Entry into service
The first three Sea Harriers were a development batch and were used for clearance trials. The first production aircraft was delivered to RNAS Yeovilton in 1979 to form an Intensive Flying Trials Unit (also known as 700A Naval Air Squadron). In March 1980 the Intensive Flying Trials Unit became 899 Naval Air Squadron and would act as the landborne headquarters unit for the type. The first operational squadron 800 Naval Air Squadron was also formed in March 1980 initially to operate from HMS Invincible before it transferred to HMS Hermes. In January 1981 a second operation squadron 801 Naval Air Squadron was formed to operate from HMS Invincible.
Line-up of Sea Harrier jet aircraft, facing left of photograph. In the distance is a tall, dull-coloured warehouse.
Sea Harrier at RNAS Yeovilton. The pre-Falklands War paint scheme seen here was altered by painting over the white undersides and markings en route to the islands.
Sea Harriers took part in the Falklands War of 1982, flying from the aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes. The Sea Harriers performed the primary air defence role with a secondary role of ground attack; the RAF Harrier GR3 provided the main ground attack force. A total of 28 Sea Harriers and 14 Harrier GR3s were deployed in the theatre. The Sea Harrier squadrons shot down 20 Argentine aircraft in air-to-air combat with no air-to-air losses, although two Sea Harriers were lost to ground fire and four to accidents. Out of the total Argentine air losses, 28% were shot down by Harriers.
A number of factors contributed to the failure of the Argentinian fighters to shoot down a Sea Harrier. Although the Mirage III and Dagger jets were considerably faster, the Sea Harrier was considerably more manoeuvrable. Moreover, the Harrier employed the latest AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles and the Blue Fox radar. Contrary to contemporary reports that "viffing" proved decisive in dogfights, the maneuver was not used by RN pilots in the Falklands as it was only used in emergencies against enemies unfamiliar with the aircraft. The British pilots had superior air-combat training, one manifestation of which was that they thought they noticed Argentinian pilots occasionally releasing weapons outside of their operating parameters. This is now thought to have been Mirages releasing external fuel tanks rather than weapons, and turning away from conflict with the Sea Harrier. This later reduced their capability to fight an effective campaign against the Sea Harrier due to reduced range and lack of external fuel tanks.
British aircraft received fighter control from warships in San Carlos Water, although its effectiveness was limited by their being stationed close to the islands, which severely limited the effectiveness of their radar. The differences in tactics and training between 800 Squadron and 801 Squadron has been a point of criticism, suggesting that the losses of several ships were preventable had Sea Harriers from Hermes been used more effectively.
Both sides' aircraft were operating in adverse conditions. Argentine aircraft were forced to operate from the mainland because airfields on the Falklands were only suited for propellor-driven transports. In addition, fears partly aroused by the bombing of Port Stanley airport by a British Vulcan bomber added to the Argentinians' decision to operate them from afar. As most Argentine aircraft lacked in-flight refuelling capability, they were forced to operate at the limit of their range. The Sea Harriers also had limited fuel reserves due to the tactical decision to station the British carriers out of Exocet missile range and the dispersal of the fleet. The result was that an Argentine aircraft could only allow five minutes over the islands to search and attack an objective, while a Sea Harrier could stay near to 30 minutes waiting in the Argentine approach corridors and provide Combat Air Patrol coverage for up to an hour.
The Sea Harriers were outnumbered by the available Argentinian aircraft, and were on occasion decoyed away by the activities of the Escuadrón Fénix or civilian jet aircraft used by the Argentine Air Force. They had to operate without a fleet early warning system such as AWACS that would have been available to a full NATO fleet in which the Royal Navy had expected to operate, which was a significant weakness in the operational environment. However, it is now known that Chile did provide early radar warning to the Task Force. The result was that the Sea Harriers could not establish complete air superiority and prevent Argentine attacks during day or night, nor could they completely stop the daily C-130 Hercules transports' night flights to the islands. A total of six Sea Harriers were lost during the war to either enemy fire, accidents or mechanical failure. The total aggregate loss rate for both the Harriers and Sea Harriers on strike operations was 2.3%.
Operations in the 1990s
The Sea Harrier saw action in war again when it was deployed in the 1992–1995 conflict in Bosnia, part of the Yugoslav Wars. It launched raids on Serb forces and provided air-support for the international taskforce units conducting Operations Deny Flight and Deliberate Force against the Army of Republika Srpska. On 16 April 1994, a Sea Harrier of the 801 Naval Air Squadron, operating from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, was brought down by a Igla-1 surface-to-air missile fired by the Army of Republika Srpska while attempting to bomb two Bosnian Serb tanks. The pilot, Lieutenant Nick Richardson, ejected and landed in territory controlled by friendly Bosnian Muslims.
It was used again in the 1999 NATO campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in Operation Allied Force, Sea Harriers which operated from HMS Invincible frequently patrolled the airspace to keep Yugoslavian MiGs on the ground. They were also deployed to Sierra Leone on board HMS Illustrious in 2000, which was itself part of a Royal Navy convoy to supply and reinforce British intervention forces in the region.
The Sea Harrier was withdrawn from service in 2006 and the last remaining aircraft from 801 Naval Air Squadron were decommissioned on 29 March 2006. The plans for retirement were announced in 2002 by the Ministry of Defence. The aircraft's replacement, the F-35 Lightning II, was originally due in 2012, the MoD arguing that significant expenditure would be required to upgrade the fleet for only six years of service. By March 2010, the F-35's introduction had been pushed back to 2016 at the earliest, with the price doubled. The decision to retire the Sea Harrier early has been criticised by some officers within the military.
Both versions of Harrier experienced reduced engine performance (Pegasus Mk 106 in FA2 – Mk 105 in GR7) in the higher ambient temperatures of the Middle East, which restricted the weight of payload that the Harrier could return to the carrier in 'vertical' recoveries. This was due to the safety factors associated with aircraft "land-on" weights. The option to install higher-rated Pegasus engines would not have been as straightforward as on the Harrier GR7 upgrade and would have likely been an expensive and slow process. Furthermore, the Sea Harriers were subject to a generally more hostile environment than land-based Harriers, with corrosive salt spray a particular problem. A number of aircraft were retained by the School of Flight Deck Operations at RNAS Culdrose.
The Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm would continue to share the other component of Joint Force Harrier. Harrier GR7 and the upgraded Harrier GR9 were transferred to Royal Navy squadrons in 2006, but were retired prematurely a few years later due to budget cuts. The UK plans to purchase the STOVL F-35B to be operated from the Royal Navy's Future Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier.
Two similar grey jet aircraft with high-mounted wing flying in formation with another red-tail fighter, which is leading and is furthest from photo. The leading jet is carrying an external fuel tank under fuselage.
Indian Navy's Sea Harriers fly alongside U.S. Navy's F/A-18F Super Hornet during Malabar 2007.
In 1977, the Indian government approved of plans to acquire the Sea Harrier for the Indian Navy; prior to this, rumours reportedly were circulating of a potential Indian purchase of the Soviet V/STOL-capable Yak-36. In 1979, India placed its first order for 6 Sea Harriers, the first three of which arrived at Dabolim Airport on 16 December 1983. A separate deal for a further ten Sea Harriers were purchased in November 1985; eventually a total of 30 Harriers were procured, 25 for operational use and the remainder as dual-seat trainer aircraft. Until the 1990s, significant portions of pilot training was carried out in Britain due to limited aircraft availability.
The introduction of the Sea Harrier allowed for the retirement of India's previous carrier fighter aircraft, the Hawker Sea Hawk, as well as for the Navy's aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant (ex-HMS Hercules), to be extensively modernised between 1987 and 1989. India has operated Sea Harriers from both the aircraft carriers INS Vikrant and INS Viraat (ex-HMS Hermes). The Sea Harrier allowed several modern missiles to be introduced into naval operations, such as the British anti-ship Sea Eagle missile, and the French Matra Magic missile for air-to-air combat. Other ordnance has included 68 mm rockets, runway-denial bombs, cluster bombs, and podded 30 mm cannons.
There have been a significant number of accidents involving the Sea Harrier; this accident rate has caused approximately half the fleet to be lost with only 11 fighters remaining in service. Following a crash in August 2009, all Sea Harriers were temporarily grounded for inspection. Since the beginning of operational service in the Indian Navy, seven pilots have died in 17 crashes involving the Sea Harrier, usually during routine sorties.
In 2006, the Indian Navy expressed interest in acquiring up to eight of the Royal Navy's recently retired Sea Harrier FA2s in order to maintain their operational Sea Harrier fleet, Neither the Sea Harrier FA2's Blue Vixen radar, the radar warning receiver or AMRAAM capability was proposed to be included; certain US software would be also be uninstalled prior to shipment. By October 2006, reports emerged that the deal had not materialised due to the cost of airframe refurbishment.
As of 2006, the Indian Navy was in the process of upgrading up to 15 Sea Harriers in collaboration with Israel by installing the Elta EL/M-2032 radar and the Rafael 'Derby' medium-range air-to-air BVR missile. This will enable the Sea Harrier to remain in Indian service until beyond 2012, and also see limited service off the new carriers it will acquire by that time frame. By 2009, crashes had reduced India's fleet to 12 (out of original 30). India plans to introduce larger aircraft carriers that can operate Russian MiG-29K carrier fighters from their flight decks to replace the Sea Harrier.