The Immortal Harrier
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.”
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?