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There is a lot of information about this complex operation. But can anybody explain why they chose to use an aircraft? They could easily shoot cruise missiles from a ship or ballistic missiles from a nuclear submarine. The easiest and quickest option would be just to shoot an ICBM directly from the UK using a conventional warhead. Just put the coordinates in and task done. No risk to anyone! I think the UK had all the needed technology by that time.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you provide a reference for either cruise missiles or ICBMs that the UK would have had in 1982? $\endgroup$ – fooot Oct 30 '19 at 16:19
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    $\begingroup$ I think they had UGM-27 Polaris and they were cooperating with the USA. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polaris_(UK_nuclear_programme) $\endgroup$ – Andrius Oct 30 '19 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ Related: history.stackexchange.com/q/14254/1773 $\endgroup$ – Martin Schröder Oct 31 '19 at 6:24
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    $\begingroup$ IMHO this question belongs to history.sx. $\endgroup$ – Martin Schröder Oct 31 '19 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ @ReinstateMonica-M.Schröder there does not seem to be a consensus on considering this question as off-topic here, so there is not a case for migration. $\endgroup$ – Federico Nov 5 '19 at 7:21
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Because all of Britain's adversaries were either nearby (Warsaw Pact) or too far to economically fight (China). Since Britain's weapons only needed to reach the Caucasus, they simply never developed ultra-long-range assets like the Tu-95 Bear or B-52 Stratofortress. Unfortunately no-one was willing to provide any of those under Lend-Lease.

Honestly, even if the British had appropriate cruise missiles (they did not), they would have no reason to own ones with the range to hit the Falklands from Ascension. Nor would they have any reason to need ICBMs with the range to hit Falklands from the UK (they wouldn't have ICBMs in Ascension, who would they nuke? The Congo? Guyana?) Again the enemy is in Europe, so everything is sized and positioned to go just that far.

Your question takes for granted the pre-existence of weapons systems like the "down a chimney" Tomahawk. Honestly, the British inability to do anything but have their SSN crews shake their fists at the islands, was a major impetus in developing those new families of weapons. Every major force watched with keen interest and thought "Gosh, what if we had to deal with one of these?"

However, they certainly did have relevant weapons: Aircraft carriers. This type of mission is the reason carriers exist. They could project power from the Spratleys to, indeed, the Falklands.

Further, there'd be little point to using cruise missiles or ICBMs before the main force was in position to make good on the advantage. And once the main force was in place, they could strike from there, and did not need long-range weapons.

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    $\begingroup$ Obviously, Britain did project their main force with a carrier group but at the same time did conduct the Vulcan strikes (operation Black Buck we are talking about) in advance of the main force. So this somewhat contradicts your last paragraph, doesn't it? At least i don't get the point as the same argument could be used for not needing the Vulcan strikes. $\endgroup$ – Scrontch Oct 31 '19 at 8:33
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelMacAskill That's what i'm saying! There were good tactical reasons to launch a long-range raid against the airfield before the main force arrived. But this means that employing long range cruise missiles would have made sense just as well, if they had been available. Harper seems to doubt that in his last paragraph. $\endgroup$ – Scrontch Oct 31 '19 at 9:15
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    $\begingroup$ Britain did not operate cruise missiles in 1982, the closest thing they had was antiship missiles with a range of ~100 km. Blue Steel was out of service by then, and was designed for a nuclear warhead. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Oct 31 '19 at 10:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Hobbes I thought we settled that in earlier discussion. I didn't say they did, I was saying, if they even had such, it would have been irrelevant since they never would have had a reason to field a cruise missile with such range. Edited. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Oct 31 '19 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ And of course they couldn't use ICBMs they didn't have... And their SLBMs were all nuclear tipped and firing one from anywhere would instantly have caused a Soviet counterstrike to the UK as they were assumed to all be pointed at the USSR. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Nov 1 '19 at 10:33
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This is borderline as an aviation question but I will answer it anyway.

They didn't use those weapons because they did not have them at the time:

Conventional cruise missiles did exist but most were nuclear, and the UK didn't possess any conventional ones.

ICBMs with conventional warheads did not and probably still do not exist because they are not a good idea:

  • Their capacity is low: A sub launched ICBM has somewhere around 2.5 to 3 metric tons' throw weight, much of that would be taken up by warhead guidance, thermal protection and other necessities so your actual warhead would be maybe 1000kg, or 2200lb. That's not that big a conventional bomb, and it could only launch one. A fighter bomber could drop 2 of those. The Vulcan bombers on the raid carried 21 1000 pound bombs.
  • They aren't accurate enough: a nuclear weapon can be a bit off and still destroy its target utterly, a conventional weapon needs a great deal of precision. The Polaris missile had an accuracy of 3000ft (900m). That's okay for a nuke, it' still ruin someone's day, but completely inadequate for a 2000lb bomb. More modern ICMBs have more like a 100 meter accuracy, which is a lot closer but still not good enough for a conventional bomb
  • They are expensive: that's a lot of cash for a 2000lb bomb that probably will miss
  • Launching one could start WW3: If you launch an ICBM someone is going to see it and if they think it might be directed at them a retaliatory strike could be the answer. The world has come perilously close to this more than once, it simply isn't worth the risk!
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    $\begingroup$ The V2 was very inaccurate @Andrius, best accuracy they got was to within 2km of target, average was around 12km. That's good enough to hit a city and cause damage, not a precision weapon by any means. $\endgroup$ – GdD Oct 30 '19 at 21:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Andrius: Also the V2 was travelling a much shorter distance, and was intended as a terror weapon rather than accurately aimed at a target. Not very useful when you're trying to target a smallish number of troops & equipment on an island where sheep outnumber humans by more than 100:1. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Oct 31 '19 at 1:40
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    $\begingroup$ It's important to explicitly note that the point of the Black Buck raids (other than to give the RAF something to do) was to disable the Port Stanley airstrip. Black Buck Two missed its target by about 400–500 m, which meant that it didn't hit the runway at all. An ICBM with a 900-m accuracy would probably do even worse. $\endgroup$ – Michael Seifert Oct 31 '19 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ I feel there's one other factor - resolve / morale. Launching an ICBM demonstrates very little resolve; it's kinda just pushing a button and spending a ton. Launching an aircraft raid with so many bombers and refuellers on an area considered out of range shows that not only that every resource will be thrown at them, but that everywhere they thought was safe, isn't. The best sort of fighting is the one where the enemy surrenders - and showing that there was no safe place to hide is always a factor to this, $\endgroup$ – UKMonkey Oct 31 '19 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ Launching one could start WW3 - Yeah, exactly. Imagine the UK explaining themselves for the 30 minutes that thing was in the air. "No, really, guys, it's just a little iron bomb - no nukesey-s, promise!" $\endgroup$ – J... Oct 31 '19 at 15:20
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The UK needed a surgical strike to neutralize the Port Stanley airport in the Falklands so that Argentine airplanes based there couldn't attack the coming UK convoy or the impending UK ground attack.

An attack by carrier airplanes wouldn't work because the carriers, and the accompanying task force, would also be in range of the Argentine planes based in Port Stanley.

Using nukes against the airport at Port Stanley would have destroyed Port Stanley and all the UK citizens there.

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This hasn't been explicitly said, so: The UK didn't have cruise missiles or ICBMs with conventional warheads at the time.

The Trident II D5, the UK's only ever ICBM, entered service in 1994: BBC.

As for cruise missiles, the BGM-109 Tomahawk has been introduced in 1983 (US) and 1998 (UK): Royal Navy.

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    $\begingroup$ The UK had Polaris as well, before Trident. Same story though, no conventional capability. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Nov 1 '19 at 10:37
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Someone mentioned the harrier wasn't able to carry a bomb heavy enough to crater the runway. The Vulcan's dropped 21x1000lb bombs on the Falklands. The Harriers in the Falklands dropped 1000lb paveways (Laser guided). They could carry 2 normally perhaps even up to 4. So they could and did drop the same size of bomb, probably more accurately. Though there was radar controlled guns and SAM that would have been made it very hazadous for low flying aircraft. Though the harriers did raid the airport on occasion.

Some of have suggested there was inter service political rivalry. The Vulcan raid was a another means for the RAF to contribute to the war. Though the Harrier GR3 pilots were RAF.

It was probably a combination of a lot of these factors.

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    $\begingroup$ The Harrier were not within range until sometime later, as the aircraft carrier needed to sail from the UK. $\endgroup$ – Ian Ringrose Oct 31 '19 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ As Ian suggests, by the time of the initial Black Buck operations, the fleet was not within range of the Falklands which would have allowed them to carry more than a single 500lb bomb plus fuel, and the runway needed to be closed so that the Argentinians couldn't base fast jets there to use against the fleet. It wasn't until later that the GR3s came within range that allowed them to use the larger bombs, but the fleet would have been well within loiter range of Argentinian fast jets from Stanley at that point, which meant extreme risk. $\endgroup$ – Moo Nov 1 '19 at 1:21
  • $\begingroup$ Note that Black Buck switched to anti-radar missions from BB4 (with one final bombing mission later on, mainly for weight of attack against fixed Argentinian positions - something that would have required a mass GR3 attack and they were already overworked). $\endgroup$ – Moo Nov 1 '19 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ The runway was never closed. It operated throughout the war. $\endgroup$ – SeaCatS Nov 1 '19 at 22:57
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    $\begingroup$ @SeaCatS it was closed to fast jets for the majority of the war (initially because of the damage, and later on because of the threat of attack), and remained open for use by Pucaras and Hercs. The raids did their jobs. Whether operating fast jets from the airfield was dubious or not, the British government and military didn't want to take chances there. $\endgroup$ – Moo Nov 4 '19 at 3:20
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As noted in a comment, the UK did have access to the UGM-27 Polaris submarine launched nuclear missile.

Launching a missile from a sub ranged a few hundred miles (or even a few thousand miles) off-shore would have been significantly less risky to UK military personnel and equipment. However...

Launching nuclear warheads against a target that you intend to occupy, as opposed to completely annihilate and make uninhabitable for a century or two (or three), is somewhat counter-productive. It also tends to, um, raise eyebrows in the international community.

Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no nuclear weapons have been used against actual foreign targets or people. Doing so would have been absolute political suicide for Thatcher and company, and would have most likely brought extreme backlash and sanctions against the UK as a whole.

Oh, and don't forget the numerous UK citizens who were actually living in the Falklands would have just been killed by their own government.

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    $\begingroup$ The question isn't asking about nuclear weapons use @FreeMan, but conventional warheads. $\endgroup$ – GdD Oct 30 '19 at 16:48
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    $\begingroup$ In point of fact, nuclear weapons would not have made the target uninhabitable for anywhere near a century. Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki are thriving cities today. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Oct 30 '19 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ As others have noted, ICMBs were designed for delivering nuclear warheads, not conventional. Delivering conventional warheads would be inefficient and reasonably ineffective. Using the ICBM, as queried by the OP, would have most likely delivered a nuclear warhead with the impacts I've noted. Also, sure, the Falklands may not have been uninhabitable, @jamesqf, but a little hyperbole helps drive the point home that this would have been a bad idea. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Oct 30 '19 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ @GdD OP asked about ICBMs which are pretty much all nuclear (as noted in your answer). This answer explains why a nuclear and therefore ICBM options wasn't viable. $\endgroup$ – Notts90 supports Monica Oct 31 '19 at 11:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Notts90 The question asked about "shoot[ing] an ICBM directly from the UK using a conventional warhead." so this is an answer to a question that was not asked and to which the questioner probably already knows the answer. $\endgroup$ – sdenham Nov 11 '19 at 15:48
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Because they could (just barely)

There is universal consensus that Black Buck served no military purpose. It did not impede Argentinian military efforts in any significant way.

Its purpose was not to be useful though. It was primarily to make troops there feel that the UK was supporting them. It was a morale-boosting exercise, nothing more (or less).

It did also have a second purpose too, which was to serve notice on the Argentinians that mainland Argentina was vulnerable to nuclear attack by Vulcan bomber.

Which renders the question moot. Whether or not the UK had any alternative abilities, it wouldn't have mattered because bombing Argentinian positions effectively was never the real goal.

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