Missile attacks that sink ships are much more dramatic and memorable than a bomb blowing a big hole in a runway. This is why the 75-day battle for the Falkland Islands in the spring of 1982 remains remarkable in the popular imagination for reasons that are good enough -- but not the best.
Radar-guided, sea-skimming Exocet missiles launched at long ranges from Argentine Super Etendard fighters sank two British ships, the destroyer Sheffield and the container ship Atlantic Conveyor. Bombs dropped at closer ranges badly battered other British vessels. It could have been much worse for the British. If the Argentine air force had been equipped with an abundance of Exocets (it had to husband its meager supply, and ran out), and if more of its bombs that struck British ships had gone off (most did not), the damage to the Royal Navy flotilla around the Falklands might well have been devastating.
Even so, it is virtually certain that the British still would have prevailed simply because the side in control of the air has a mighty advantage on the battlefields below. The British took control of the air at the outset of the war and maintained it, notwithstanding the sporadically successful Argentine air sorties against their fleet. How the British did this, beginning with that single bomb, is the stuff -- indeed, the right stuff -- of "Air War South Atlantic."
In their gem of a book, authors Ethell and Price tell us a great deal more than met the eye, or has met it since, about the war. A big reason for the authors' achievement is their journalistic thoroughness. They interviewed many pilots of both sides who provided intensely personal, heart-thumping accounts of bomber-tanker matings and tactics on long, tough flights, and of air-to-air combat between the doughty British Harrier jump jets and the Argentine Skyhawks, Mirages and Daggers.
The story is told in the direct and relentless manner of the air combat it is mostly about, and is all the better for the 72 photographs of the men, the machines and their combat action that accompany it.
Back to the bomb.
In predawn darkness, having flown nearly 4,000 miles while taking fuel from a tanker aircraft that itself ran short and into trouble, a Royal Air Force Vulcan bomber from Ascension Island dropped a stick of 21 bombs slantwise across the Argentine-controlled airfield at Port Stanley. One bomb exploded smack in the center of the airfield's single runway, blew out a deep crater that the Argentines could not repair, and thus foreordained the outcome of the war.
As the authors tell it: "The single hole in the middle of the runway put an end to any hope that Argentine fast jet aircraft would be able to use the airfield as a refuelling stop after attacking enemy warships. Even more important, the attack demonstrated that the Royal Air Force had the ability to bomb airfields in Argentina if it chose to do so." Thus the mainland-based Argentine attack aircraft, constrained by fuel, had very little time to fight their way into or out of target areas when hopped upon, as they always were, by the Harriers. The Argentines also were forced to keep some of their best fighters and air crews on the mainland in the event of a British air attack (that never came).
And after a British submarine sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, the Argentines brought their sole aircraft carrier back to home waters, where it remained.
Well-covered in the air, British engineers built a way station airstrip on the Falklands for the carrier-based Harriers. This helped Harriers to cover the advance of British ground troops and carry out their air-patrol and ground-attack operations more freely. The aircraft losses tell the tale. The British lost 34 aircraft, mostly helicopters, and only nine Harriers. The Argentines lost 70, and half were the jet Skyhawks, Mirages and Daggers at the heart of their air force. Most fell prey to an air-to-air missile that performed at least as well as the Exocet -- the American-made AIM-9L heat-seeking Sidewinder. The Harrier-Sidewinder combination often confounded the Argentine fighter pilots, who showed great courage but bad tactics and inferior training.
This book will gladden air-combat traditionalists everywhere because it exalts the ingenuity, teamwork, tactics, training and coolness of the British air warriors as much as it does their aircraft and weapons. RAF Flight Lieutenant John Leeming, who flew a Sea Harrier into many a fight over the Falklands, is quoted: "We train as hard as any air force I know . . . We really go for it. We probably hurt ourselves more in training than we would be hurt in war."
"His words," the authors write, "were to prove tragically prophetic: in February 1983 John Leeming was killed when his Harrier collided with another during an air-to-air combat training flight."
Ethell and Price remind us throughout that modern war, for all its reliance on high-technology machines, remains a very personal affair. So is their book.