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The Immortal Harrier

March 21, 2010
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A British military GR-9 Harrier aircraft conducts a combat patrol over Afghanistan.

The following was posted in the comments the other day concerning the Harrier vertical short take-off and landing jet (V/STOL) in all its variants:

It cost more to develop than a conventional aircraft.
It cost more to build than a conventional aircraft.
It cost more to operate than a conventional aircraft.
It killed more of it’s pilots than a conventional aircraft.
It was less capable than a conventional aircraft.
The Harrier,wasting taxpayers money since 1960.

While there is some exaggeration here (such as the 4th one), much of it is close to the mark. A very complicated design, it went through about 3 decades of development before it was adequate for frontline service. It is fairly expensive and requires frequent maintenance. It has killed a lot of pilots at least during its development phase, and yes, as a subsonic fighter it is short-ranged and has a smaller bomb load than its conventional contemporaries.

Then I read the following post on the Harrier via the Gibraltar Chronicle, and I realize it’s inadequacies are offset by what the unique fighter CAN DO:

As part of Joint Force Harrier (JHF), Naval Strike Wing (NSW) has been enhancing the Ship’s capabilities since returning from Afghanistan by conducting their first UK maritime fixed wing night flying exercises for two years, from the deck of the Fleet Flagship: HMS Ark Royal.

Which got me to thinking that there is no frontline fighter in existence which can do what this plane can do. There is no other fighter which can fly from forward and austere runways in the Afghan, then deploy on the other side of the world on a tiny light carrier deck, but could also land on a helicopter platform if required. Notice also that it can perform this function under extreme conditions:

The most difficult part of the exercise is undoubtedly getting the aircraft back on to the deck. Landing a jet on a moving landing strip, at night, without the use of night vision goggles takes an immense level of skill and concentration.

With over 1,000 hours flying a variety of fixed wing aircraft, Lieutenant Commander Paul Tremelling, a senior pilot from Naval Strike Wing, said: “Night flying from a ship is pretty much the pinnacle of military aviation. Landing a single seater, fixed wing aircraft on the deck of an aircraft carrier, at night, is the most difficult thing you can do as a pilot.”

Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers fly over an early HMS Ark Royal.

While it is true the Harrier is far from perfect, it can operate in conditions which would ground ordinary jets. In this it reminds me of the old Fairey Swordfish biplane from World War 2, affectionately but sometimes mockingly called the Stringbag,  a very old fashioned design in an age of high speed and high performance monoplanes. Still, the 100 knot torpedo bomber opened the naval airpower age with dramatic style, sinking numerous Axis battleships, and contributed to the demise of the German battleship Bismarck.

Yet the Harrier is so much more, as commenter Heretic points out:

The USMC demonstrated that a sustained sortie rate of 10 per day per aircraft could be maintained for as long as the logistics train could keep the dispersed sites supplied, and the Harriers were capable of surge sortie rates of 14 per day during spikes in demand for target rich zones. Compared to a contemporary sortie rate of 1.2-1.4 per plane in the Vietnam War and a sustained 4 per day and surge of 6 per day for conventional planes in the Israeli Six Day War spoke volumes about the Harrier’s ability to “carry the load” for CAS in any shooting war.
The point being that Harriers were intended to be used as “short hop” quick responders, freed from the necessity of being based out of gigantic airfields with 5000′ concrete runways which were nowhere near the fighting. That meant an operational profile with LOTS of takeoffs and landings with short duration flights for quick turnarounds to rearm and refuel the planes. A lot of Harrier air support requirements were written around the notion that the same aircraft could return to a target for a second attack sortie within 30 minutes after the first call for air support came in. Pretty much no other plane in the inventory could take a call for air support, be overhead within 6 minutes and dropping bombs, return to its forward base, refuel and rearm, and fly back and drop a second load on the same target in around 30 minutes.

It’s speed at about 662 mph is not bad, and the primary combat speed of most planes, as few without supercruise can sustain supersonic speed for very long without running out of fuel. It’s small bomb load of 8000 lbs is mostly offset by the ability to launch laser guided precision weapons of the Paveway series, as well as Maverick missiles. The point being it can launch these weapons in regions prohibitive to the more capable conventional fighter bombers, as Heretic once again reveals:

And as for wasting the taxpayers money since 1960 … there was a little military operation with a hostile nation that would not have even been possible to mount without Harriers and Sea Harriers that happened in 1982.

So comparing the Harrier to high performance jet fighters is like comparing apples to oranges, meaning the two types performing separate functions, both having unique qualities, all for the same goal. In its niche it is VERY GOOD. It can do one thing no other jet fighter in the world can do, which is the V/STOL, until the F-35B is perfected, of course. It lacks many of the qualities of a fixed wing catapult fighter, true, but isn’t it great to have if you need it?

19 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2010 5:36 pm

    Hello,

    just to demonstrate that there is no need to land vertically:

    (especially 2:20 into that video)

    tangosix.

  2. March 22, 2010 5:02 pm

    Hello,

    Mike Burleson said:

    “While there is some exaggeration here (such as the 4th one), much of it is close to the mark.”

    Some exaggeration?
    Damage rates for British military aircraft can be seen here:

    http://www.dasa.mod.uk/modintranet/UKDS/UKDS2007/pdf/c4/Chap4Table46.pdf

    To quote that report:

    “These are damage rates per ten thousand flying hours of the numbers of aircraft that were lost or badly damaged in accidents that happened after the aircrew had
    taken responsibility for the aircraft.”

    The Harrier and Sea Harrier’s damage rates are consistently high,up to six times worse than other combat aircraft in some periods.

    Mike Burleson said:

    “A very complicated design, it went through about 3 decades of development before it was adequate for frontline service.”

    Harrier development started in late 1957 with the P.1127,it entered production as the Harrier ten years later in 1967 and was in military service by 1969.

    A good history of the Harrier can be found here:

    http://harrier.org.uk/history/history1_1.htm

    Mike Burleson said:

    “It has killed a lot of pilots at least during its development phase, and yes, as a subsonic fighter it is short-ranged and has a smaller bomb load than its conventional contemporaries.”

    The Harrier has killed a lot of it’s pilots during it’s operational life,for example:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1415300/Navys-best-pilot-killed-in-Harrier-training-crash.html

    The British are not the only ones to have problems with the Harrier:

    “By 1998, USMC Harrier operations (including Naval Air Systems Command) had resulted in 17 fatalities, one permanent disability and 68 AV-8B aircraft lost. With a cumulative Class A mishap rate of 12.1 per 100,000 flight hours, the AV-8B has consistently outpaced all USMC aircraft types in this statistic. It has been the single predominant contributor to the overall Marine aviation mishap story.”

    From here:

    http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/aircraft/av-8-variants.htm

    The Harrier is more complex than a conventional aircraft which means there is more to go wrong.
    It is also more complicated to fly as the pilot must be able to fly using thrust for lift in addition to conventional flight so there is more for the pilot to get wrong.
    Both of these factors make the Harrier more expensive to operate than a conventional aircraft.

    Mike Burleson said:

    “There is no other fighter which can fly from forward and austere runways in the Afghan, then deploy on the other side of the world on a tiny light carrier deck, but could also land on a helicopter platform if required.”

    The Jaguar was designed to operate from both short forward strips and aircraft carriers,it was also cheaper to operate than the Harrier.
    Unfortunately the Royal Air Force pushed for changes which left it underpowered and unable to do either.
    If the Jaguar had been built around a pair of Speys,there would never have been any need for the Phantom,Harrier,Tornado,Sea Harrier,Adour,RB199 or Pegasus.
    The financial savings would have been huge.

    Heretic said:

    “The USMC demonstrated that a sustained sortie rate of 10 per day per aircraft could be maintained for as long as the logistics train could keep the dispersed sites supplied, and the Harriers were capable of surge sortie rates of 14 per day during spikes in demand for target rich zones.”

    Sortie rates generated by Harriers in real combat are directly comparable to those of conventional aircraft.
    When did Harriers ever generate 10 sorties per aircraft per day in combat?
    The Sea Harrier managed a peak of 4 sorties per aircraft per day in the Falklands with an average of about 1.2 sorties per aircraft per day.
    Vertical landing is not required to opererate from dispersed sites.
    Even Harriers use rolling take offs to carry a useful warload.
    If you have enough space for a rolling take off,why do you need to be able to land vertically?

    Heretic said:

    “And as for wasting the taxpayers money since 1960 … there was a little military operation with a hostile nation that would not have even been possible to mount without Harriers and Sea Harriers that happened in 1982.”

    Why could the Falklands war not have been fought with conventional carriers?
    Was it because they had to be retired early to make up for all the money wasted on things like the Harrier?

    Mike Burleson said:

    “So comparing the Harrier to high performance jet fighters is like comparing apples to oranges, meaning the two types performing separate functions, both having unique qualities, all for the same goal.”

    The Harrier performs exactly the same functions as conventional aircraft like the Jaguar.
    It just burns more money and kills more pilots while performing those functions.

    papa legba said:

    “I still wonder why, in the numerous updates the Harrier has gotten over the decades, no one has added a fly-by-wire or a flight control computer to the Harrier to tame some of its more difficult handling issues.”

    Someone did:

    http://www.qinetiq.com/home/newsroom/news_releases_homepage/2005/2nd_quarter/QinetiQs_JSF_world_first.html

    X said:

    “I know all this. But I am sure there must have been some spare APG65 sets available somewhere that have could have been acquired and plumbed into the GR9s destined for the FAA Joint Harrier Force squadrons.”

    I understand there are rather a lot of Blue Vixen radars sitting in boxes somewhere,having been removed from the Sea Harrier F.A.2s.

    tangosix.

  3. March 22, 2010 3:56 pm

    Thanks Mike!

    I am sorry if my any of my posts sounded terse. I was re-typing, cutting, pasting, and generally cock-up. Plus I was doing others thing too,

  4. Jed permalink
    March 22, 2010 9:33 am

    xbradtc – “The Grippen’s austere field capability is tied to the fact the the Norwegians specially built many sections of their highways to be used that way. They won’t be operating from just any old stretch of road. In effect, any place they could, they built a runway and ramps, and connected the highway to each end of the runway.”

    I don’t actually know if the Norwegian’s do it at all, but I think your thinking of Sweden where dispersed road bases are deliberately built into the country’s civil infrastructure (highway system) / air-defence system.

    The RAF actually did a little in the 70’s / 80’s with an bi-annual (?) exercise to operate Jaguars from stretches of motorway in the UK.

    Anyway, your right, its not just any stretch of road BUT the point is the Gripen was made to fly conventional STOL profiles from non-standard runways, including a ‘high sink rate’ landing (like used on carriers) and using its canards as giant airbrakes to dump lift and slow down without overheating the brakes as part of the shortened landing roll.

  5. xbradtc permalink
    March 22, 2010 2:03 am

    The Grippen’s austere field capability is tied to the fact the the Norwegians specially built many sections of their highways to be used that way. They won’t be operating from just any old stretch of road. In effect, any place they could, they built a runway and ramps, and connected the highway to each end of the runway.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 21, 2010 4:31 pm

    Mr X, I found several of your posts in the Spam folder. My apologies and I’ve reposted all except the duplicates. WordPress will do that occasionally, for no apparent reason. Again sorry.

  7. Chris Stefan permalink
    March 21, 2010 4:28 pm

    The F35B isn’t really going to be a replacement for the Harrier if the exhaust heat and velocity issue is as serious as has been reported. It would seem that the F35B can only fly from specially prepared landing sites and ship decks. At that point you might as well scrap the B model and go with CTOL or CATOBAR aircraft.

    While the US would likely never buy them, as I understand a requirement for the Gripen/Gripen NG was the ability to use rural roads in Northern Sweden as airfields. I’m not sure if it qualifies as a true STOL aircraft, but I’m guessing the Gripen deals with austere/makeshift airfields better than any fighter in the US inventory excepting the AV-8. Saab has been marketing a navalized version at countries with CATOBAR carrier ambitions too. It would be interesting to see how much of a takeoff run such a beast would need with a ski-jump.

  8. papa legba permalink
    March 21, 2010 3:38 pm

    I still wonder why, in the numerous updates the Harrier has gotten over the decades, no one has added a fly-by-wire or a flight control computer to the Harrier to tame some of its more difficult handling issues. It seems like a platform that’s begging for a FBW system to handle its unconventional handling.

    The F-35B has such a thing (in development, at least). I’m not sure if the F-35’s technology would migrate from its conventional engine + liftfan setup to the Harrier’s Pegasus + rotating nozzle arrangement. Still, it’s possible that part of the reason that Lockheed is being so cagey about the F-35 FBW source code is to prevent it from being adapted to a competing product.

  9. March 21, 2010 3:05 pm

    Jed said “X – that is true, but in context RAF decided it did not want / need radar for close air support, the Sea Harrier F/A2 had a far superior radar to the APG65 for the fleet air defence role, but budget cuts retired it before it should have been.”

    I know all this. But I am sure there must have been some spare APG65 sets available somewhere that have could have been acquired and plumbed into the GR9s destined for the FAA Joint Harrier Force squadrons. It does no harm to play “what if”. :)

    Saw this on Military Photos,

    http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/showthread.php?176325-On-the-Principe-De-Asturias

    Hope this post works……..

  10. March 21, 2010 2:19 pm

    I know Blue Vixen is superior to the 65. I know the mud movers don’t need radar. And I know about budget cuts.

    But the last time I was at sea the mud was covered by a few dozen fathoms of the wet stuff!!!

    FAA first role is fleet defence. And any radar is better than no radar!!! I just get a tad annoyed by short sightedness. I am sure 65’s could have been found some way and fitted to FAA squadron’s airframes.

    This was apt post was made over at Military Photos,

    http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/showthread.php

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 21, 2010 2:15 pm

    Tom, I saw that as well as posted something on it for tomorrow’s viewing!

  12. Tom Meyer permalink
    March 21, 2010 12:26 pm

    Interesting…I saw this at Combat Fleets of the World.

    Marines want to go back to traditional amphibs

    More than two years before the amphibious assault ship America enters the fleet, Marine officials have already drawn up early plans for a version of the ship that includes a major component America is missing — a well deck.

    The “LHA 8 concept,” as it was called in a presentation Monday by Marine Corps Combat Development Command, would combine new aviation features the Marines want in the America class with a traditional big-deck capacity for landing craft and green gear.

    Found at: http://combatfleetoftheworld.blogspot.com/2010/03/marines-want-to-go-back-to-traditional.html

    What does this portend for the Harrier and the F-35 program?

    How confident is the USMC for their future aviation capabilities? Will there be a reconsideration of the F-18E/F/G programs for the USMC?

    Will the USMC be looking for support from USN carrier-based a/c?

    Are they going to return to focusing on amphib assaults solely – while relying on USN for air cover?

  13. Jed permalink
    March 21, 2010 10:54 am

    X – that is true, but in context RAF decided it did not want / need radar for close air support, the Sea Harrier F/A2 had a far superior radar to the APG65 for the fleet air defence role, but budget cuts retired it before it should have been.

  14. March 21, 2010 8:48 am

    GR9 is good, but AV8 is better purely because it has the APG-65. Typical British petty costs saving robs the whole venture of utility (aircraft, ship, whole of the fleet.)

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