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 70 km. 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:
The newest MM40 version (MM40 block 3) has an improved range of 180 km through the use of a turbojet engine, and includes four air-intakes to provide continuous airflow to the engine during high-G manoeuvres.
Argentina claimed that an Exocet-armed Super Etendard attack on May 30 damaged HMS Invincible. This claim is widely regarded as entirely unfounded, not least due to the continued operation of undamaged Invincible in the campaign. It should be noted that during the conflict the Argentinian military Government claimed incorrectly several times to have damaged several ships (with multiple previous claims for having damaged or sunk the carriers Invincible and the Hermes, the two most important British warships) and shot down Sea Harriers, due to some combination of the natural confusion of battle and propaganda purposes.
The Exocet that struck Sheffield impacted on 2 deck, 8 feet (2.4 m) above the waterline, near to the forward engine room, cracking the hull open roughly 4 feet (1.2 m) by 10 feet (3 m). 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 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 presence of unused missile fuel which ignited on impact.
The Exocet that struck Glamorgan failed to explode, but the unburnt rocket fuel caused a significant fire. It is likely that 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 maximum wheel towards 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 Glamorgan was being refitted in late 1982.
In the years after the Falklands War it was revealed that the British government and intelligence agencies were extremely concerned by the perceived inadequacy of the British 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 an Exocet attack. Under such circumstances, military analysts considered that the British would have had much more difficulty in mounting an attack to recapture the Falklands. To counter the threat posed by the Exocet, 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 quantities of Exocets to Argentina, diverting Argentina from pursuing genuine sources which could only supply a few missiles. France denied deliveries of recently-purchased AM39 to Peru in the belief that they would be given to Argentina.
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 3-by-4-metre 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 on Iraqi officials denied that the pilot was executed and stated that he was still alive to this day.