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The Harrier

DEC 07 2010
The Harrier: Overseas Service

In the first part of this series of articles, Gareth touched upon the development of the P.1127 and later the Kestrel. The initial development of the P.1127 was conducted by Hawker alone, but the Kestrel was actually developed with multinational cooperation and interest from West Germany and the United States. Nine aircraft were produced and they were all operated by a trials unit at RAF West Raynham and flown by pilots from the RAF, Luftwaffe and US Army, Navy and Air Force. This test period produced plenty of operational data, and on conclusion of the programme, six of the remaining aircraft were shipped to the US for continued trials.

The US Marine Corps was not involved in the original Kestrel trials, but Marine Corps pilots got to fly the aircraft on arrival in the US. Impressed by the aircraft’s capabilities as a weapons system, when the Marines learned that Hawker Siddeley was working on an improved version (which was to become the Harrier) they became keen to try this new machine out for themselves. After positive feedback from the Marine pilots who flew the aircraft in the UK, the Corps registered an interest in acquiring the Harrier.

Further evaluation was conducted by the US Navy before the real challenge – getting Congress to approve purchase of a foreign aircraft! Although this was obviously a politically sensitive decision, the Marines have a history of being allowed the freedom to purchase whichever tools they require to do their job, so the acquisition of the Harrier was approved, on condition that the majority of the aircraft were manufactured under license in the USA.

In order to facilitate this requirement, Hawker Siddeley linked up with McDonnell Douglas, but in the end all the AV-8As and TAV-8As were actually manufactured in the UK and shipped to the US as this maximised the buy and avoided the costs of setting up a US production line. The total Marine buy finished up as 102 AV-8As and 10 TAV-8A trainers. The AV-8A was closely related to the RAF’s Harrier GR.1, but was fitted with the Pegasus Mk103 engine that powered the GR.3.

Initially the AV-8A had only minor differences from the GR.1 to suit USMC requirements. Early aircraft were fitted with the same Ferranti FE541 Inertial Navigation and Attack System that equipped RAF Harriers, but the Marine Corps soon concluded that this system was unsatisfactory and indeed unnecessary and it was deleted from the AV-8, giving the aircraft a much simpler instrument panel. Notably though the Marines were quick to realise that the Harrier had potential to develop into a decent fighter aircraft and from the start the aircraft was equipped to carry the AIM-9 Sidewinder – the RAF’s GR.3 had no such capability until it was hastily added when the aircraft deployed to the South Atlantic in 1982. Marine pilots were responsible for developing many of the air-to-air tactics for the Harrier – Major Harry Blot is credited as the man to come up with the idea of VIFF-ing (Vectoring In Forward Flight), a technique which is of course unique to the Harrier.

The AV-8A entered USMC service in 1971 and eventually equipped four squadrons – VMA-231, VMA-513, VMA-542 and the training unit VMAT-203. From the start the Marines embraced the capabilities of the aircraft enthusiastically – the idea of a tactical aircraft which could deploy to forward operating locations alongside ground forces soon became a key part of the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) concept.

The AV-8A served throughout the 1970s, with 47 aircraft receiving an avionics upgrade to AV-8C standard. By 1982 however there were considerable concerns over the aircraft’s safety record – in 11 years of operational flying, a total of 55 aircraft were lost in peacetime accidents. This led to serious restrictions on the aircraft’s subsequent use and changes to the training regime, helping to make the later years of the Harrier’s service somewhat safer.

The USMC signature role is of course amphibious assault. One of the main reasons for selecting the Harrier was the ability of the aircraft to deploy on smaller vessels allowing the Marines to deploy a CAS aircraft without relying on the US Navy’s “big deck” carriers. Interestingly, this was a capability which led to the first export order for the AV-8A.

The Harrier has allowed several nations to get into the business of carrier aviation, without going to the expense of building full size, complicated strike carriers – effectively the Harrier enables a naval force to deploy a potent tactical aircraft on a budget.

The first export customer was the Spanish Navy Air Arm (Arma Aérea de la Armada), who ordered the aircraft under the designation AV-8S Matador. The original order from Spain was for 11 AV-8S and two TAV-8S trainers with the aircraft being delivered in 1976 and operated by 8 Escuadrilla at NAS Rota. The aircraft were deployed aboard the Spanish Navy’s original aircraft carrier the Dédalo, the former USS Cabot. By 1989 this carrier was obsolete and replaced by the newly commissioned SNS Principe de Asturias.

In the meantime, on the other side of the Atlantic, British Aerospace was busy marketing its own navalised version of the Harrier, the Sea Harrier. The first Sea Harriers were delivered to the Royal Navy in 1978 and equipped the new class of vessels known as “Through Deck Cruisers”. At the time, BAe attempted to interest the Royal Australian Navy in purchasing not only a batch of Sea Harriers, but also a carrier upon which to deploy them!

In the 1970s, the Royal Australian Navy fielded HMAS Melbourne, a WWII vintage conventional carrier, equipped with A-4 Skyhawks, S-2 Trackers and Wessex helicopters and long overdue for replacement. The acquisition of a new carrier was a contentious subject, but in 1981, Britain offered an Invincible class carrier (initially intended to be HMS Ark Royal, later HMS Invincible) at a bargain price, as it was felt that the Royal Navy did not need three carriers in service. The onset of the Falklands conflict brought into question the wisdom of this decision and effectively spelled the end of Australia’s interest in the Sea Harrier – given the recent decision by the UK government to build two new aircraft carriers, but only actually operate one of them, it is interesting to reflect on the parallels with the situation back in 1982!

Incredibly, another export customer which was apparently courted by the British government at the time was none other than Argentina! Sources claim that whilst the idea of supplying Sea Harriers and indeed a carrier to the Argentine Navy was discussed at a high level within the MoD, it was unlikely that the deal would have ever gone through due to high level opposition within the government. However, there was a strong possibility of a deal being done to supply other weapons in 1981, but within a year Argentina had invaded the Falklands and the proposal was quietly shelved.

Around the same time, the Sea Harrier received its only export order, from the Indian Navy. India procured a total of 30 aircraft, made up of 25 single seat FRS.51s and five two seat trainers. The Sea Harriers have operated from two carriers – the INS Vikrant (ex-HMS Hercules) and the INS Viraat (ex-HMS Hermes). Today only the Viraat remains in service, the Vikrant is now moored in Mumbai Harbour as a museum.

Indian Navy operation of the Sea Harrier has been marred by a large number of mishaps. Currently the fleet stands at eleven, the remainder having been destroyed in accidents. Indeed the fleet was grounded for a period in 2009 after an accident. Over the years there have been attempts to supplement the fleet, including a potential purchase of ex-Royal Navy Sea Harrier FA.2s in 2006 but this never materialised. With the imminent withdrawal of the RAF’s Harrier GR.9s, it was recently reported in the Financial Times that India may take an interest in acquiring some of the fleet upon retirement, but only time will tell if this will come to anything.

For now, the survivors of the Indian Sea Harrier fleet will soldier on for some years to come, until replacement comes in the form of the MiG-29K, to be embarked upon a new generation of aircraft carriers. India purchased the carrier Admiral Gorshkov from Russia in 2004, and this vessel is intended to enter service in 2014 as INS Vikramaditya, along with similar, indigenously built carriers of the Vikrant class. This was to have led to the retirement of the Viraat, but that vessel recently underwent a refit which could mean it remains in service until 2019! It would appear doubtful that the Sea Harrier fleet will last that long however.

Undoubtedly the early Harriers were versatile and valuable aircraft, but equally had a fairly poor safety record along with limited range and payload. As Gareth covered in the first part of this series, there was considerable enthusiasm on both sides of the Atlantic to produce an improved version of the Harrier, based on a larger, more powerful Pegasus engine.

Test pilot John Farley was heavily involved with the testing and development of the AV-8B and has fond memories of working with the Marines, finding a very different culture in defence procurement on the other side of the Atlantic. “I didn’t always enjoy working on the Harrier/Sea Harrier programme in the UK as it was too political and I just wanted to be a test pilot. We seemed to spend all our time pitching the aircraft to politicians to save the project from cancellation! With the Marines, the reverse was true – there was never any doubt that they would get the aircraft that they wanted from the project.”

The AV-8B development project was not without its technical difficulties. After spending some time in the US flying various McDonnell Douglas simulations during the 1970s, John was to spend most of 1982 at Edwards AFB with the aircraft after what had been intended to be a six week programme to clear the new wing/intake combination proved somewhat problematic. “During the first flight the aircraft suffered an engine surge during the climb. Subsequently many changes were made to the intake and engine to ensure that the engine worked correctly during the entire envelope. Over the course of the year I logged over two hours gliding in the aircraft. That of course was why the trials were carried out over the Edwards lake bed as that huge area eliminated any risk associated with landing without power should the engine not relight - which it always did.”

These development issues aside, the resulting aircraft was much more capable than the first generation Harrier and was to enter service with the USMC and the RAF as the AV-8B and Harrier GR.5 respectively. With the Marines, the new version of the Harrier replaced both the AV-8A/C and the A-4M Skyhawks within the Marine Attack Squadrons. The Marines took delivery of their first AV-8B Harrier IIs in 1985, and the aircraft now equip two Marine Air Groups, totalling eight squadrons.

The initial aircraft delivered were commonly known as AV-8B Harrier II “Day Attack” version – 162 of these aircraft were built but none of these remain in service in their original form. Many were upgraded and the remainder withdrawn from service.

The “Night Attack” version was first deployed in 1991 and incorporated a Navigation FLIR camera (NAVFLIR) and an improved cockpit, featuring compatibility with night vision goggles. Almost all of these aircraft were new builds, with 72 being produced between 1989 and 1993.

The final improved version to enter service was the AV-8B Harrier II Plus (AV-8B+). This aircraft was procured as a mix of upgraded early models (72) and new builds (43), with the main notable addition being the APG-65 radar, fitted in a modified nose radome. The APG-65 radar was removed from early model F/A-18 Hornets (themselves updated with the APG-73) and introduced a BVR (Beyond Visual Range) air-to air capability to the Harrier, enabling the employment of the AIM-120 AMRAAM.

The development programme which resulted in the AV-8B+ was in fact jointly funded by the Marine Corps, and the Spanish and Italian Navies, to reduce costs and deliver a more capable final product. Spain had purchased a batch of EAV-8Bs as early as 1987, and the initial batch of 12 operated alongside the earlier AV-8S fleet as part of the newly formed 9 Escuadrilla.

The AV-8S Matadors of 8 Escuadrilla soldiered on well into the mid-1990s, when they were replaced by a further delivery of EAV-8B+ aircraft. Upon retirement, the surviving aircraft passed to the Royal Thai Navy (RTN), who were newcomers to both carrier aviation and the Harrier. The RTN ordered an aircraft carrier from the Spanish shipbuilder Bázan in 1992 with the selected design being based on the Principe de Asturias, albeit smaller and simpler. The resulting vessel was named HTMS Chakri Naruebet and was launched in 1996 and commissioned in 1997. The Harrier fleet, consisting of seven AV-8Ss and two TAV-8Ss was delivered to Thailand along with the carrier.

The delivery of HTMS Chakri Naruebet came at a difficult time for Thailand, coinciding with severe problems with the Thai economy brought on by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. As a result, funding for the Navy was heavily cut and the ship and its aircraft have never been deployed to their full potential. Indeed, the Harrier fleet has further suffered from poor serviceability and lack of spares and there is some doubt about the current status of the fleet. In 2003, Flight International reported that Thailand was in negotiation with BAE Systems regarding the purchase of ex-Royal Navy Sea Harrier FA.2s to replace its aging AV-8s, but this potential deal came to nothing.

Without her Harriers, HTMS Chakri Naruebet is regarded as something of a white elephant in Thailand – the vessel apparently only leaves her home port of Sattahip once a month for a single day of training. Longer trips do occasionally occur, but these tend to be to transport the Royal Family of Thailand, leading some naval commentators to refer to her as the world’s most expensive royal yacht. A sad outcome for the only aircraft carrier to be operated by a south east Asian nation.

Back in Europe, the Spanish Navy was joined as a Harrier operator by the Italian Navy Air Wing (Aviazione di Marina Militare) in 1994 when the first of 18 AV-8B+ aircraft were delivered. These aircraft form the Gruppo Aerei Imbarcati, shore-based at Grottaglie-Taranto but deployed on the carriers Cavour and Giuseppe Garibaldi. In common with Spain, the presence of this relatively small force of aircraft on the carriers enables the Italian Navy to punch above its weight to a degree, once again demonstrating the ability of the Harrier to deliver lower cost carrier airpower.

The most prolific of overseas Harrier operators remains the US Marine Corps, whose enthusiasm for the aircraft remains unchanged with around 100 aircraft still in service. Currently the Harrier equips two Marine Aircraft Groups – on the east coast is MAG-14 consisting of VMA-223 “Bulldogs”, VMA-231 “Ace of Spades”, VMA-542 “Flying Tigers” and the training unit VMAT-203 “Hawks”. The aircraft are home based at MCAS Cherry Point, NC.

The west coast Harrier base is Yuma, AZ, home to MAG-13 which is made up of VMA-211 “Wake Island Avengers”, VMA-214 “Blacksheep”, VMA-311 “Tomcats” and VMA-513 “Flying Nightmares”. In addition to these operational units, the AV-8B is also operated by the trials units VX-9 and VX-30 at NAS China Lake.

Marine Corps Harriers have seen operational service in several theatres over their period of service. With the AV-8B having entered service in the mid-1980s, the aircraft was available for Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and served in fairly large numbers. The AV-8 was the first USMC tactical aircraft to arrive in the Gulf and around 80 aircraft were deployed operating from land and sea bases. Initially, most aircraft were based at Sheik Isa Airbase in Bahrain, but this resulted in a 45 minute transit to Kuwait, meaning the Harriers required air-refuelling and had limited time on station.

Later in the conflict, during the ground campaign, the Harriers moved to King Abdul Aziz Airstrip, a 4000 ft runway much closer to the border with Kuwait. This somewhat austere airstrip was supplemented with AM-2 matting to provide a flightline and acted as a forward operating base (FOB) for some 60 Harriers for eight months. The FOB was much closer to the action and meant that AV-8s could react quickly to requirements from ground forces.

The Harriers flew 3380 combat sorties, with an impressive reliability and availability record – during the busiest period of the conflict, ground crews were able to turn the aircraft around in an average of only 23 minutes.

Later in the 1990s, USMC Harriers were to conduct operations over the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. During operations over Kosovo in 1999, the jets flew from the assault ships USS Nassau and USS Kearsage, with each vessel carrying six aircraft. The AV-8s flew attack missions, operating alongside RAF Harrier GR.7s based in Italy.

The AV-8B squadrons have subsequently been kept very busy by Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan which followed the terrorist attacks on New York City in 2001. Once again, the flexibility of the Harrier allowed units to operate from FOBs – during the early stages of the conflict in Iraq, AV-8s were able to operate from captured Iraqi airfields where the runways had suffered damage, preventing conventional tactical aircraft from using them. They were also able to operate from roads very close to the forward edge of battle. Additional Harriers flew from the decks of assault ships, providing an extra 60 tactical aircraft for mission planners without putting additional burden on overstretched coalition airfields and “big-deck” carriers.

Operations in Afghanistan have equally validated the Corps’ faith in the Harrier and the STOVL concept in general. It allows aircraft to be deployed as closely as possible to ground troops, enabling greater cooperation between all aspects of the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF). Indeed, the MAGTF concept of an integrated force relies heavily on flexible air support. The Harrier provides this much more efficiently than other tactical aircraft, perhaps explaining the Marines’ enduring enthusiasm for the aircraft.

In fact, the requirement for a STOVL tactical aircraft is such a priority for the Marines, that the current plan for the Corps is to replace all its current tactical assets with the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II. The F-35B is the STOVL capable version of the Joint Strike Fighter, and has been developed specifically for the requirements of the Corps, who intend to replace the entire fleet of Harriers and F/A-18A/B Hornets with the new type, meaning that the entire tactical aviation component of the MAGTF will be capable of flexible deployment from conventional airfields, forward operating bases, aircraft carriers and assault ships. This has been a long held ambition for the Corps – in fact in 1957, the then Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen Randolph Pate wrote to the chief of naval operations advocating the procurement of an all-STOVL tactical fleet as soon as one could be developed. It will have taken nearly 50 years for his vision to come true, but that is exactly what the F-35B will provide – however its development is not without snags.

Recently, questions have been asked about the suitability of the F-35B for vertical operations on ships, austere airfields and indeed conventional airfields. The hugely powerful engine which equips the F-35B and enables it to perform vertical operations also appears to place great strains on the surfaces from which the aircraft operates, leading some to question whether the aircraft will ever be practical. The programme has also come under close scrutiny from those on Capitol Hill seeking to trim the huge US defence budget. Cancellation of (or even delays to) the programme will of course mean that the AV-8B force is required to soldier on for more years to come – rumours abound that the existing Marines Harrier force may be supplemented by aircraft acquired from Britain’s own retired fleet of GR.9s – but of course the fleet cannot continue indefinitely. So, a replacement must be sought from somewhere. However, it seems that after 50 years of trying to find an improvement on the original Harrier/Pegasus combination, we are now finding out that there really is nothing quite like a Harrier.

So whilst it is sad to reflect on the loss of the RAF/RN Harrier fleet, from an enthusiast’s perspective, it is encouraging to see that the aircraft will still be in operation around the world – we will just have to travel slightly further afield to see them! It is however disappointing to note that the very capabilities which make the aircraft so highly regarded in the US Marine Corps (flexibility of operating locations and ability to deploy close to combat troops) and other European navies (effectively air power on a budget) will now be permanently lost to the UK armed forces.


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