The Sea Harrier played a major part in the Falklands War in 1982. The Sea Harrier was a vertical/short take-off plane designed to be used on aircraft carriers. Whereas the Sea Harriers could manage a vertical take-off from a carrier, it was found that with the addition of a ‘ski slope’ at the bow of a carrier, the Sea Harrier could take-off with a lot more power than was generated by a vertical take-off - an obvious advantage if the Task Force was threatened.
For the duration of the Falklands War the Sea Harriers of the Task Force were based on ‘HMS Hermes’ and ‘HMS Invincible’. The primary function of the Sea Harriers as the Task Force approached the Falklands was in an air defence capacity – the larger bubble cockpit gave the pilot a larger field of vision than in a traditional Harrier. Task Force commanders were understandably wary of the Argentine Air Force and the Sea Harriers were the aerial defence against these. The Sea Harriers, combined with the modern sea-to-air missiles that the naval ships carried, presented a formidable defence. Their secondary role was in a ground attack capacity. RAF Harriers primarily carried this out while Sea Harriers protected the vulnerable fleet – which would have felt even more vulnerable after the sinking of ‘HMS Sheffield’.
The Sea Harriers were highly successful in the Falklands War. In air-to-air combat they scored 22 victories and none were lost in air combat. Two Sea Harriers were lost to ground fire.
Sea Harriers were armed with AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. These were heat-seeking missiles with an effectiveness record of 80%. The Sidewinders had a speed of Mach 2.5 and could be used head on to an enemy plane. Combined with 2 x 30mm ADEN cannon, which could fire rounds at a rate of between 1,200 to 1,700 a minute, the Sea Harriers were well equipped for modern aerial combat.
Against planes from the Argentine Air Force, the Sea Harriers proved to be more manoeuvrable and they each offered the carriers in the Task Force about 30 minutes protection before they had to land. Therefore, working in shifts, the Sea Harriers gave ‘Invincible’ and ‘Hermes’ a great deal of protection.
Also to the huge advantage of the Task Force was the fact that Argentine planes could spend just about 5 minutes over the Task Force before having to return to their base on mainland Argentina. The primary sources of concern were Skyhawks and Mirages. Skyhawks were based at San Julian and Rio Gallegos while Mirages were also based at Rio Gallegos. The feared Super Etendards were based at Rio Grande. Rio Gallegos air base was 430 miles from the Falklands, Rio Grande was 380 miles and San Julian was 405 miles away. The ‘critical’ ships of the Task Force – ‘Hermes’ and ‘Invincible’ were based away from the Falklands to provide even more protection. Therefore, Sea Harrier pilots had the comfort of knowing that the enemy’s pilots had little time to engage them, as their planes had no refuelling capability.
The only ‘major’ planes kept on the Falklands by the Argentine military were Pucaras. These were planes that could have caused ground forces a great deal of trouble after the landings at San Carlos Bay – hence the SAS raid on Pebble Island – but they had few defences against the Sea Harriers.