The Falklands War took place between Britain and Argentina in 1982. The Falklands are a British territory, about 500 kilometers off the coast of Argentina, that Argentina invaded in April 1982. The British had to quickly launch an operation to re-claim the islands. And part of this operation was Operation Black Buck – the longest bombing run in history. Dean Smith explains.
War in the South Atlantic
On April the second 1982, the Argentine military under the direction of President Leopoldo Galtieri invaded the British Falkland Islands. The British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, promised a swift and decisive response. As a result, on April 5th, a Naval Taskforce left Britain on route to Ascension Island, from where it would carry out the second route of its journey to retake the Falklands from Argentine control.
At the same time, the British Royal Air Force’s Avro Vulcan bomber was due to be retired that year. However, the Falklands conflict gave the ageing nuclear bomber a stay of execution and pushed it into combat service. The Vulcan was not only used in anger for the first time in April 1982, but it also took part in what was the longest successful bombing run in history: a round flight of almost 13,000 kilometers, between Ascension Island and the Falklands (Blackman, 2014).
During the planning stages of the assault on Argentine held locations on the Falklands, much attention was paid to how to achieve air superiority over the islands (Hasting, 2013). The British Air Force would be comprised primarily of Royal Navy Sea Harriers, operating from aircraft carriers such as the British Flagship HMS Hermes (Ward 1993).
From the airfield outside Port Stanley, Argentine fighters could be deployed to intercept Royal Navy aircraft. As had been well demonstrated during the Battle of Britain in World War Two, an assault on an island stronghold by air is advantageous to the Air Force of the defending side (Holland, 2010). As a result, much effort was put into attempting to disable the Argentine controlled airfield near Port Stanley.
A solution was devised using the Avro Vulcan bomber, performing extreme distance bombing runs from Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Island to Port Stanley on the Falklands.
However, there were multiple problems with this idea. The distance between Ascension Island and the Falklands was approximately 6,300 kilometers, with the maximum effective range of the Vulcan being a mere 4,171 km. Due primarily to the plans to decommission the Vulcan that year, the aircraft had no operational air-to-air refueling capabilities, and hadn’t for quite some time (White, 2012). Around the clock engineering work was required to fix the issue and install the appropriate internal refueling system, and to convert the aircrafts’ bomb bay from its current nuclear configuration, back to a conventional weapons model (Tuxford, 2016).
With all of these modifications in place, plans were set up to support the Vulcan with a staggering eleven victor tankers to provide air-to-air refueling throughout its marathon journey to the Falklands. The goal of the mission was to drop conventional weapons on the airfield at Port Stanley, with the intention of rendering them inoperable to Argentine forces.
V-Force in Flight
At 10:30 PM on April, 30 1982, the first two Vulcan bombers fired up their engines, followed closely by a third reserve bomber, and set out for their assault on Port Stanley. Within 4 minutes of departure the lead Vulcan, XM598, flown by Squadron Leader John Reeve, experienced a major technical problem - the cabin refused to pressurize. After a valiant attempt by Reeve and his crew to jury-rig a solution, the Vulcan was forced to turn back.
The second Vulcan bomber, XM607, commanded by Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers now took the lead. Withers’ bomber took on fuel five more times before reaching the Falklands. However, an electrical storm interfered with the last refueling stop, an issue that almost jeopardized the entire operation. As the commander of the Vulcan, it fell to Withers to decide how the operation should proceed. He was quoted as saying:
“We’re short on fuel, but we’ve come this far, I’m not turning back now.”(White, 2012)
At the distance of 470 kilometers from its target, XM607 began its descent that would take it below the level of the Argentine radar system. When passing the eighty-kilometer mark from Port Stanley, Withers pulled the aircraft into a steep climb, taking the Vulcan 3,000 meters into the air in order to avoid Argentine anti-aircraft fire.
This action brought XM607 well into the scope of the Argentine radar system. However, the radar operators never called it in, believing the Vulcan to be a friendly aircraft, due in no small part to the fact the British fleet was still thousands of miles away (Blackman, 2014).
At an altitude of 3,000-meters, and travelling at an average speed of 650km/h, the target airfield off of Port Stanley was not an easy target. At approximately 3 kilometers out from the target, the Vulcan released its payload.
After the payload was released, Withers turned the Vulcan around and began the race back to Ascension Island before their fuel reserves ran out. There was no time to confirm the time, every second they were in the air, their fuel reserved depleted even further. Fortunately, the return trip was without incident and the aircraft touched down on at Wideawake Airfield after a record breaking 16-hour mission that covered almost 13,000 kilometers.
The mission was a success, Withers’ crew had carried out the longest bombing run in history and struck their target, half a world away. The success of the operation produced incentive for further raids using the same plan. As a result, Withers’ initial flight became the first of seven Black Buck raids.
The following seven operations were based around the successful plan of Black Buck 1. But, after losing the element of surprise, as well as the requirement to hit varied targets, none of the following operations had quite the same effect as the first (March, 2006).
Black Buck 2 followed a plan nearly identical to the first one. However, the need to avoid Argentine anti-aircraft fire led to a higher deployment altitude of about 5,000-meters and the bombing run missed the runway completely.
Black Bucks 3 and 4 were called off due to adverse weather conditions and a refueling malfunction respectively. Black Buck 5 was intended to destroy Argentine radar installations using two Shrike Missiles, but this proved ineffective as the first missile only caused minor damage and the second missed completely.
Black Buck 6 was intended to carry out a similar task to Black Buck 5 and was more successful. Even so, this mission is notable due to technical difficulties forcing the crew to land in Brazil, prompting their detention by the Brazilian government, which led to an international incident and a negotiation for the return of the crew (White, 2012).
The final raid, Black Buck 7 was flown on the June, 12th by XM607, again captained by Withers. This mission was intended to attack Argentine troop positions around the runway near Port Stanley, due primarily to the end of the war being in sight and the RAF desiring to use the Port Stanley runway after hostilities had ceased. Due to a misalignment, all of the bombs missed their targets. This was ultimately irrelevant as Argentina surrendered two days later (Hastings, 2016).
The Effectiveness of Black Buck
There has been considerable debate about the effectiveness of the operation. Some critics have described the contribution of the bombing runs as “minimal” (Ward, 1993). Although Mirage fighters were pulled back to Argentina following the raids, Argentine C-130s continued to use the runway at Port Stanley until the end of the war (White, 2012 Blackman, 2016).
The idea that the raids caused considerable fear of an attack on the mainland has been dismissed as “propaganda” by formal royal navy commander Nigel “Sharkey” Ward. In his 1993 work Sea Harrier over the Falklands, Sharkey states:
“The Mirage IIIs were redrawn from Southern Argentina to Buenos Aires to add to the defences there following the Vulcan raids on the islands. Apparently, the logic behind this statement was that if the Vulcan could hit Port Stanley, that Buenos Aires was well within range as well and was vulnerable to similar attacks. I never went along with that baloney. A lone Vulcan or two running into attack Buenos Aires without fighter support would have been shot to hell in quick time.”
In terms of the technical success of Operation Black Buck, there is considerable doubt as to the extent that the bombing raids actually made any significant impact on Argentine operations.
A United States Marine Corps study concluded that:
“The most critical judgment of the use of the Vulcan centers on the argument that their use was "...largely to prove [the air force] had some role to play and not to help the battle in the least." This illustrates the practice of armed services to actively seek a "piece of the action" when a conflict arises, even if their capabilities or mission are not compatible with the circumstances of the conflict. Using Black Buck as an example shows the effects of this practice can be trivial and the results not worth the effort involved.” (DeHoust, 1984)
Operation Black Buck was clearly one of the most ambitious combat operations in military aviation history. The skill of the RAF engineers and the bravery of the pilots and aircrew are made clear in the accounts of those who participated in the operation. Though the effectiveness of the operation is questionable at best, the success of such a complex and technically demanding operation means that Black Buck is rightly regarded as one of the Royal Air Force’s finest moments.
What do you think of Operation Black Buck? Let us know below.
Blackman, T. (2014). Vulcan Boys. London: Grub Street, pp.151-171.
DeHoust, W. (1984). [online] Global Security. Available at: hhttps://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1984/DWF.htm [Accessed 20 Aug. 2018].
Hastings, M. (2013). The Battle for the Falklands. [London]: Pan.
Holland, J. (2010). The Battle of Britain. London: bantam Press, pp.85-96.
March, P. (2006). The Vulcan Story. 2nd ed. Chalford: Sutton Publishing, pp.64-72.
Polmar, N, and Bell, D. 2004. One Hundred Years of World Military Aircraft. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press.
Tuxford, B. (2016). Contact!: A Victor Tanker Captain's Experiences in the RAF, Before, During and After the Falklands Conflict. 1st ed. London: Grub Street Publishing, pp.122-149.
Ward, Sharkey. (1993). Sea Harrier Over the Falklands. Havertown: Pen and Sword, pp.7-12.
White, R. (2012). Vulcan 607. London: Bantam, pp.154-167.