Harriers in Service

The USMC Harrier AV-8C


A USMC Harrier AV-8C at Seattle Museum Of Flight, Washington

A USMC Harrier AV-8C at Seattle Museum Of Flight, Washington

The AV-8A led to a next-generation Harrier design developed by the US, the "AV-8B Harrier II", but this is a subject for the next chapter. However, the decision to acquire a second-generation Harrier led the USMC to consider improving their existing Harrier fleet as an interim measure until the AV-8B became available. The result was the "AV-8C". 47 surviving AV-8As were upgraded to this standard between 1979 and 1984.

The changes included:

  • An airframe overhaul to add 4,000 hours life to the aircraft.
  • The addition of belly lift improvement devices, designed for the AV-8B, to increase warload.
  • An updated electronics countermeasures (ECM) suite, including a US-built Litton AN/ALR-45F RWR and an AN/ALE-40 chaff-flare dispenser.
  • Improved secure radios.
  • An "on board oxygen generator system (OBOGS)" that allowed the aircraft to generate oxygen for the pilot on its own, eliminating the need to stock oxygen bottles.
  • Strip-style formation-keeping lights.

The side-mounted camera fitted in the AV-8A was deleted.

Spanish Navy Harriers - AV-8As and 2 TAV-8As

In 1973, the Spanish Navy placed an order for 6 AV-8As and 2 TAV-8As for their naval air service, the "Arma Aerea de la Armada". They were given the US designation of "AV-8S" and "TAV-8S". BAE gave the AV-8S a designation of "Mark 53" and apparently referred to the TAV-8S as the "Mark 56". In Spanish Navy service they were designated the "VA-1" (single-seat) and "VAE-1" (tandem-seat) and officially known as "Matadors", though for some reason the pilots never liked or used the name. The Spanish bought five more AV-8S Harriers in 1980, and though these were little different from the first batch, for some reason BAE Systems assigned them a new designation of "Mark 55".

The order for the first batch was funneled through the US Navy, with assemblies shipped from Britain and put together by McDonnell Douglas, since Spain was under a rightist government at the time and arm sales to them would have been embarrassing to the British government. The second batch was supplied directly, which was apparently the reason for the different mark number.

The Spanish Harriers were initially operated off land bases and the light carrier DEDALO, which had been built in 1943 as the "jeep" carrier USS CABOT. The DEDALO was an antique with a wooden deck, and metal sheathing had to be laid down on the rear of the deck to allow Harrier landings. The DEDALO was retired in 1988, to be replaced in service by the modern light carrier PRINCIPE DE ASTURIAS, which then became the "floating home" of the Spanish Harriers. The PRINCIPE DE ASTURIAS can accommodate 8 Harriers and 14 helicopters.

The Spanish Harriers were fitted with Marconi Sky Guardian RWRs beginning in 1987. The Sky Guardian, unlike the earlier Marconi ARI-18223 RWR, was not a simple radar detector, but could actually identify the type of threat by comparing the radar signal with a stored library of 200 radar signatures.

Harriers for Thailand

The Spaniards really liked their Harriers and replaced them with the updated Harrier IIs in 1997, selling off the surviving 7 AV-8S and 2 TAV-8S to Thailand. The aircraft were all refurbished by the Spanish CASA firm before delivery. The Thais disregarded the little-used Spanish name of "Matador" and refer to them as "Harriers".

The Thai Navy continues to operate them, from ground bases as well as the light carrier CHAKRI NARUEBET, which was bought new from Spain and is similar to the Spanish PRINCIPE DE ASTURIAS, though a bit shorter. The Thais are said to be casting about for other first-generation Harrier airframes for spares and possibly additional operational aircraft.

RAF Harrier deployments

A total of four RAF squadrons and an operational conversion unit (OCU) were equipped with the Harrier. Number 1 Squadron was based at RAF Wittering in the UK, along with the OCU. Three squadrons -- Number 3, 4, and 20 -- were set up at Wildenrath, Germany, near the Dutch border, in 1970 and 1971. In 1977, Number 20 Squadron was disbanded and its aircraft absorbed into its two sister squadrons. These two squadrons were moved to RAF Guetersloh, east of the Rhine.

The primary mission of the RAF Harrier was to provide combat support for British I Corps Germany. In tactical exercises, the Harrier squadrons broke into three flights each and dispersed to the countryside, where they went into hiding among the trees under camouflage nets, with rubberized fuel storage tanks set up some distance away. Take-offs were performed on a 180 meter (590 foot) stretch of aluminum planking, though in actual combat operations any reasonable roadway would have done just as well.

From these hidden forward sites, pilots remained on station in the cockpit to await a call for fire support from a forward air controller through a Forward Wing Operations Centre. Typically the Harriers would take 20 minutes to perform the strike and then, munitions expended, return to their base site to refuel and rearm. A Harrier pilot could easily fly six sorties in a single day.

In the mid-1970s, Guatemala began to threaten the neighboring Central-American country of Belize, which had formerly been the colony of British Honduras. Since Belize had only one runway capable of supporting most combat jets, and in any conflict that runway would be an excellent target, six Harriers from Number 1 Squadron were transported to Belize and established as RAF Number 1417 Flight as a permanent presence.

Harriers & the Falklands War

The Sea Harrier proved its worth not long after its operational introduction, when a tottering junta in Argentina seized the Falkland Islands in 1982. The British response in April 1982 was OPERATION CORPORATE, in which a naval force was assembled to carry out an amphibious landing on the islands. Air support was initially provided by 28 Sea Harriers operating off the command carriers HMS HERMES and HMS INVINCIBLE.

To provide more air power, on 3 May 1982, 14 Harrier GR.3s of the RAF Number 1 Squadron flew nonstop some 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles) from the UK to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. The Harriers made the trip in nine hours and refueled in mid-air five times.


A Royal Air Force Harrier GR. Mark 3 at RAF Mildenhall, 1984

A Royal Air Force Harrier GR. Mark 3 at RAF Mildenhall, 1984

Ascension was most forward available base for OPERATION CORPORATE, though it was almost exactly halfway between the UK and the Falklands, leaving the GR.3s another 6,400 kilometers from the combat zone. Most of the GR.3s made the rest of the trip on container ships and then jumped to the carriers, but four of them flew the rest of the way on their own.

GR.3s were armed with SNEB rockets, BL755 cluster bombs, and laser-guided bombs for ground strikes. Although they didn't have a laser target designator themselves, they could hit targets designated by ground forces. The GR.3s were also hastily wired for Sidewinders and US-built Shrike anti-radar missiles, but didn't actually carry such weapons.

The Sea Harriers had been just as hastily fitted with countermeasures for air combat. A pair of chaff/flare dispensers were tacked on behind the underfuselage airbrake. This was done in such a hurry that the chaff-flare dispensers actually had to be air-dropped to the task force while it was underway by an RAF C-130 Hercules transport. In addition, an effort was made to cram the Marconi "Sky Shadow" jammer pod, used on the Tornado, into the shell of a 30 millimeter cannon pod, to be fitted in place of one of the guns. This improvisation was named the "Blue Eric" ECM pod and a small number were built, though it is unclear if they actually saw service in the Falklands campaign.

The Sea Harriers generally operated in the air combat role, while the GR.3s focused on ground attack. Since the GR.3's Ferranti FE541 nav-attack system could not be aligned on board ship, Sea Harriers accompanied GR.3s on strike missions to provide navigation until a land base was obtained. RAF GR.3 pilots were somewhat frustrated at being stuck with the "mudfighting" role. While they had never been trained for air-to-air combat, the fact that the opportunity was there made them feel like they were missing out on the glory. Three GR.3s were lost in combat to ground fire.

Superficially, it might have seemed like the RAF had got the better part of the deal. The Sea Harriers operated under a number of disadvantages in air combat that on the face of things would have suggested they were outmatched:

  • The Argentines had Mach-2 Dassault Mirage and similar Israeli Air Industries Dagger fighters that could be presumed to be superior to the Harrier in dogfighting.
  • The British had no support by airborne early warning aircraft, forcing the Sea Harriers to carry out extended combat air patrols.
  • The Sea Harrier's Blue Fox radar was ineffective against low-flying intruders.
  • Finally, the two carriers were kept well to the east to make them less of a target for Argentine Exocet anti-ship missiles, limiting Sea Harrier endurance in the battle area, until a land base was obtained.

Sea Harriers still scored 22 kills against Argentine aircraft, and also shot down a helicopter, with no air combat loss to themselves. Although the Argentines were operating at the limit of their combat radius, restricting their use of afterburner if they hoped to get back home, this was still an impressive achievement. The Sea Harriers were greatly assisted in their success by the new third-generation AIM-9L Sidewinders they carried. The AIM-9Ls were "all-aspect" weapons, meaning they didn't have to be boresighted on the target's exhaust, and much superior to earlier designs. They had been supplied in haste to the Royal Navy by the Americans when the war broke out.

Out of the 28 Sea Harriers used in the operation, six were lost. Two were shot down by Argentine ground fire; one was lost with its pilot in take-off; one simply fell off the deck while taxiing forward for takeoff in icy conditions, with the pilot ejecting to be picked out of the frigid sea; and two abruptly vanished without a trace in bad weather, apparently due to a mid-air collision.

Over 2,000 sorties were flown, and aircraft availability was never less than 95% at the beginning of each day. Without the foresight of the naval planners who had stubbornly fought for the Sea Harrier, the Falklands might well have been given up to the Argentines without a fight.

Aside from three prototypes, 54 FRS.1's were built up to 1988. In addition to the six lost in the Falklands, five more were lost in accidents. As discussed in the next section, FRS.1s were given a modest set of updates during the 1980s.

The FRS.1 also served in the Balkan Wars, performing air patrols over Bosnia as part of international peace-keeping efforts, beginning in early 1993 and continuing into the fall of 1995, when the FRS.1 went out of service. The aircraft carried new kit, including an improved IFF, expendable radar decoys that could be fired from the chaff-flare dispensers, a handheld Garmin 100 GPS navigation receiver mounted in the cockpit, and the latest AIM-9M Sidewinders.

One Sea Harrier was shot down on 16 April 1993. The pilot, Royal Navy Lieutenant Nick Richardson, ejected and was picked up by British Special Air Service (SAS) rescue team. The SAS commandos led Richardson through enemy lines and the group was then picked up a French helicopter.

In 1983:1984, India obtained a batch of six "Sea Harrier Mark 51s" and two tandem-seat "T.60s" for use off their carrier INS VIKRANT. The Mark 51s were basically FRS.1s, the differences being that they used a gaseous rather than liquid oxygen system; had a modified radar system and Indian-specified radios and IFF; and were wired for the French Matra Magic missile, instead of the Sidewinder. The Mark 60s were essentially RAF T.4 trainers, with some minor changes in avionics.

Ten more Mark 51s and a T.60 were ordered in 1985 and delivered in the 1989:1991 timeframe, with another batch of seven Mark 51s and a fourth T.60 ordered and delivered after that, for a total of 23 Mark 51s and four T.60s. Two more T.60s, which were modified from RAF surplus T.4s, were obtained in the 1990s as attrition replacements.

The Indian Sea Harriers operate off both the VIKRANT and the INS VIRAAT, previously the HMS HERMES. The VIKRANT was refitted with a 9.45-degree ski jump in 1991, which forced the retirement of the carrier's French Breguet Alize maritime patrol aircraft. The VIKRANT was retired in 1996 but the VIRAAT, with a 12-degree ski jump, remains in service.

Sea Harrier updates - FRS.2 (FA.2) / T.8

US Navy

Sea Harriers FA.2 (FRS.2) on the deck of HMS Illustrious, Persian Gulf.

Sea Harriers FA.2 (FRS.2) on the deck of HMS Illustrious, Persian Gulf.

Despite the success of the Sea Harrier in the Falklands, many Royal Navy officers realized they had been lucky, since the Shar had taken on a task it hadn't really been designed for, and much of the type's success was due to the superlative AIM-9L missile. The war demonstrated specific deficiencies with the Sea Harrier. It couldn't stay in the air long enough; two Sidewinders weren't enough; the Sidewinder didn't have "stand-off" range; and, to no great surprise, the Blue Fox radar had not been quite up to the job, particularly because of its lack of "look down" capability.

An interim "Phase I Update" was implemented immediately after the war, with refits beginning in the summer of 1982 and ending in 1987. This involved two straightforward enhancements, in the form of a new 854 liter (225 US gallon) drop tank to replace the existing 455 liter (120 US gallon) drop tank, and a launch rack to allow carriage of two Sidewinders on each outer pylon, doubling the Sea Harrier's missile capacity to four.

Other small changes were added in the Phase I Update. One was a scheme known as "nozzle inching" or "nozzle nudging" that allowed a Sea Harrier pilot to perform limited adjustment of the nozzle position using the airbrake switch on top of the throttle, reducing the "three-hand" workload in STOVL flight. Although the technique only could change the nozzle position by a maximum of ten degrees, it proved very useful in allowing the pilot to fine-tune his flight condition. Another modification was the addition of an advanced instrument landing system designated "Microwave Aircraft Digital Guidance Equipment (MADGE)" to help in carrier landings in bad weather.

In addition, the FRS.1 was fitted with a backup power generator system. The pop-up ram-air turbine emergency power generator was deleted. It had always been a little dubious, since it was to be used if the engine flamed out. Any Shar pilot in his right mind who couldn't get a relight after a flameout would simply eject, since the idea of dead-stick landing a Sea Harrier, with its tiny wings and 3:1 glide slope, onto a carrier was implausible.

One change had been in process before the Falklands War: fit and qualification of the Sea Harrier for launching the BAE "Sea Eagle" long-range turbojet-powered antiship missile. The Sea Eagle went into service in 1987. A Sea Harrier FRS.1 could carry two Sea Eagles. Although the FRS.1 didn't have the radar systems to perform its own targeting for the Sea Eagle, the aircraft could receive targeting cues from other platforms, such as a BAE Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft.

The Sea Eagle was designed for open-ocean combat and was not suited to the "littoral" (offshore) naval warfare environment that came to be the norm in the 1990s, and so they were retired. The missile remains in service with India.

The other limitations required more work, and a "Phase II Update" program to the existing FRS.1 fleet was put in motion in 1983, with a contract issued to BAE in 1985. The upgraded Sea Harrier, which was also the basis for new production, was designated the "Fighter Reconnaissance Strike Mark 2 (FRS.2)" and first flew on 19 September 1988. The FRS.2 began trials with an operational evaluation unit in the early summer of 1993, with the first one going to a full operational unit in September of that year.

The main enhancements were replacement of the Blue Fox radar with the Ferranti "Blue Vixen" radar, and the ability to carry up to four American "AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missiles (AMRAAM)".

The Blue Vixen was far superior to the older Blue Fox, with 11 operating modes; greater range; a "look down" capability; a "track while scan" capability that allows the radar to follow a target while scanning the sky for new targets; and some degree of "low probability of intercept (LPI)" capability to allow the radar to detect targets without alerting the target's RWR. Blue Vixen was also much "smarter" and easier to operate than the Blue Fox, with one Sea Harrier pilot saying that with Blue Vixen performing an intercept was "down to selecting 'air to air', pointing the aircraft in roughly the right direction, and leaving the radar to it." It was regarded as a state of the art fighter radar.

AMRAAM is essentially a much-improved AIM-7 Sparrow derivative, with higher speed; a greater range of about 48 kilometers (30 miles); less smoke signature; and a fully-active radar guidance system that gives it a degree of "fire and forget" capability.

The Blue Vixen radar and the AMRAAM gave the FRS.2 a formidable capability to engage and destroy intruders at "beyond visual range (BVR)", and at relatively short ranges a Shar pilot could even fire all four missiles together to attack four separate targets. The FRS.2 was the first European aircraft to be qualified for the AMRAAM. While once Sea Harrier pilots felt themselves at a disadvantage against other modern fighters, the FRS.2 with its formidable armament and radar did much to level the playing field in air combat. The FRS.2 could carry two AMRAAMS on the outer pylons, and two on pylons attached to the belly in place of the cannon. In fact, the cannon were not generally fitted for most missions, though they still remained available when needed. Alternatively, the FRS.2 could carry two AMRAAMS and four Sidewinders.

The FRS.2 was about 35 centimeters (13.75 inches) longer than the FRS.1, to accommodate the new avionics and the new radar, which were housed in a distinctive longer and more cylindrical nose. Wingtip extensions were originally considered to compensate for the aerodynamic effects of carrying the AMRAAM, but proved unnecessary; however, minor aerodynamic changes to the wings were implemented. A new Pegasus variant, the "Pegasus 106", a rebuild and refinement of the navalized Pegasus 104, was fitted as the powerplant.

The cockpit was reworked (again) to provide such niceties as multi-function displays and a "hands on throttle and stick (HOTAS)" control system. A better nav/attack system was added, as well as the Marconi Sky Guardian RWR. The updated aircraft also featured a MIL-STD-1553B databus. GPS navigation capability was eventually added as well, through the simple expedient of mounting a Garmin 100 handheld GPS receiver in the cockpit and wiring it to an antenna fitted behind the ejection seat.

33 FRS.1s were upgraded to convert them to FRS.2 spec, with the last FRS.1 going in for conversion in 1995 and the last "rebuild" FRS.2 delivered in 1997. 18 new FRS.2s were ordered and delivered from 1995 into 1998, with the last of the batch, delivered on 24 December 1998 as a "Christmas present" to the Royal Navy, being the final "all British" Harrier built. It was photographed alongside one of the surviving P.1127 as a publicity stunt.

In addition, the Royal Navy obtained seven "T Mark 8" trainers, all of which were conversions from existing Royal Navy and RAF two-seaters. The T.8 was similar to the T.4N, but featured updated avionics and cockpit layout better matching the Sea Harrier FRS.2. The T.8 was not fitted with Blue Vixen radar. Initial flight of the first T.8 was in 1994 with initial delivery in 1995.

The FRS.2 upgrade and procurement program gave the Royal Navy a respectable fleet of 51 Sea Harriers. The FRS-2 took the place of the FRS.1 in Balkan patrols, having begun operational evaluation flights there in 1994.

In the mid-1990s, the FRS.2 was redesignated the "FA.2" where "FA" stands for "Fighter Attack". The "R" for reconnaissance was dropped as the Sea Harrier had never really been used or fitted for that mission, the Royal Navy having never bothered to obtain a reconnaissance pod for the type. The "S" for "Strike" was changed to "A" for "Attack" apparently because the Sea Harrier's nuclear strike mission was mothballed in 1991 as part of the general drawdown of Western tactical nuclear forces. Actually, to be nitpicky about it, the original new designation was "F/A.2" but the "/" was dropped a year after the change, apparently because it aped American designation schemes too much.

Plans had been in place to keep the Sea Harrier in FAA service until 2012 at least, when the STOVL version of the Lockheed Martin F-35 "Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)" was expected to take over. Britain has been a major contributor to the JSF program and expects it to eventually replace all Harriers in FAA in RAF service. However, in early 2002 the Ministry of Defense stated that withdrawal would begin in 2004; the last Royal Navy Shars were withdrawn from frontline service in 2006. Apparently the British are looking for buyers; hopefully some will find their way to museums.

The plan is that the FAA will adopt the RAF second-generation Harrier II instead, though since these machines lack a long-range air-to-air combat capability that will leave a capability shortfall until the JSF comes on line. This issue is discussed in more detail in the next chapter.

In 2005, after seeking funding for several years, the Indian Navy began a program to update 14 of their Mark 51s. The upgrade will feature Israeli kit, including the Elta EL/M-2032 multimode radar the Rafael Derby BVR air-to-air missile.

It had been hoped that the Indian Navy would be interested in buying up Britain's surplus Harrier FA.2s, which would spare the machines the indignity of the scrapheap. However, they were offered to India without some vital components like missiles and the Blue Vixen fire control radar. Indian Navy pilots and Defence Ministry representatives inspected and assessed the aircraft for technical and financial evaluation but it was decided not to go in for them as the jets needed considerable expense in upgrading their avionics and arming them.

Asked about the Royal Navy Harriers, the Indian Navy said it was initially enthusiastic, but then felt that "devoid of their offensive systems, they wouldn't be of much use". For training "the navy is already considering either the BAe Hawks or Boeing/BAe Goshawks".

India has already contracted to buy 16 MiG-29Ks as part of a deal with Russia to acquire the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, renamed INS Vikramaditya, but more such aircraft would be needed as the Indian Navy grows to its required size and capability.

Author: Greg Goebel