The Exocet family of missiles are French-produced, sea-skimming anti-ship weapons. First tooled in 1967, the family includes the MM-38 and AM-39 variants. The MM-38 is launched from surface vessels, and the AM-39, which debuted in 1974, is air-dropped from fighter-bombers. Both are commonly and collectively called 'Exocet.'

This missile gained world attention when an AM-39 launched by an Argentinian Mirage penetrated the air defenses of the British Royal Navy Task Force in the Falklands War to strike the destroyer HMS Sheffield. The Sheffield was photographed after the strike, before sinking; there was a fifty to seventy-five foot section of the ship missing above the waterline, starting perhaps fifteen feet back from the bow.

Manufactured by Aerospatiale, the Exocet is peddled far and wide in world arms markets. Users range from France's armed forces to those of Qatar, Pakistan, Abu Dhabi, Peru, Argentina and Iraq, among others. These weapons are widely available and may turn up in all sorts of places.

The Exocet is powered by two staged rocket motors; a Condor booster rocket fires at launch for two seconds, pushing the weapon to nearly half its cruise speed of 0.93 Mach. After the booster has burnt out, the Exocet uses a radar altimeter to drop to its sea-skimming cruise altitude of 10 meters (in its terminal phase, it will, if the seas are calm enough, descend to 3 meters to further avoid air defense radar). Thereafter, once the missile has cleared its launch platform, a sustainer motor ignites and burns for 150-plus seconds, providing motive power for the midcourse flight. Depending on the altitude and speed of its launching aircraft, the air-dropped version has a range of between 50 and 70 km, and can be dropped from fast-movers (fighter-bombers) or even slow aircraft like helicopters.

The Exocet is guided during flight by an inertial navigation system. When it reaches its designated target area, it uses a radar seeker to locate and then track its target in to impact. It is designed to strike at the waterline of the target vessel, and has a 165-kg high explosive warhead. While naval combatants of the past (such as WWII battleships) would shrug this off, modern vessels are made of much lighter materials, relying instead on active defenses against missiles and torpedoes alike.

Aerospatiale performed a mass upgrade on these missiles in the 1980s, upgrading the terminal search and guidance radar as well as the midcourse guidance system. Not all deployed missiles received the upgrades; post-upgrade naval production models are designated 'MM-39 Block 2.'

Update 2008

As locke baron pointed out to me, there has been another upgrade to the Exocet family. Current members, according to the MBDA website, include:

  • Exocet MM38 (surface to surface)
  • Exocet AM39 (air to surface)
  • Exocet SM39 (submarine launched) - this one seems to be new since the original writeup!
  • Exocet MM40 Blocks 1, 2 and 3 (surface to surface or coastal defense/attack) - This upgrade apparently allows for containerized launch from a shore battery, and the block 3 is configurable for a VLS system.

Navigation for the MM40 involves 3D waypoint navigation using a combination of GPS, inertial guidance and radar altimetry combined with 3d terrain maps. There is a J-band terminal seeker for targets at sea, and GPS target guidance for land strike. locke baron tells me that the MM40 also will do home-on-jam, but I can't verify that. This, of course, doesn't mean it's not true.

Sources:

...as others have disclaimed before me, this information is not guaranteed. Please do not use it to plan a war.