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The Exocet is a Frenchmarker-built anti-ship missile whose various versions can be launched from surface vessels, submarines, and airplanes. Several hundred were fired in combat during the 1980s.


The missile's name was given by M. Guillot, then the technical director at Nord Aviation, after a French word for flying fish (Exocoetidae).


The Exocet is built by MBDA, a European missile company. Development began in 1967 as a ship-launched missile named MM 38. The air-launched Exocet was developed in 1974 and entered service with the French Navy five years later.

The missile is designed to hit large warships. It is guided inertially in mid-flight, and turns on active radar late in its flight to find and hit its target. Its solid propellant engine gives the Exocet a maximum range of for the Block 3 version and for previous versions. The submarine-launched version places the missile and a naval booster inside a launch capsule.

The Exocet has been manufactured in a number of versions, including:

  • MM38 (surface-launched)
  • AM39 (air-launched)
  • SM39 (submarine-launched)
  • MM40 (surface-launched)

The chief competitors to the Exocet are the U.S.-built Harpoon, the Chinese Yingji series and the Swedish built RBS15.

MM40 Block 3

The newest MM40 version (MM40 block 3) has an improved range of through the use of a turbofan engine, and includes four air intakes to provide continuous airflow to the engine during high-G maneuvers.

The Block 3 missiles accept guidance system waypoint commands, which allow them to attack naval targets from different angles and to strike land targets, giving them a marginal role as a cruise missile.


Exocet missile impact
Exocet launch

Falklands Conflict

In 1982, during the Falklands War, Exocets became noted worldwide when Argentine Navy Exocet-equipped Super Etendard warplanes sank the Britishmarker Royal Navy destroyer HMS Sheffieldmarker on 4 May 1982, and the 15,000 ton merchant ship Atlantic Conveyormarker, were struck by two Exocet anti-ship missiles, on 25 May. An MM38 ship-to-ship Exocet transferred from the Argentinean Navy destroyer ARA Guerrico to a land-based truck damaged HMS Glamorgan on June 12.

While the Argentineansmarker claimed that an Exocet-armed Super Etendard attack on May 30 damaged the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, this claim is unfounded, due to the continued air operations of Invincible with no signs of damage. During the conflict the Argentinian Government several times claimed incorrectly that it had damaged several ships, with multiple previous claims to have damaged or sunk the aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes, the two most important British warships there, and shot down Sea Harriers, due to some combination of the natural confusion of battle and propaganda purposes.

The Exocet that struck the HMS Sheffield impacted on the second deck, above the waterline and penetrated deeply into the Sheffield's control room, near to the forward engine room, cracking the hull open roughly . It appears that the warhead did not explode. Accounts suggest that the initial impact of the missile immediately destroyed the ship's onboard electricity generating systems and fractured the water main, preventing the anti-fire mechanisms from operating effectively, and thereby dooming the ship to be consumed by the raging fire. Although the loss of Sheffield was a major shock to the British, the missile used earned itself a curious kind of respect, and the word "Exocet" passed into British colloquial usage to denote, "a devastating attack". It is still occasionally heard and, as of 2007, remains widely understood. The crew of the Sheffield and members of the British Task Force were of the opinion that the missile had exploded, but the official report from the RN Board of Inquiry, now available (2007) on the Internet, states that from the evidence available the warhead did not explode. The damage caused was due to the large kinetic energy of the missile, and the unused missile fuel that ignited on impact.

The Exocet that struck the Glamorgan failed to explode, but the unburnt rocket fuel caused a significant fire. It is likely that the Glamorgan was saved from complete destruction by the prompt action of the officers and men at the helm. With less than a minute's warning that a missile was incoming, they ordered maximum revolutions and turned to present her stern to the missile. When the missile struck, the ship was heeled far over to port and instead of striking the side the missile hit the coaming and was deflected upwards. The dent caused by the impact was clearly visible when the Glamorgan was being refitted in late 1982.

In the years after the Falklands War it was revealed that the British government and intelligencemarker agencies were extremely concerned by the perceived inadequacy of the Royal Navy's anti-missile defences against the Exocet and the missile’s potential to tip the naval war decisively in favour of the Argentine forces. In London, a nightmare scenario was being envisioned in which one or both of the UK force’s two aircraft carriers (HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes) would be destroyed or incapacitated by Exocet attacks, which would make recapturing the Falklands much more difficult. To contain the Exocet threat a major intelligence operation was initiated to prevent the Argentine Navy from acquiring more Exocets. The operation included British intelligence agents claiming to be arms dealers able to supply large numbers of Exocets to Argentina, diverting Argentina from pursuing sources which could genuinely supply a few missiles. Francemarker denied deliveries of recently-purchased Exocet AM39s to Perumarker - to avoid the possibility of their being passed on to Argentina.

Middle East

USS Stark hit by two Exocets
Iraqmarker fired an estimated 200 air-launched Exocets against Iranianmarker shipping during the Iran–Iraq War with varying levels of success. Tankers and other civilian shipping were often hit.

On May 17, 1987, the pilot of an Iraqi Mirage F-1 allegedly mistook the U.S. Navy Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate USS Stark for an Iranian tanker and fired two Exocets at the warship. The first penetrated the port-side hull. The second entered at almost the same point, and left a gash then exploded in crew quarters. Thirty-seven sailors were killed and twenty-one were injured. Stark was heavily damaged, but saved by the crew and sent back for repairs. The errant pilot was reportedly executed for his error, and his explanations for the attack are not available. Later, Iraqi officials denied that the pilot had been executed and stated that he was still alive.

The Lokata

In the late 1970s a civilian in Falmouth, Cornwallmarker, England independently re-invented part of the Exocet's navigation system in one of his own inventions, the "Lokata Watchman", a navigation system for small boats.


Current operators

: Argentine Navy - MM38, MM40 and AM39
: Brazilian Navy - MM38, MM40 Block 2 and AM39
: Chilean Navy - MM38, AM39 and recently acquired SM39 for the Scorpène class submarine . Previously used MM40. Is unknown if the missiles were sold along with the two Condell class frigates to Ecuadormarker
: MM40
: MM40
: German Navy - To be replaced with RBS 15.
: MM38, MM40 Block 2/3, AM39
: MM38, MM40 Block 2
: Royal Malaysian Navy - MM38, MM40 Block 2, SM39 (on Scorpène class submarines)
: Pakistan Air Force - AM39 (on Dassault Mirage 5 naval support fighters)
Pakistan Navy - SM39 (on Agosta 90B submarines), AM39 (on Breguet Atlantic patrol aircraft)
: Peruvian Navy - AM39, MM38
: MM38
: Venezuelan Air Force - AM39 (on Dassault Mirage 50)
: ROK Navy

Former operators

: Belgian Navy operated Exocets on its Wielingen class frigates. Those warships were all sold in 2008
: Royal Navy operated Exocets until the last MM38 armed surface vessel was decommissioned in 2002.


  1. Exocet MM.40
  2. [1] La France commande des Exocet Block3, Le blog de Joseph Henrotin
  3. An interview with ARA CL (R) Ing. Julio Pérez, chief designer of Exocet truck-based launcher
  4. BBC article titled: 1982: Argentines destroy HMS Sheffield
  5. Loss of HMS Sheffield - Board of Inquiry from the MOD (page six)

External links

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