BAe Sea Harrier

The BAE Systems Sea Harrier is a British naval VTOL/STOVL jet fighter, reconnaissance and attack aircraft, a development of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier. It first entered service with the Royal Navy in April 1980 as the Sea Harrier FRS1. The latest version is the Sea Harrier FA2. The Sea Harrier was withdrawn from Royal Navy service in March 2006. Sea Harriers took part in the Falklands War of 1982, flying from the aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes. The Sea Harriers were to operate in their primary air defence role with a secondary role of ground attack, with the RAF Harrier GR3 providing the main ground attack force. The Sea Harrier squadrons shot down 21 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.

BAe Sea Harrier
Class Aircraft
Type Fighter
Manufacturer British Aerospace
Origin United Kingdom - UK (Great Britain)
Country Name Origin Year
United Kingdom - UK (Great Britain) 1978
Country Name Operational Year Retirement Year
India View
United Kingdom - UK (Great Britain) 1978 View
ManufacturerName Production From Production To Quantity
British Aerospace 106 View

In the post-war era, the Royal Navy began contracting in parallel with the break-up of the British Empire overseas and the emergence of the Commonwealth of Nations, reducing the need for a larger navy. By 1960 the last battleship, HMS Vanguard, was retired from the Navy, having been in service for less than fifteen years. Perhaps the biggest sign of the new trend towards naval austerity came in 1966, when the planned CVA-01 class of large aircraft carriers destined for the Royal Navy was cancelled. During this time requirements within the Royal Navy began to form for a vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) carrier-based interceptor to replace the de Havilland Sea Vixen. Afterward the first V/STOL tests on a ship began with a Hawker Siddeley P.1127 landing on HMS Ark Royal in 1963.

A second concept for the future of naval aviation emerged in the early 1970s as the first of a new class of "through deck cruisers" was planned. These were very carefully and politically designated as cruisers to deliberately avoid the term "aircraft carrier", in order to increase the chances of funding from a hostile political climate against expensive capital ships, they were considerably smaller than the previously sought CVA-01. These ships were ordered as the Invincible class in 1973, and are now popularly recognised as aircraft carriers. Almost immediately upon their construction, a ski-jump was added to the end of the 170-metre deck, enabling the carriers to effectively operate a small number of V/STOL jets. The Royal Air Force's Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR1s had entered service in April 1969. A navalised variant of the Harrier was developed by Hawker Siddeley to serve on the upcoming ships, this became the Sea Harrier. In 1975 the Royal Navy ordered 24 Sea Harrier FRS.1 (standing for 'Fighter, Reconnaissance, Strike') aircraft, the first of which entered service in 1978. During this time Hawker Siddeley became part of British Aerospace through nationalisation in 1977. By the time the prototype Sea Harrier was flown at Dunsfold on 20 August 1978 the order had been increased to 34. The Sea Harrier was declared operational in 1981 on board the first Invincible class ship HMS Invincible, and further aircraft joined the ageing HMS Hermes aircraft carrier later that year.

Following their key role in the 1982 Falklands War, several lessons were learned from the aircraft's performance, which led to approval for an upgrade of the fleet to FRS.2 (later known as FA2) standard to be given in 1984. The first flight of the prototype took place in September 1988 and a contract was signed for 29 upgraded aircraft in December that year. In 1990 the Navy ordered 18 new-build FA2s, at a unit cost of around £12 million, four further upgraded aircraft were ordered in 1994. The first aircraft was delivered on 2 April 1993.

Royal Navy

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.

Falklands War

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.

Retirement

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.

Indian Navy

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.

Role V/STOL strike fighter
National origin United Kingdom
Manufacturer Hawker Siddeley
British Aerospace
Introduction 20 August 1978 (FRS1)
2 April 1993 (FA2)
Retired March 2006 (Royal Navy)
Status Active service with Indian Naval Air Arm
Primary users Royal Navy (historical)
Indian Naval Air Arm
Number built 111
Unit cost US$18 million in 1991
Developed from Hawker Siddeley Harrier


General characteristics

  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 46 ft 6 in (14.2 m)
  • Wingspan: 25 ft 3 in (7.6 m)
  • Height: 12 ft 4 in (3.71 m)
  • Wing area: 201.1 ft (18.68 m)
  • Empty weight: 14,052 lb (6,374 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 26,200 lb (11,900 kg)
  • Powerplant: 1 x Rolls-Royce Pegasus turbofan, 21,500 lbf (95.64 kN)

Performance

  • Maximum speed: 600 knots (734 mph, 1026 km/h)
  • Service ceiling 51,000 ft (16,000 m)
  • Rate of climb: 50,000 ft/min (250 m/s)

Armament

  • Guns: 2 x 30 mm (1.18 in) ADEN cannons
  • Missiles:
    • AIM-9 Sidewinder
    • AIM-120 AMRAAM
    • ALARM
    • R550 Magic (Sea Harrier FRS51)
    • Sea Eagle
  • Bombs: WE.177 (until in 1992)

End notes