box to ward off missiles.
Similar in size to a tea chest, with sharp edges and a radar signature similar to that of a warship, the decoy was suspended from a helicopter slightly above the missile’s maximum altitude, so that it aimed for the lure but flew harmlessly below.
British experts had found that Exocets sweep the horizon from left to right, meaning they could be attracted if a decoy flew to the left of a ship.
Changing tactics to avoid disaster
The British also devised a new tactic unique to the Exocet: rather than looking to the threat so that a missile would travel the shortest distance through the ship and cause the least damage (the best tactic against heavy “dumb bombs”). , the ships would face the missile end-to-end, presenting the smallest possible radar cross-section to a lightweight missile that would explode on impact.
On June 12, the destroyer HMS Glamorgan was attacked by an Exocet fired from shore about 20 miles away.
With little time to react, the ship’s captain ordered a high-speed turn away from the missile, avoiding a side impact. Instead, the missile hit the ship’s deck, ripped a large hole in the hangar deck and hit a powered and armed Wessex helicopter, killing 14 sailors.
The ship was not lost, however, and remained in a state of battle, although Argentina surrendered two days later.
Today, 40 years later, Mitterrand, Thatcher and many key players in the conflict have passed away, but the questions they left behind still demand answers.