Monday, 31 March 2014

2014 - Blue on Blue

2014 - Blue on Blue - Nottingham Malvinas - Eduardo Gerding
This article was authorized to be uploaded to my blog by
Janis Jorgensen

Manager, Heritage Collection


Blue-on-Blue in the Falklands

by Captain Michael C. Potter, Supply Corps, 

U.S. Naval Reserve.

(Proceedings, October 2000)

Was the missile streaking across the night sky toward HMS Penelope a mere illusion, or was it friendly fire? 

It was the end of a bright, sunny day in June, and everyone was nearly frozen. A Royal Marine officer radioed the daily British surrender demand to any Argentine listeners in Port Stanley, the Falkland Islands' only real town. With most of their helicopter lift lost aboard the sunken transport Atlantic Conveyor, British Marines and ground troops marched with 100-pound packs eastward toward Port Stanley. Sensing imminent victory, they sought to get in on the kill. Besides, if they halted, sense returned to their numb, swollen feet and pain surged up their legs. 

That austral winter night of 13 June 1982, two Argentine Canberra bombers indicated that the outmaneuvered defenders had received the Marine captain's broadcasts. They attempted to flatten a farm called Estancia House—whence the British first demanded Port Stanley's surrender—and to kill the British generals who, they surmised, might occupy it. The destroyer HMS Exeter shot down one of the bombers, the last aircraft lost during the conflict. Simultaneously, the frigate HMS Penelope fired in alarm at a large missile streaking out of the dark toward her. A half-mile away, it ditched or detonated. 

Argentine sources indicate that the missile action against the Penelope did not involve their forces. Two explanations are feasible: either the incident was imaginary or it was friendly fire.

Reconstructing the loss of the bomber reveals a broader tactical situation that suggests the latter: the missile fired at the frigate was a Sea Dart, also from the Exeter. Analysis suggests further that published accounts, generally accepted as authoritative and essentially official, describe these events incorrectly, and that the most plausible reason for these particular errors was to conceal a Blue-on-Blue incident: friendly fire. 

The only open-source description of the missile attack against the Penelope is in The Royal Navy in the Falklands War, by British Ministry of Defence historian David Brown. The tactical situation for that night puzzled him: "Considerable mystery surrounds this last [bombing] raid. . . . The attack on the Penelope also requires some explanation." Possible antecedents include an attack by an Argentine Exocet antiship missile or harking back the 4 August 1964 night incident when the USS Maddox (DD-731) and Turner Joy (DD-951) fired at Tonkin Gulf wave crests. Brown rejected both of those hypotheses: "There can be little doubt she was fired at, although her claims were regarded at the time with some disbelief . . . The lack of any interception of a missile homing head was rightly taken to mean that an Exocet had not been fired." 

Officials from the U.S. Navy studying the campaign with the Royal Navy after the war heard nothing about the Penelope incident from their hosts. In his 1992 memoir, 100 Days, British naval task force commander Admiral Sir John (Sandy) Woodward ignored it. He wrote of the bomber's destruction: 

In the small hours of the following morning [he kept the task force on British time; late on 13 June locally] several Arg aircraft were spotted along the southern coastline of the islands, most of them heading north. One of them, however, a Canberra bomber being tracked by [the Type 42 destroyer HMS Cardiff, began to head across the land to the north of Port Stanley and as it did so it was struck by the Type 42's Sea Dart missile. It may seem presumptuous to contradict the on-scene commander, but a reconstruction of the Canberra's loss fails to support his description. It was lost far from Port Stanley, and the Cardiff never engaged it. Perhaps even for Falklands veterans, an ineffective attack against a small warship, the loss of one more aircraft among scores, one more dead among hundreds, might rank as events too minor to warrant correction. If the Exeter also fired at the Penelope, however, then attributing the Exeter's destruction of the bomber to another ship had the effect of concealing the friendly-fire source. 

Author Brown drew on "various accounts, semi-official, private, and unpublished, British and Argentine" during 1982-84, almost certainly including Admiral Woodward's notes. Private researchers during that same period, using both British and Argentine sources, compiled Falklands—The Air War, an encyclopedic account of every aircraft's operations throughout the conflict. The Argentine Air Force has posted additional data on its Internet website. While none of these accounts is flawless, even their errors are often explicable and revealing. By synchronizing minute-by-minute details, charting units' positions, and applying technical judgment and Occam's Razor—the principle that "entities must not be multiplied without necessity"—a consistent picture emerges. 

The Task Force Goes into Action 

To reduce their susceptibility to air attack, the British light aircraft carriers Hermes and Invincible kept station far east of Port Stanley. On board the Hermes, Admiral Woodward noted at sunset on 13 June that visibility was more than 100 miles westward and recorded:We are now on the cliff edge of our capability, with only three ships lacking a major OPDEF [operational defect] (Hermes, Yarmouth, and Exeter). Of the destroyer/frigate force, 45% are reduced to near-zero capability .... This afternoon, I was left on this most beautiful day for Etendards with one channel of Sea Dart fire. 

Admiral Woodward promised the ground commander four frigates for gunfire support that night. After firing on consecutive previous nights from a gun line south of the Stanley peninsula, he ordered the frigates into Berkeley Sound to the north, despite mines that a submarine reported. To spare these frigates and to cover his dispersed convoys, he ordered every combatant out of Falkland Sound, the site of the original beachhead. Chart 1 reconstructs the British warships' convoys and positions for 01202: 

[HMS Penelope departed Falkland Sound by its northern exit and] sailed east with the Nordic Ferry, to be handed over to the Arrow to the northeast of East Falkland in exchange for the inbound Baltic Ferry and Lycaon. The Cardiff, on her first night as anti-aircraft guardship, also sailed to the north out of the Falkland Sound, to cover the convoys and the bombardment groups which were to be in Berkeley Sound that night. The gunfire support ships sailed in two pairs, the Avenger and Yarmouth leaving the Battle Group at noon [160OZ] and the Active and Ambuscade three and a half hours later. Intrepid and Minerva set off [from Falkland Sound's southern exit] on another run to deliver and collect Fitzroy LCUs. 

By 9:20 p.m. [0120Z 14 June] the two ships were off the southernmost point of Lafonia, some 50 miles southwest of Fitzroy. The Penelope was with the Nordic Ferry, 45 miles on the other side of Fitzroy, with the Cardiff about 15 miles to the west-northwest of her.... Fearless [was] the only warship left in San Carlos Water.

Significantly omitted from both Brown's and Admiral Woodward's accounts was the position of the task force's most capable air-defense ship, the new Type 42 guided-missile destroyer Exeter. Given Admiral Woodward's expressed concern about minimal Sea Dart cover for the carriers, his assignment for the Exeter to be away from them implied that his mission for her had a high priority.

The Exeter was on a barrier patrol for air defense east of Port Stanley, a logical sector also for covering Berkeley Sound for the gunfire support ships, still several hours away. The earlier Type 42 destroyer Cardiff guarded the northern air approach to Berkeley Sound.

Not only was the Exeter in the best condition among British combatants by Admiral Woodward's notes; she was also the best equipped. She mounted a Type 1022 long-range high-altitude air-search radar and an upgraded integrated combat data system (ADAWS 7) to designate targets rapidly for her long-range Sea Dart missiles, which already had destroyed three Argentine aircraft.

An obscure but significant detail was that the computer-generated tactical situation displays on board the other destroyers and frigates shown in Chart 1 shared data over Link 10. But the Exeter used Link 11. Since Link 10 and Link 11 were incompatible, the Exeter neither received automatic plot data from the other ships present nor provided her own tactical picture to them.

The Argentine Air Strike

With imminent defeat staring at Argentina, the Southern Air Force commander (Fuerza Aerea Sur, [FAS]) tasked his Canberra squadron to bomb Estancia House near Mount Kent in what became Argentina's last combat mission of the air war. The Argentines might have surmised that the house was a major command post, because daily British commands to surrender were emanating over the farm's medical radio frequency; besides, they thought, perhaps British officers liked making headquarters out of comfortable houses as much as Argentine officers did.

After a single use of the civil transceiver as a fortuitous substitute for Estancia House's dead telephone circuit, the Spanish-speaking Royal Marine captain radioed all subsequent days' demands from the assault force flagship Fearless.

Accounts from Argentine sources describe the raid:

Two Mk 62 Canberras, code-named Baco, armed with five Mk 17 1,000-lb HE bombs with fuze SSQ. Mission: horizontal bombing on Port Harriet House (51 deg 39'S-58 deg 08'E) [sic: Estancia House]. Crews: [Baco-1] Capt. Roberto Pastran, Capt. Fernando Casado; [Baco-2] 1st Lt. Roberto Rivollier, Ist Lt. Jorge Annino. They took off from Río Gallegos at 213.Z.... Two Mirage Ills, code-named Pluto, armed with Matra Magic. Mission: cover Puerto Argentino [Port Stanley]. Crews: Maj. Jose Sanchez, Capt. Ricardo Gonzalez. They took off from Río Gallegos at 215OZ.

... The mission commenced well enough and [the Mirages] initially flew in radio silence, approaching West Falkland from the south at an altitude of about 33,000 ft. However, even before finding the Canberras on radar or making radio contact with the Port Stanley CIC, both [Mirage) pilots saw the glow of shellfire from Port Stanley, well over 100 miles away. Through broken cloud, the effects of naval and artillery bombardment could clearly be seen.

. . . Their run from south to north over Mount Kent was to be at 40,000 feet, hopefully too high to provoke a Sea Harrier attack and beyond the range of most British SAMs [surface to air missiles].

Chart 1 reconstructs approach paths consistent with these narratives. Approaching East Falkland Island from the southwest, the Mirages' characteristic radar signals alerted the frigate HMS Minerva of their identity. Two Sea Harriers scrambled from the Hermes at 01322 to respond.14 Chart 2 reconstructs the strike approach. With Gonzalez's Mirage flying in close escort with one northbound Canberra, Sanchez in his Mirage flew northeast, just north of Port Stanley.

. . The Canberras were [flying] at about 40,000 feet and at 0150z [around 0143-0144Z by British timing] they made their radar-guided attack on predetermined positions.

... After connecting with the Falklands [CIC], guidance took place with variations of course towards the east and soon to the north; informed that there was no enemy aerial activity, one [Mirage] stayed back in escort to the left of Baco[-2] until bomb release. In the approach to the launch point (from south to north), Baco-1 turned aside a little to the east and Baco-2 lost it from sight. It [Baco-2] arrived early at the target, confirmed by its Doppler and the Falklands radar. It dropped its bombs and, confirming bomb detonations, turned left.

... [Baco-1] flew over the target and released its bombs.... Again the bombs fell near the headquarters of three British generals.

No British unit suffered damage or reported bomb explosions. With their bombs gone, each Canberra swung left "to return southwards by their inbound track, out over the coast and to safety." Or so they hoped.

Death of Canberra Baco-1

North of Port Stanley the guided-missile destroyer Cardiff tracked Sanchez's Mirage. She fired her Sea Dart while the Canberras dropped their bombs 16 miles west of her target:

... By 9.44 [0144Z] the leading contact was well within Sea Dart range, over land to the north of Port Stanley, and the Cardiff opened fire with a single missile as the aircraft began to turn away to the south.

. . . [The Sea Dart] missile locked on to Sanchez's aircraft. As it came up at him, glowing brightly, he spiraled down towards it in an attempt to break the lock but the missile suddenly exploded below him at the end of its run, leaving his Mirage undamaged . . . [As Sanchez dived:] A second missile passed by him at 15,000 feet shortly afterwards but without detonating.

The Royal Navy in the Falklands War confused two different aircraft as one:

. . Cardiff, tracking a contact to the south from the point of impact [sic-detonation] of the Sea Dart, believed that the bomber [sic-Sanchez's Mirage] had crashed at least twenty-five miles to the south. To further complicate any analysis, the destroyer claimed a Mirage, on the strength of the unmistakable "noise" of a fighter-type radar on the target's bearing.

This had also been intercepted by the Minerva, coming from the aircraft which had flown over her ten minutes before the shoot-down [sic-engagement], and was again detected fifteen minutes afterwards.

The solution here is obvious: The Cardiff accurately identified and less accurately engaged a Mirage, hitting nothing. The 25-mile distance farther south was a natural range limit for her radar. The time and position of the second missile, which Sanchez observed at 15,000 feet over Port Stanley, are consistent to identify it as the Sea Dart with a quietus on it, climbing toward a Canberra at 40,000 feet near Fitzroy. Chart 3 reconstructs the destruction of Canberra Baco-1.

Baco-1 (B-108) was not so fortunate and at 0155z [about 0149Z by British timing] it was hit in the lower front fuselage area by a Sea Dart, almost certainly one launched from Exeter.

... Captain Pastran came down in the sea near the coast, inflated his life raft, disembarked, and [a day later near Fitzroy] was made prisoner.... Baco-2 evaded the intense antiaircraft fire, dropping flares and chaff while it escaped towards the west. [British units observed these flares at 0147Z.] It saw the brilliance of the intense cannonade against Puerto Argentino. It believed that the antiaircraft fire came from ships in Fitzroy [actually from Exeter east of Port Stanley]. . . . Already flown 60 miles in escape, the Malvinas [Port Stanley CIC] asked it whether it had contact with the guide [Baco-1], because it was lost from their screen. It responded no ....

The fatal missile's ascending southwesterly trajectory shows that it was launched from east or northeast of Port Stanley—the Exeter's patrol area. After the war, the Exeter displayed Baco-1's silhouette on her Sea Dart launcher. An authoritative book appearing soon after the war, in 1983, credited the loss to "a long-range high-altitude shot from HMS Exeter's Sea Dart.", How, or why, might later British semiofficial accounts lose sight of the Exeter?

Attack Against HMS Penelope

The Royal Navy in the Falklands War gives the only account of the Penelope's encounter with the incoming missile. She was a Leander-class frigate without integrated weapons. To fire at the intruder the individual 40-mm and Sea Cat gunners had to see it, specifically its exhaust flames in the night.

At 9.47 flashes were seen over the Fitzroy area [0147Z,Baco-2's decoy flares] by the Fearless, Minerva and [?] Penelope.... Commander Peter Rickard [the Penelope's commanding officer] took evasive action, fired chaff to screen himself and the Nordic Ferry and opened fire with Seacat and his Bofors as the missile closed at low level. It finally ditched, or possibly exploded above the water, about 1,000 yards between the frigate and her charge.

... The two aircraft in the Fitzroy area turned away as the missile arrived and headed for base, one [Gonzalez's Mirage] going sufficiently close to the Intrepid and Minerva to cause them serious worry. By 10.00pm [0200z] the radar screens were again clear, apart from an aircraft [Sanchez's Mirage] passing far to the south of the islands, westbound.

... The Fearless and Minerva both reported "flashes" or "explosions" in the sky at the time [0147Z] that the Penelope's lookout saw the "glow", and the bearings correspond to a position about five miles southwest of Fitzroy Settlement, where the Rapier troop reported hearing explosions overhead. The lack of any interception of a missile homing head was rightly taken to mean that an Exocet had not been fired.

Chart 3 reconstructs this incident. The Sea Dart's published range against air targets is 80 kilometers or 43 nautical miles." Most likely, the Exeter fired when Canberra Baco-2 turned away after bomb release near Mount Kent. Tracing a trajectory from the Canberra's splash area past Port Stanley, where Sanchez saw a surface-to-air missile at medium altitude, places this missile's launch sector inside the Exeter's barrier patrol area. If by coincidence the missile approached the Penelope from Fitzroy's direction, then the Exeter lay close to that bearing. In fact, a missile approaching the Penelope from any southwestern bearing was consistent with the Exeter. Thus, the incoming missile's guidance, bearing, range, and time of launch observed by the Penelope all corresponded to a missile launch by the Exeter at the instant when her Sea Dart battery was active.

With two illuminators and without a major operational defect, the Exeter could attack two targets simultaneously with Sea Darts.

No evidence supports an Argentine missile attack from any platform. Of Argentine naval strike aircraft, the Super Etendards flew no combat missions that June, and only two Skyhawks remained operational. Skyhawks required air force tankers for missions to San Carlos and farther east. The Argentine Air Force denies involvement without contradiction.

Without official analysis, one can only speculate about why this incident occurred. Incompatible data links certainly could lead to inconsistent plots, in which the Exeter might project the Penelope and the Nordic Ferry as west of their actual location detected by radar. Conceivably, an error of identification friend-or-foe (IFF) radar procedures led to suspicion on board the Exeter that the eastbound contacts to her north were Argentine ships. Two of the Penelope's search radars matched sets on Argentina's own Exocet-capable Type 42 destroyers. Or perhaps the Penelope was radar-silent and relying on her passive intercept equipment to alert her of missile seekers. That would explain her apparently uncued visual sighting of the missile and her evident inability to correlate its trajectory with a launching platform. Either the Penelope's defenses defeated the missile, or, more likely, the Exeter realized her error and aborted the attack.

Of the four inbound frigates, battered by heavy seas and continuous action with near-negligible logistical support, and whose some to Berkeley Sound was the task force's immediate goal: one arrived on time and in condition to support the ground troops' advance with gunfire. The others bombarded other targets. The Argentine ground commander surrendered that afternoon, 14 June.


The semiofficial accounts from historian Brown and Admiral Woodward failed to substantiate that the Cardiff, not the Exeter, destroyed the lost Canberra. Their assertions suggest that a political stricture demanded concealment of friendly-fire incidents. Confirming the stricture's existence, Admiral Woodward recounted "immense consternation in very high places" years later against acknowledging another Blue-on-Blue incident, "the only one between British air and sea forces throughout the entire war."

It too involved Sea Darts fired from a Type 42 destroyer, the Cardiff.

Political aspects of modern warfare include public relations and rules of engagement. During the Falklands campaign a committee met twice every day to change the rules of engagement. A U.S. admiral objected after the war that no operating unit could implement such an amorphous doctrine. Occurrences of friendly fire suggest inadequacies in the rules of engagement. Broader considerations should encourage authorities to acknowledge this incident.

Friendly fire may reveal inadequacies in training and equipment and conversely, acknowledgement might improve budgets. Friendly fire creates a difficult tactical problem. Royal Australian and U.S. Navy warships experiencing Blue-on-Blue missile attacks off Vietnam took crippling hits with fatal casualties. If this incident occurred as reconstructed here, even today allied navies will wish to learn how the Royal Navy resolved it safely. Historically, the Royal Navy can recognize proudly that HMS Exeter is the world's highest-scoring warship using her own ordnance against hostile aircraft since World War II.

The tactical analysis suggested here draws on open sources that, despite identifiable errors, inconsistencies, and omissions, appear to describe participants' specific experiences credibly. An alternative analysis must suggest multiple simultaneous errors that appear merely to comprise friendly fire.

Perhaps the Cardiff severely miscalculated the range, bearing, altitude, and identity of the aircraft she engaged. Perhaps Argentine air crew and ground controllers made simultaneous identical errors in navigation as necessary to explain the Cardiff's actions—errors beyond even Canberra Baco-1's 40-mile departure from its formation. Perhaps Mirage pilot Sanchez imagined two missile encounters that nevertheless correlated with other reports. Perhaps the Penelope's lookout, gunners, and captain imagined a missile that they fired upon. And perhaps the Exeter did nothing, indeed a strangely silent watchdog in the night, if so. Perhaps. But that analysis fails the test of Occam's Razor. 

Captain Potter is a project manager in the computer industry and the author of Electronic Greyhounds: The Spruance-Class Destroyers (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995).