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French company sees sales boost for Exocet missiles

Armaments is ''a very funny business,'' says Jean Charles Poggi, using funny in its slang meaning of ''strange.''

Mr. Poggi is a top executive of Aerospatiale, maker of Exocet missiles, one of which destroyed HMS Sheffield early last month during the Falkland Islands conflict.

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Since the success of the missile, Aerospatiale has been getting ''inquiries from all over the world,'' noted Mr. Poggi, mostly from newspapers seeking information. He expects more orders from more missile customers.

What prompted his use of the word ''funny'' was a comment that ''There is a need for an anti-Exocet system,'' and that this in turn would need to be countered by development of a supersonic missile.

In fact Aerospatiale proposed to the French Navy about a year ago a system to bring down the subsonic Exocet. ''It may be accelerated by this Falkland Island war,'' Mr. Poggi said.

Aerospatiale launched work on a supersonic missile last year, but it could take 10 years to complete. ''Missile systems are more and more sophisticated,'' says Mr. Poggi, who is in charge of strategic planning for Aerospatiale.

The Argentines used a French Super-Etendard combat aircraft to carry the Exocet AM 39 version of the ''fire and forget'' missile. The aircraft targets the ship from as far as 47 miles away, then fires the 19-foot missile, which at a point some eight miles from the ship drops to just above wave-top level. Radar built into its nose automatically homes the missile onto the target.

The Israelis claim to have electronic systems capable of diverting the Exocet. But HMS Sheffield did not succeed in stopping the sea-skimming missile with the ship's anti-missile Sea Dart missiles.

Various versions of the Exocet can be fired from ships, helicopters, coastal batteries, or submarines, as well as aircraft.

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Aerospatiale has sold the airborne versions to at least seven clients, including the French Navy, which also flies the Etendard, built by Dassault-Breguet, the other major French aircraft company.

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