At the height of the Falklands War in May 1982, the British proposed a Special Air Service (SAS) raid on an airfield located on the southern tip of Argentina.
Titled Operation Mikado, there’s good reason why the raid didn’t go ahead. No aircraft could possibly carry the balls required to get away with this mission successfully.
Let’s backtrack. The Falklands War – the British seaborne recapture of their South Atlantic islands from Argentine forces – ran for two-and-a-half months in 1982. By coincidence, there was a new dawn occurring in tactical airlift around this time, as the concept of what could be achieved with a transport (like say, a C-130 Hercules) was changing. Since the Second World War, tactical airlift had remained a means to gain some edge on an enemy on the battlefield (airdropping paratroops over the frontline) or to resupply distant units (especially those caught in pockets of enemy territory). But that all changed in 1976.
That year, Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Air France airliner, and forced it to Entebbe airport in Uganda. The Israelis mounted a rescue effort (which I’ll write about in another post) with four C-130 Hercules, delivering a team of special forces troops who battled Ugandan soldiers and hijackers at the airport terminal, and rescued the hostages. Four years later, the United States attempted to replicate this feat on a far more ambitious scale in Iran, with Operation Eagle Claw. To rescue 60 hostages being held at their former Embassy in Tehran, the US used six C-130s to deliver 120 Delta Force operators and their entourage, along with blivets of fuel, to an site named Desert One in the middle of the Iran (another topic for another blogpost). At Desert One, the Deltas would be offloaded on to Marine RH-53 helicopters, which would be refueled and sent on to Tehran for the rescue. Months of preparation came to naught at Desert One when the mission was aborted after one of the RH-53s broke down, and disaster unfolded when another RH-53 taxied in to a C-130, killing eight US servicemen. Never the less, on its own merits the C-130 element of Operation Eagle Claw – which had flown below Iran’s radar network, delivered its objectives and escaped (otherwise) undetected – was arguably a success, and demonstrated the audacity that was possible with months of planning, the correct intelligence, and a little help from neighbouring countries.
These raids had a longer-lasting consequence than rescuing hostages (or the attempt thereof). They fed the imaginations of governments around the world, who now bore witness to the effects of precision airborne raids being launched over long distances in to the heartland of a foreign power, yielding effects at a strategic level. The success of such conducting such raids in future would be further enhanced through the introduction of second generation night-vision goggles like the PVS-5 (not used at Entebbe) to western powers in the early 1980s; and the introduction of electronic warfare countermeasure systems across transport aircraft. Both features gave crews the ability to fly lower under a cloak of darkness, and attempt to avoid radar detection, achieving some element of surprise when storming an objective.
Few could expect then that the April 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina’s ruling military junta would be such a setting for a decisive tactical airlift raid. Few outside the British establishment expected any effort to re-take the islands. Even the Royal Navy Task Force which set sail to reclaim the Falklands carried some degree of caution about its success. Its air cover would come from ship-borne missile systems and Sea Harrier fighters launched from the carriers HMS Hermes and Invincible, the little jump jets still being introduced to service. Their opposition was a total of 240 aircraft fielded by the Argentine military, ranging from supersonic fighters and strike jets, to close air support aircraft and troop helicopters. Of no less concern was an armada of transport and surveillance aircraft, which were used to resupply the Argentine garrison on the Falklands, or stalk the Royal Navy Task Force through the South Atlantic. A string of airfields along Argentina’s southern coast gave them easy reach to the Falklands, guaranteeing the deployed forces there some air coverage. From the sea, Argentina’s Navy wisely opted not to send its aircraft carrier in to the conflict (a decision vindicated by the Royal Navy sinking of ARA General Belgrano with relative ease), leaving its shipborne strike jets to launch from Rio Grande airfield, on the southern-most tip of the Argentine mainland. Here were a fleet of A-4 Skyhawks (later used to make low level bombing attacks on the Royal Navy fleet) and a handful of Dassault Super Etendards, the latter capable of firing the Exocet anti-ship missile. The Royal Navy itself was equipped with sea-launched Exocets, and the prospect of Argentine jets launching them from a range of 70km set fear in their hearts.
Despite the homeplate advantage, Argentina’s air arms faced several handicaps throughout the conflict. The capture of the Falklands caught many Argentine military units by surprise. The Argentina Navy was still rolling out introduction of the Exocet to its Super Etendard, and possessed only five missiles that could be air-launched. France was convinced to cut off the supply of further missiles, leading Argentina to hastily pursue additional Exocets through Peru (that were eventually denied by France). The Skyhawks meanwhile relied on a highly risky method of dropping a line of ‘dumb’ bombs at low level and high speed in order to sink ships. Without the use of its aircraft carrier, Argentina’s Navy relied on just two KC-130 tanker aircraft to give its Super Etendards and Skyhawks the range to strike the Royal Navy Task Force. Over the Falklands, the Air Force’s fast jets could only deliver minutes of coverage during each mission, or likewise carry out attacks with dumb bombs.
The reality of the threat facing the Task Force was clear on May 4, 1982, when an Exocet missile struck HMS Sheffield. The warhead on the Exocet did not detonate, but the damage from the impact caused the ship to sink six days later. The Task Force held no doubts that if a missile were to hit one of the aircraft carriers – especially the flagship, HMS Hermes – and take them out of action, then the war would be lost.
The same day HMS Sheffield was mortally wounded, an important development occurred in England. A C-130K Hercules transport, which had been hastily equipped with an air-to-air refuelling probe, achieved its first night-time connection from a tanker. The probe modification was part of a furious effort within the Royal Air Force (RAF) to extend the range of its fleet in response to the Falklands War. The nearest friendly airfield was on Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic, itself some considerable distance from the nearest friendly airfields in England and Gibraltar. Flying range for RAF aircraft would need to be extended further still to reach the Falklands, either to assist in their recapture, or sustain them following the war. A very distant possibility for the RAF lay in an attack on the Argentine mainland.
The inclusion of a refuelling probe on the C-130K would prove to be a vital instrument in a potential raid against Argentina which, if carried out, would be one of the most audacious attacks in history. Until now, the British intelligence community had been leading the effort to deny Argentina the Exocet missile on the black market. Diplomatic efforts likewise were mounted on France to withhold any possibility of more Exocets finding their way to Argentina.
Following the hit on HMS Sheffield, four air-launched Exocets remained in the Argentine arsenal. A high-level, ‘Black Buck’-style bombing raid by a Vulcan on Rio Grande would prove too vulnerable to the crew, with no guarantee of the Exocet’s destruction on the ground. Worse still, almost no intelligence about the Argentine Navy’s disposition at Rio Grande existed. The best avenue to the Exocet’s removal from the conflict would be would be by a special forces raid delivered by a transport. Shortly after the war broke out, the RAF’s No. 47 Squadron began preparing for this possibility with a regime of C-130K Hercules night-flying.
The raid was titled Operation Mikado, and would involve two (and later just one) C-130K Hercules delivering up to 60 troops from SAS B Squadron to Rio Grande airfield by night. The B Squadron’s priorities were three-fold: seek and destroy the Exocets; destroy any Argentine Navy aircraft they found; and, if possible, find the pilots in their accommodation blocks and kill them.
The C-130K pilots trained hard. Two-ship formation flying at low level was practiced during night-time, carrying out rehearsals across RAF airfields in England and Scotland. There’s a fantastic account of the rehearsals given here, including interviews with one of the C-130K’s navigators and pilots. In my limited research I can find no evidence about whether the aircraft were equipped with any radar warning receivers or night-vision goggle equipment during the training or immediately prior to the raid (and would welcome any advice) Either system would have been essential to improving the raid’s chances of success.
Planning and rehearsals for Operation Mikado carried on, but several key factors presented themselves. While the C-130Ks could be refuelled, keeping Victor tankers on station for a return journey to Ascension Island would leave them dangerously close to Argentina. With no avenue of a return flight, the C-130Ks would either have to be abandoned at Rio Grande or flown to neighbouring Chile (some 80km west). Another limiting factor was the lack of any crucial intelligence on Rio Grande. Both problems manifested themselves in Operation Plum Duff, a precursor to Mikado that would seek to build a clearer picture of the target.
On May 17, a Royal Navy Sea King was stripped down to be a ‘flying gas can’ and sent from the fleet, with a mission of delivering an SAS observation team to a location near Rio Grande. The success of the mission is debatable. According to this account, the Sea King was detected on radar, and Argentine fighters were sent to intercept it. Heavy fog however protected the Sea King, and sheer luck saw its crew offload the SAS patrol not at the agreed upon delivery point (which was swarming with Argentine Marines) but over the border in Chile instead. The UK Ministry of Defence never revealed the ultimate fate of this patrol, which is believed to have set off over the border in to Argentina. The Sea King’s crew meanwhile destroyed their helicopter and evaded the Chilean military for more than a week before they were captured and returned to the UK. For an account of this mission, check this memoir from the crew.
Chile’s role during these events demonstrated publicly that it had become something of a silent partner to the British in the Falklands. Stopping short of lending explicit support, Chile’s treatment of the Sea King’s crew was quite hospitable, and Nimrod reconnaissance flights were flown from the Chilean-owned San Felix airfield in the Pacific Ocean. It’s speculative to suggest the RAF would have employed the Nimrod R.1 from San Felix to fly along the Chilean/Argentina border, but strong argument exists that this could have been the case. The ELINT gains from this aircraft, especially in building a picture of Argentina’s radar coverage, would be too good to miss.
With this scrutiny, Argentina must surely have seen Rio Grande was in the crosshairs. They had already attempted to bring the war closer to the enemy with Operation Algiceras, a commando raid using limpet mines on ships in Gibraltar’s harbour, which came frighteningly close to success. On their own soil, the threat to Rio Grande was enough for three battalions of Argentine Marines to be stationed to defend the airbase against any attack, overwhelmingly outnumbering any force the British could hope to land there – even by surprise.
Responsibility for the raid would be with SAS’s B Squadron, and if the risks weren’t apparent to them, then the lack of on-the-ground intelligence certainly was. The Israelis had launched Entebbe with architectural plans of the air terminal where its hostages were being held, whilst the Americans systematically built a picture of its captured embassy in Tehran. Short of any satellite intelligence provided by the United States, no such picture existed of Rio Grande for the British. Brigadier Peter de la Billière, Director of the SAS, had championed the raid shortly after the war broke out to the Ministry of Defence and the Prime Minister as essential to the Task Force’s safety. Major John Moss, Commander of B Squadron, was less convinced of its possibility of the raid’s success, leading to his summary replacement in the team. At Ascension Island, the SAS’s B Squadron waited with RAF C-130Ks for the order to carry out the attack, due to take place between May 19-23.
The plan now called for just a single C-130K to launch from Ascension at a daylight hour with a team of up to 55 SAS troops and Land Rovers in its cargo hold. During a 12-hour flight across the South Atlantic, the C-130K would refuel up to four times by Victor tankers (which themselves would likely require refuelling) before descending to wavetop height for its approach of the Argentine coast under a cover of darkness. The combination of long hours spent in the back of the Hercules during air-to-air refuelling, and a low level tactical insertion flown for more than 100km, meant the SAS troops would have been subjected to one of the most uncomfortable Hercules rides in history.
Assuming the C-130K had not aroused Argentine radars during its ingress, the transport would would roar over the town of Rio Grande as its population slept. Touching down on Runway 25, the Hercules would immediately disgorge its load of SAS troops from the paradoors and cargo ramp, fanning out around the aircraft to provide a protective cover. Loadmasters would have hastily unchained the Landrovers from the cargo deck (perhaps even prior to the landing) and offloaded the vehicles via the ramp during a noisy engine-running offload. Initial planning called for the C-130K to remain at the airfield for up to 30 minutes during the raid and collect the troops after their mission was complete (or even for the aircraft to be abandoned), but B Squadron left the RAF crew in no doubt – they would make their own way home. As B Squadron stormed Rio Grande’s hangars and accommodation blocks, the C-130K’s loadmasters would lay prone on the ramp, looking at the firefight through night-vision goggles and directing the Hercules crew as it engaged reverse thrust along Rio Grande’s runway. Once enough distance was available on the runway, the C-130K crew would select full forward power and take off, flying the remaining distance to safety in Chile. In all, the C-130K would spend less than five minutes on Argentine soil, and marginally longer in its airspace. B Squadron meanwhile would carry out its mission, then fight its way to the border with Chile.
But the call to launch never came. The amphibious landing on the Falklands began on May 21. On May 25, the Argentine Navy is believed to have spent two Exocets in the sinking of SS Atlantic Conveyor, which was carrying an essential payload of helicopters and runway-building equipment for the British. Much of the damage to the Royal Navy Task Force however came at the hands of low level attacks by Argentine strike jets delivering unguided bombs, and these jets themselves suffered a heavy toll. Despite some fears they might be overwhelmed, the Royal Navy’s Sea Harriers had proven themselves a remarkably modern and capable fighter in defence of the fleet, not to mention providing some close air support during the landings. Once the Brits conceded the plan to insert the SAS into Rio Grande by C-130K, they instead moved to a submarine insertion, with the raiders covering the last distance by inflatible boat. While Rio Grande is close to the water, the SAS still would have had to fight their way through the base’s defences before they could do their damage, and then make their way to safety – by foot to Chile, or dinghy to the submarine. The mission was practiced in the Falklands, but superseded by the war’s end.
If Operation Mikado had have gone ahead, then it’s easy to outline where it would have met failure. SAS B Squadron’s ill-fated commander, Major John Moss, later went to Rio Grande following the war and judged the raid would indeed have been suicidal. Not accounting for the three Marine Battalions at Rio Grande, the SAS team would have faced heavily guarded (and dispersed) aircraft, a difficult prospect of killing Argentine pilots in their beds, and a search for where the Exocets were exactly stored. They then would have to cover the remaining distance to a hostile border with Chile, thus upsetting a delicate diplomatic balance here. Harder still to predict is the degree of success that Mikado would have achieved – no doubt it would have destroyed a number of Argentine aircraft and caused considerable loss of life that would have yielded results over the Falklands. Assuming the Hercules arrived at Rio Grande undetected (RAF radar units were adamant that they detected the C-130Ks during rehearsals), it would have been a long five-minute wait on the ground at Rio Grande to get out unscathed.
The Falklands War still proved fruitful for the RAF’s C-130Ks. Along with the VC-10 transports, they were instrumental in forming an air-bridge from England to Ascension Island (and later the Falklands themselves) which saw more than 3,250,000lbs of cargo moved by air during the war’s early stages. Throughout the war, Hercules equipped with additional fuel tanks made airdrops to the Royal Navy Task Force, right through to the ships as they closed on the Falklands.
Today, the Royal Air Force has gained and lost many capabilities it possessed during the Falklands. The Nimrod fleet is gone, removing some degree of force protection for a surface fleet, and it will be another year before the RC-135 is delivered to provide an ELINT gathering ability. Conversely, the RAF’s C-130Ks were developed in leaps and bounds in the special operations role, and boast a considerable record of service in recent years in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Compared to 1982, the C-130K today is equipped with an infrared sensor turret, TV cameras, and countermeasures to defeat incoming infrared-guided missiles. Crews are well-versed in using night-vision goggles to fly at low level under cover of darkness. Despite its talents, the C-130K has grown old with time and hard use, and is soon to be withdrawn from service. Special operations support will be left to the C-130J, at least until 2022, when the RAF expects to retire its J-model fleet. From then, all tactical airlift will become the domain of 22 A400M Atlas transports.
Admittedly, an Atlas could have delivered quite an intimidating force to Rio Grande, but I have my doubts that, in today’s economic climate, it would have been risked on a hostile airstrip for five minutes.
Special thanks to The Aviationist and Richard Clements, whose blogpost on Operation Mikado proved useful for this piece.