The Exocet (French pronunciation: [ɛɡzɔsɛ]; French for "flying fish"[1]) is a French-built anti-ship missile whose various versions can be launched from surface vessels, submarines, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

An AM39 aircraft-launched Exocet
TypeAnti-ship missile
Place of originFrance
Service history
In service1973
Used bySee operators
WarsIran–Iraq War
Falklands War
Production history
Designer1967–1970: Nord Aviation
1970–1974: Aérospatiale
Manufacturer1979–1999: Aérospatiale
1999–2001: Aérospatiale-Matra
2001–present: MBDA
Mass780 kilograms (1,720 lb)
Length6 metres (19 ft 8 in)
Diameter34.8 centimetres (1 ft 1.7 in)
Warhead165 kilograms (364 lb)

Enginesolid propellant engine
turbojet (MM40 Block 3 version)
Wingspan1.35 metres (4 ft 5 in)
180 kilometres (110 mi; 97 nmi)
Flight altitudeSea-skimming
SpeedMach 0.93
1,148 kilometres per hour (713 mph; 319 m/s)
Inertial guidance and terminal active radar homing
  • MM38 surface-launched
  • AM39 air-launched
  • SM39 submarine-launched
  • MM40 surface-launched


The missile's name was given by M. Guillot, then the technical director at Nord Aviation.[1] It is the French word for flying fish, from the Latin exocoetus, a transliteration of the Greek name for the fish that sometimes flew into a boat: ἐξώκοιτος (exōkoitos), literally "lying down outside (ἒξω, κεῖμαι), sleeping outside".[2]


The Exocet is built by MBDA, a European missile company. Development began in 1967 by Nord as a ship-launched weapon named the MM 38. A few years later Aerospatiale and Nord merged. The basic body design was based on the Nord AS30 air-to-ground tactical missile. The air-launched Exocet was developed in 1974 and entered service with the French Navy five years later.[3]

The relatively compact missile is designed for attacking small- to medium-size warships (e.g., frigates, corvettes and destroyers), although multiple hits are effective against larger vessels, such as aircraft carriers.[4] It is guided inertially in mid-flight and turns on active radar late in its flight to find and hit its target. As a countermeasure against air defence around the target, it maintains a very low altitude during ingress, staying one to two meters above the sea surface. Due to the effect of the radar horizon, this means that the target may not detect an incoming attack until the missile is only 6,000 m from impact. This leaves little time for reaction and stimulated the design of close-in weapon systems (CIWS).

Its rocket motor, which is fuelled by solid propellant, gives the Exocet a maximum range of 70 kilometres (43 mi; 38 nmi). It was replaced on the Block 3 MM40 ship-launched version of the missile with a solid-propellant booster and a turbojet sustainer motor which extends the range of the missile to more than 180 kilometres (110 mi; 97 nmi). The submarine-launched version places the missile inside a launch capsule.


The Exocet has been manufactured in versions including:

  • MM38 (surface-launched) – deployed on warships. Range: 42 km. No longer produced (1970). A coast defence version known as "Excalibur" was developed in the United Kingdom and deployed in Gibraltar from 1985–1997.[5]
  • AM38 (helicopter-launched – tested only)[6]
  • AM39 (air-launched) – B2 Mod 2: deployed on 14 types of aircraft (combat jets, maritime patrol aircraft, helicopters). Range between 50 and 70 km, depending on the altitude and the speed of the launch aircraft.
  • SM39 (submarine-launched) – B2 Mod 2: deployed on submarines. The missile is housed inside a watertight launched capsule (VSM or véhicule Sous marin), which is fired by the submarine's torpedo-launch tubes. On leaving the water, the capsule is ejected and the missile's motor is ignited. It then behaves like an MM40. The missile will be fired at depth, which makes it particularly suitable for discreet submarine operations.
  • MM40 (surface-launched) – Block 1, Block 2 and Block 3: deployed on warships and in coastal batteries. Range: 72 km for the Block 2, in excess of 180 km for the Block3.

MM40 Block 3

In February 2004, the Délégation Générale pour l'Armement (DGA) notified MBDA of a contract for the design and production of a new missile, the MM40 Block 3. It has an improved range, in excess of 180 kilometres (97 nautical miles)—through the use of a turbojet engine, and includes four air intakes to provide continuous airflow to the power plant during high-G manoeuvers.

The Block 3 missile accepts GPS guidance system waypoint commands, which allow it to attack naval targets from different angles and to strike land targets, giving it a marginal role as a land-attack missile. The Block 3 Exocet is lighter than the previous MM40 Block 2 Exocet.[7][8]

45 Block 3 Exocets were ordered by the French Navy in December 2008 for its ships which were carrying Block 2 missiles, namely Horizon-class and Aquitaine-class frigates. These are not to be new productions but the conversion of older Block 2 missiles to the Block 3 standard. A MM40 Block 3 last qualification firing took place on the Île du Levant test range on 25 April 2007 and series manufacturing began in October 2008. The first firing of the Block 3 from a warship took place on 18 March 2010, from the French Navy air defense frigate Chevalier Paul. In 2012, a new motor, designed and manufactured in Brazil by the Avibras company in collaboration with MBDA, was tested on an MM40 missile of the Brazilian Navy.

Beside the French, the Block 3 has been ordered by several other navies including that of Greece, the UAE, Chile,[9] Peru,[10] Qatar, Oman, Indonesia and Morocco.[11]

The chief competitors to the Exocet are the US-made Harpoon, the Italian Otomat, the Swedish RBS-15 and the Chinese Yingji series.

Operational history

Falklands War

In 1982, during the Falklands War, Argentine Navy Dassault-Breguet Super Étendard warplanes carrying the AM39 Air Launched version of the Exocet caused damage which sank the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Sheffield on 4 May 1982. Two Exocets then struck the 15,000-ton merchant ship Atlantic Conveyor on 25 May. Two MM38 ship-to-ship Exocet missiles were removed from the old destroyer ARA Seguí, a retired US Navy Allen M. Sumner-class vessel, and transferred to an improvised launcher for land use,[12] a technically challenging task which also required reprogramming.[13] One of these was fired at, and caused damage to, the destroyer HMS Glamorgan on 12 June.

The Exocet that struck Sheffield impacted on the starboard side at deck level 2, travelling through the junior ratings' scullery and breaching the Forward Auxiliary Machinery Room/Forward Engine Room bulkhead 2.4 metres (7 ft 10 in) above the waterline, creating a hole in the hull roughly 1.2 by 3 metres (3.9 by 9.8 ft). It appears that the warhead did not explode.[14] Accounts suggest that the initial impact of the missile disabled the ship's electrical distribution systems and breached the pressurised sea water fire main, severely hampering any firefighting response and eventually dooming the ship to be consumed by the fire. The loss of Sheffield was a deep shock to the British public and government.

Some of the crew of Sheffield were of the opinion that the missile exploded; others held the view that it had not. The official Royal Navy Board of Inquiry Report stated that evidence indicates that the warhead did not detonate. During the 4½ days that the ship remained afloat, five salvage inspections were made and a number of photographs were taken. Members of the crew were interviewed, and testimony was given by Exocet specialists (the Royal Navy had 15 surface combat ships armed with Exocets in the Falklands War). There was no evidence of an explosion, although burning propellant from the rocket motor caused fires which could not be checked as firefighting equipment had been put out of action.

Atlantic Conveyor was a container ship that had been hastily converted to an aircraft transport and was carrying helicopters and supplies. The missiles had been fired at a frigate, but had been confused by the frigate's defences and instead targeted Atlantic Conveyor nearby. The Exocets—it is not certain whether the warheads exploded or not—caused a fire in the fuel and ammunition aboard which burnt the ship out. Atlantic Conveyor sank while under tow three days later.

The Exocet that struck Glamorgan detonated (a number of crew members witnessed this, as did the Argentines who fired it,[13] the whole event being recorded by a film crew) on the port side of the hangar deck, punching a hole in the deck and galley below, causing fires. The missile body travelled into the hangar and caused a fully fuelled and armed Wessex helicopter to explode. Prompt action by the officers and men at the helm saved the ship. With less than a minute's warning, the incoming missile had been tracked on radar in the operations room and bridge; as the ship was travelling at speed, a turn was ordered to present her strong stern to the missile. The ship was heeled far over to starboard when the missile struck. It hit the coaming and was deflected upwards. The dent caused by the impact was visible when Glamorgan was refitted in late 1982.

In the years after the Falklands War, it was revealed that the British government and the Secret Intelligence Service had been extremely concerned at the time by the perceived inadequacy of the Royal Navy's anti-missile defences against the Exocet and its potential to tip the naval war decisively in favour of the Argentine forces. A scenario was envisioned in which one or both of the force's two aircraft carriers (Invincible and Hermes) were destroyed or incapacitated by Exocet attacks, which would make recapturing the Falklands much more difficult.

Actions were taken to contain the Exocet threat. A major intelligence operation was initiated to prevent the Argentine Navy from acquiring more of the weapons on the international market.[15] The operation included British intelligence agents claiming to be arms dealers able to supply large numbers of Exocets to Argentina, who diverted Argentina from pursuing sources which could genuinely supply a few missiles. France denied deliveries of Exocet AM39s purchased by Peru to avoid the possibility of Peru giving them to Argentina, because they knew that payment would be made with credit from the Central Bank of Peru. British intelligence had detected the guarantee was a deposit of two hundred million dollars from the Andean Lima Bank, an owned subsidiary of the Banco Ambrosiano.[16][17]

Lokata Company

Sometime in 1983, the Lokata Company (a British maker of boat navigation equipment), independently duplicated part of the Exocet's navigation system.[18]

Iran–Iraq War

During the Iran–Iraq War, on 17 May 1987, an Iraqi Dassault Mirage F1 fired Exocet missiles at the American frigate USS Stark. 37 United States Navy personnel were killed and 21 others were wounded.


External images
Aerospatiale EXOCET
AM 39 Exocet launched from French Navy Super Etendard
Alpha Jet Lancier multi-role with Exocet AM 39
AM 39 launched from Super Puma
Exocet MM 40 fired from French vessel
Test firing of SM 39 subsurface version of Exocet high resolution
Aerospatiale Media Relations Photo Sent Out Shortly After Falkland's War
Super Etendard taking off with test AM39 under wing. Note, electronic pod under fuselage and drop tank under other wing pylon.
Impact of a MM40 on a target ship
First test launch of Exocet MM40 Block 3

Current operators

Argentine Navy – MM38, MM40 and AM39
Royal Brunei Navy – MM38, MM40
Bulgarian Navy
Brazilian Navy – MM38, MM40 Block 2 and AM39, SM-39
Cameroon Navy – MM38, MM40 (on P-48S (Bakassi) craft)
Chilean Navy – AM39, MM40 block-2, MM40 block-3 and SM39 for the Scorpène-class submarine.
Cyprus Navy – MM40
AM39,[19] MM38 & MM40
French Navy – MM38, MM40, AM39, SM39
German Navy – To be replaced with the RBS 15.
Hellenic Navy – MM38, MM40 Block 2/3
Hellenic Air Force – AM39
MM38 on Fatahillah class corvette, [20] MM40 Block 2 on Sigma-class corvette, MM40 Block 3 on Martadinata-class frigate[21]
Indian Navy (on Kalvari-class submarine)
Iranian Air Force – Acquired AM39 from Iraqi Mirage F1s; these aircraft sought sanctuary during the second Persian Gulf War.
Royal Malaysian Navy – MM38, MM40 Block 2, MM40 Block 3 and SM39 (on Scorpène-class submarines)[22]
Royal Moroccan Navy – MM38, MM40 Block 2/3,
Moroccan Air Force – AM39
Pakistan Naval Air Arm – AM39 (on Mirage-5V) and on JF17 Thunder naval support fighters)
Pakistan Navy – SM39 (on Agosta 90B (Khalid)-class submarines), AM39 (on Breguet Atlantic patrol aircraft)
Peruvian Navy – MM38 on PR-72P-class corvettes, AM39 Block 2 on ASH-3D Sea Kings and Mirage 2000P, MM40 Block 3 on Lupo-class frigates
 South Africa
South African Navy – MM40 Block 2 on Valour-class frigates.[23] The navy plans to upgrade to the Block 3 missile.[24]
Royal Thai Navy – MM38
MM-40 Exocet for the La Combattante III-class fast attack craft[19]
Vietnam People's Navy MM40 Block 3 on Sigma-class corvette[27]
 United Arab Emirates
UAE Navy MM40 Block 3 on Baynunah-class corvette
National Navy of Uruguay – MM38 on João Belo-class frigates

Former operators

Belgian Navy operated Exocet on its Wielingen-class frigates. These warships were all sold in 2008 to Bulgaria.
Georgian Navy
Iraqi Air Force – operated Exocet on its Mirage F1, Super Étendard and Super Frelon during the Iran–Iraq War, all retired.
 United Kingdom
Royal Navy operated Exocet until the last MM38 armed surface vessel was decommissioned in 2002.
Venezuelan Air Force – operated Exocet on its Dassault Mirage 50)
 South Korea
Republic of Korea Navy

See also


  1. Guillot, Jean; Estival, Bernard (1988). L'extraordinaire aventure de l'Exocet (in French). Brest: Les éditions de la Cité. ISBN 2-85186-039-9. The missile's name was given by M. Guillot, then technical director at Nord Aviation, after the French name for flying fish.
  2. Harper, Douglas. "Exocet". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  3. "Exocet AM.39 / MM.40". Federation of American Scientists. 10 August 1999. Archived from the original on 15 January 2016. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
  4. Friedman, Norman (1994). The Naval Guide to World Weapons Systems (Updated ed.). Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. p. 109. ISBN 978-1-55750-259-9. In a recent study by the Russians on the effects of missile boat anti-ship missiles it took three hits to destroy a light cruiser, and one to two hits for a destroyer or frigate. Russian missile boat anti-ship missiles have far larger warheads than the Exocet.
  5. Friedman, Norman. The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapons Systems, 1997–1998. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. p. 227. ISBN 978-1-55750-268-1. Archived from the original on 10 May 2016. Retrieved 6 November 2015.
  6. Based on the ship launched MM38. Only five tested in 1973 from a Super-Felon helicopter, further development then abandoned for the lighter and smaller AM39. – Pretty, Ronald T. (ed.). Jane's Weapon Systems 1976 (7th ed.). London, UK: MacDonald and Jane's. p. 133. ISBN 978-0-35400-527-2.
  7. Henrotin, Joseph (21 January 2009). "La France commande des Exocet Block3". Athéna et moi... (in French). Archived from the original on 9 December 2018. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
  8. Bolkcom, Christopher; Pike, John (1 April 1993). "Cruise Missiles: The Other Air Breathing Threat". Attack Aircraft Proliferation: Issues For Concern. Federation of American Scientists. Archived from the original on 10 March 2016. Retrieved 10 February 2009.
  9. Scott, Richard (28 September 2016). "Chile begins MM40 Block 3 Exocet retrofits". IHS Jane's 360. Archived from the original on 16 January 2017. Retrieved 14 January 2017.
  10. "Perú aprueba 41 millones de dólares para Defensa y se hará finalmente con misiles MM-40 Exocet". Foro Base Naval (in Spanish). 20 December 2010. Archived from the original on 9 December 2018. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
  11. "Premier tir de missile Exocet MM40 Block3 par la marine française". Mer et Marine (in French). 19 March 2010. Archived from the original on 22 March 2010. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
  12. Scheina, Robert L. (July 2003). Latin America's Wars Volume II: The Age of the Professional Soldier, 1900-2001. Potomac Books Inc. p. 316. ISBN 978-1-57488-452-4. Archived from the original on 17 March 2017. Retrieved 8 November 2016 via Google Books.
  13. ARA202 (16 August 2008). "Video Inédito: Disparo del ITB". YouTube (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 21 March 2016. Retrieved 29 November 2016.
  14. Loss of HMS Sheffield - Board of Inquiry (PDF) (Report). Northwood: Commander-in-Chief Fleet. 28 May 1982. p. 2. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 February 2012. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
  15. Briley, Harold (May 2002). "John Nott's Story". Falkland Islands Newsletter. Archived from the original on 22 November 2010. A remarkable world-wide operation then ensured to prevent further Exocets being bought by Argentina. I authorised our agents to pose as bona fide purchasers of equipment on the international market, ensuring that we outbid the Argentineans. Other agents identified Exocet missiles in various markets and covertly rendered them inoperable, based on information from the French.
  16. Freedman, Lawrence (1 January 2005). The Official History of the Falklands Campaign: War and Diplomacy. Routledge. p. 380. ISBN 978-0-7146-5207-8. Archived from the original on 17 March 2017. Retrieved 16 March 2017 via Google Books.
  17. "A las Malvinas en subte". Página/12 (in Spanish). 25 March 2012. Archived from the original on 15 November 2018. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
  18. "Defence ministry 'Exocets' yacht radar". New Scientist: 803. 24 March 1983. ISSN 0262-4079. Retrieved 15 April 2015.
  19. "Trade Registers". SIPRI. Archived from the original on 31 January 2011. Retrieved 26 February 2010.
  20. "Frigates: Fatahillah class". Indonesian Navy Ships. 2 February 2007. Archived from the original on 9 December 2018. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
  21. "Latest News: Two Sigma 9113 corvettes more for Indonesia" (PDF). Damen News. No. 7. April 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 October 2006. Retrieved 2 May 2011.
  22. "Malaysian Navy's 1st 'Scorpene' sub test fires Exocet missile". Brahmand.com. 4 August 2010. Archived from the original on 16 July 2015. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
  23. Engelbrecht, Leon (9 October 2008). "Fact file: Valour-class frigates". DefenceWeb. Archived from the original on 20 March 2016. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
  24. The Military Balance. International Institute for Strategic Studies. 2013. p. 531. ISBN 978-1-85743-680-8.
  25. "Refakat Ve Karakol Fi̇losu Komutanliği". Turkish Naval Forces (in Turkish). Archived from the original on 23 March 2010. Retrieved 29 November 2009.
  26. "World Navies Today: Turkey". Hazegray.org. 25 March 2002. Archived from the original on 19 December 2009. Retrieved 29 November 2009.
  27. NurW (3 November 2013). "France Sells Exocet Block 3 for Two Vietnamese SIGMA 9814". Defense Studies. Archived from the original on 6 November 2018. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
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