British Aerospace Harrier II

The British Aerospace Harrier II is a second-generation vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) jet aircraft used previously by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and, between 2006 and 2010, the Royal Navy (RN). The aircraft was derived from the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II, which itself was a development of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier. Initial deliveries of the Harrier II were designated in service as Harrier GR5; subsequently upgraded airframes were redesignated accordingly as GR7 and GR9.

Under the Joint Force Harrier organisation, both the RAF and RN operated the Harrier II, including routine operational deployments on board the navy's Invincible class aircraft carriers. The Harrier II participated in numerous conflicts, making significant contributions in combat theatres such as Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The type's main function was as a platform for air interdiction and close air support missions; the Harrier II was also used for presence projection and reconnaissance duties. The Harrier II served alongside the Sea Harrier in Joint Force Harrier.

In December 2010, budgetary pressures led to the early retirement of all Harrier IIs from service, at which point it was the last of the Harrier derivatives remaining in British service. The decision to retire was controversial as there was no immediate fixed-wing replacement in its role and left a capability gap in that there were no fixed-wing carrier-capable aircraft in service; in the long term the Harrier II is to be replaced by the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.

British Aerospace Harrier II
Class Aircraft
Type Bomber
Manufacturer British Aerospace
Origin United Kingdom - UK (Great Britain)
Country Name Origin Year
United Kingdom - UK (Great Britain) 1985
Country Name Operational Year Retirement Year
United Kingdom - UK (Great Britain) 1989 2011 View
ManufacturerName Production From Production To Quantity
British Aerospace View
McDonnell Douglas View
BAE Systems View
Boeing View

Development of a much more powerful successor to the Harrier began in 1973 as a cooperative effort between McDonnell Douglas(MDD) in the US and Hawker Siddeley (in 1977, its aviation interests were nationalised to form part of British Aerospace) in the UK. At the time, first-generation Harriers were being introduced into Royal Air Force and United States Marine Corps; however, operational experience had highlighted demand for a more capable aircraft. The British government had only a minor requirement, for up to 60 Harriers at most, and competing pressures on the defence budget left little room for frivolous expenditure such as the Advanced Harrier. A lack of government backing for developing the necessary engine of the new aircraft, the Pegasus 15, led Hawker to withdraw from this project in 1975.

Due to US interest, work proceeded on the development of a less ambitious successor, a Harrier fitted with a larger wing and making use of composite materials in its construction. Two prototypes were built from existing aircraft and flew in 1978. The US government was content to continue if a major foreign buyer was found; however Britain had their own plan to improve the current Harrier with a new, larger metal wing. In 1980, the UK considered if the American program would meet their requirements – their opinion was that it required modification, thus the MDD wing design was altered to incorporate the British-designed leading-edge root extensions. In 1982, the UK opted to become fully involved in the joint US-UK program. The US and UK agreement to proceed included a British contribution of US$280 million to cover development costs to meet their own requirements and to purchase at least 60 aircraft.

The UK agreement included the involvement of British Aerospace (BAe) as a major subcontractor, manufacturing sections such as the rear fuselage for all customers of the AV-8B. The Harrier II was an Anglicanised version of the AC-8B, British Aerospace producing the aircraft as the prime contractor, with McDonnell Douglas serving as a sub-contractor; final assembly work was performed at Dunsfold, England. The first prototype flew in 1981. The first BAe-built development GR5 flew for the first time on 30 April 1985 and the aircraft entered service in July 1987. The GR5 had many differences from the USMC's AV-8B Harriers, such as avionics fit, armaments and equipment; the wing of the GR5 featured a stainless steel leading edge, giving it different flex characteristics from the AV-8B. In December 1989, the first RAF squadron to be equipped with the Harrier II was declared operational.

The first squadrons to receive the Harrier II were based in Royal Air Force Germany, a standing force maintained to deter Soviet aggression against the West and, in the event of war, to carry out ground attacks. As the Harrier II had significantly greater range and survivability than its predecessor theHawker Siddeley Harrier, a new emphasis was placed on interdiction operations. By the end of 1990, the Harrier II was approaching full operational status with several squadrons. During the 1991 Gulf War, the Harrier II was considered to be too immature to be deployed. However, several aircraft were dispatched to patrol no-fly zones over Iraq from 1993 onwards. In 1994, the last of the RAF's first generation Harriers was retired, the Harrier II having taken over its duties.

In 1995, hostilities between ethnic Croatians and Serbians in the aftermath of the collapse of Yugoslavia led to the dispatch of NATO forces to the region as a deterrent to further escalations in violence. A squadron of Harrier IIs was stationed at Gioia del Colle Air Base in Italy, relieving an earlier deployment of RAF SEPECAT Jaguars. Both attack and reconnaissance missions were carried out by the Harriers, which had been quickly modified to integrate GPS navigation for operations in the theatre. More than 126 strike sorties were carried out by Harrier IIs, often assisted by Jaguar fighter-bombers acting as designators for laser-guided bombs such as the Paveway II. Bosnia was reportedly the first air campaign in which the majority of ordinance expended was precision-guided.

In June 1994, the newly introduced GR7 was deployed for trials on board the Navy's Invincible class aircraft carriers. Operational naval deployments began in 1997. The capability soon proved useful: in 1998, a deployment was conducted to Iraq via aircraft carriers stationed in the Persian Gulf. In 2000, 'presence' and reconnaissance sorties over Sierra Leone were performed solely by carrier-based Harrier GR7s. The Invincible class carriers also received multiple adaptations for greater compatibility with the Harrier II, including changes to the communications, lighting and flight deck.

Cooperative operations between the two services was formalised under the Joint Force Harrier (JFH) command organization, which was brought about following the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. Under JFH, RAF Harrier IIs would routinely operate alongside the Royal Navy's Sea Harriers. The main JFH operating base was RAF Cottesmore, a great emphasis was placed on inter-service interaction across the organisation. The combined Joint Force Harrier served as the basis for future expeditionary warfare and naval deployments. In the long term, JFH also served as a pilot scheme for the joint operation of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.

During Operation Allied Force, the NATO mission over Kosovo in 1999, the RAF contribution included 16 Panavia Tornados and 12 Harrier GR7s. On 27 April 1999, during a mission to attack a Serbian military depot, RAF Harriers came under heavy anti-aircraft fire, but did not suffer losses as a result. In April 1999, the rules of engagement were changed to allow Harriers to use GPS navigation and targeting during medium-altitude bombing missions. A total of 870 Harrier II sorties were carried out during the 78-day bombing campaign. The BBC reported the Harrier II had been achieving 80% direct hit rate during the conflict; a later Parliamentary Select Committee found that 24% of munitions expended in the theatre by all RAF aircraft had been precision weapons.

In 2003, the Harrier GR7 played a prominent role during Operation Telic, the UK contribution to the U.S.-led Iraq War. When war broke out, Harriers flew reconnaissance and strike missions inside Southern Iraq, reportedly to destroy Scud missile launchers to prevent their use against neighbouring Kuwait. Prior to the war, the Harriers had been equipped with a new armament, the AGM-65 Maverick missile, which reportedly was a noticeable contribution to the Harrier's operations over Iraq; a total of 38 Mavericks were launched during the campaign.

During the Battle of Basra, a key Iraqi city, Harriers conducted multiple strike missions against Iraqi fuel depots to cripple enemy ground vehicles; other priority targets for the Harriers included tanks, boats, and artillery. According to Nordeen, roughly 30 per cent of all RAF Harrier operations were close air support missions, supporting advancing allied ground troops. In April 2003, the Ministry of Defence admitted that RAF Harriers had deployed controversial RBL755 cluster bombs in Iraq. Both the British and American Harrier squadrons were withdrawn from operations in Iraq during Summer 2003.

RAF Harriers would be a regular element of Britain's contribution to the War in Afghanstan. In September 2004, six Harrier GR7s were deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, replacing a US detachment of AV-8Bs in the region. On 14 October 2005, a Harrier GR7A was destroyed and another was damaged while parked on the tarmac at Kandahar by a Taliban rocket attack. No one was injured in the attack; the damaged Harrier was repaired, while the destroyed aircraft was replaced.

While initial operations in Afghanistan had focused on intimidation and reconnaissance, demand for interdiction missions using the Harrier II spiked dramatically during the Helmand province campaign. Between July and September 2006, the theatre total for munitions deployed by British Harriers on planned operations and close air support to ground forces rose from 179 to 539, the majority being CRV-7 rockets. The Harrier IIs had also switched to 24 hour availability, having formerly operated mostly during the day. The air support provided by the Harriers was described by a British Army Major as being "utterly, utterly useless".

In January 2007, the Harrier GR9 began its first operational deployment at Kandahar, as part of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF); Harrier GR7s would be progressively withdrawn in favour of the newer Harrier GR9. Following five years of continuous operations in Afghanistan, the last of Britain's Harriers were withdrawn from the Afghan theatre in June 2009, having flown over 22,000 hours on 8,500 sorties, they were replaced by several RAF Tornado GR4s.

Role V/STOL strike aircraft
National origin United Kingdom / United States
Manufacturer British Aerospace / McDonnell Douglas
BAE Systems / Boeing
First flight 30 April 1985
Introduction December 1989
Retired March 2011
Status Retired
Primary users Royal Air Force (historical)
Royal Navy (historical)
Number built 143
Developed from Hawker Siddeley Harrier
McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II

General characteristics

  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 46 ft 4 in (14.12 m)
  • Wingspan: 30 ft 4 in (9.25 m)
  • Height: 11 ft 8 in (3.56 m)
  • Wing area: 243 ft² (22.6 m²)
  • Empty weight: 12,500 lb (5,700 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 15,703 lb (7,123 kg)
  • Max. takeoff weight: 18,950 lb VTO, 31,000 lb STO (8,595 kg VTO, 14,061 kg STO)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Rolls-Royce Pegasus Mk. 105 vectored thrust turbofan, 21,750 lb (96.7 kN)


  • Maximum speed: 662 mph (1,065 km/h)
  • Combat radius: 300 nmi (556 km)
  • Ferry range: 2,015 mi (3256 km)
  • Service ceiling: 50,000 ft (15,170 m)
  • Rate of climb: 14,715 ft/min (74.8 m/s)


  • Guns: 2× 25 mm ADEN cannon pods under the fuselage
  • Hardpoints: 8 (under-wing pylon stations 1A & 7A are intended for air-to-air missiles only) with a capacity of 8,000 lb (3,650 kg) of payload and provisions to carry combinations of:
  • Rockets: 4× LAU-5003 rocket pods (19× CRV7 70 mm rockets each) or 4× Matra rocket pods (18× SNEB 68 mm rockets each)
  • Missiles: 6× AIM-9 Sidewinders or 4× AGM-65 Maverick
  • Bombs: ordnance such as Paveway series of laser-guided bombs, unguided iron bombs (including 3 kg and 14 kg practice bombs)
  • Other: 2× auxiliary drop tanks or reconnaissance pods (such as the Joint Reconnaissance Pod)
    A government statement gave the following systems as being cleared for the GR9 as of November 2010, just before its retirement :
  • Recce/targetting pods: DJRP, Sniper and TIALD
  • Air-to-air: AIM-9L Sidewinder
  • Bombs: Paveway II/III/IV, Enhanced Paveway II/II+, 540 lb and 1000 lb iron bombs
  • Air-to-ground: CRV-7 rocket pod, AGM-65 Maverick
    The Litening 3 and RAPTOR pods, ASRAAM, Enhanced Paveway III, ALARM, Brimstone and Storm Shadow were not qualified for use on the GR9. A GR9 in Afghanistan typically carried a DJRP, a Sniper pod, two Paveway IV and two of either CRV-7, Paveway IV or Maverick.

End notes