The trouble you have when describing the Harrier is that folk immediately assume that you are trying to mount a defence of an icon-based on heartfelt fondness and not hard fact. The battle lines are pretty rigid. Harrier fans and critics never seem to agree. In an attempt to bridge this divide I write today to argue a not often argued point. That the Harrier was adequate.
Let’s start with something uncomfortable but true. Not a lot of aeroplanes are good. Good is a hard milestone to achieve because it’s relative. Relative to the other aircraft available at the time and relative to the threat. To get to good you have to be broadly comparable to the best in class. For air-to-air fighters this became the F-15 Eagle in 1976 and was upgraded to the F-22 in 2005. The world makes some poor aircraft. Usually by a combination of poor performance but usually by being late to the party by a decade or two – and delivering what would have been good, but 20 years after it mattered. So good is tough, poor is not uncommon – in the middle comes ‘adequate’. Nothing fundamentally wrong with them, able to contribute, sometimes in niche roles. A lot of aircraft are adequate as all are compromises, the pluses just have to balance the minuses. For attack aircraft the water is slightly muddier than the air-to-air fight but seeing as though a Harrier will never be the fastest, carry the most, or go the furthest – adequate maybe the most you are ever really going to be able to argue. Here are my top ten reasons for thinking that the Harrier was and is adequate.
10. Being there. It sounds daft but sometimes in warfare something really isn’t better than nothing. A good example of this would be a strike being mounted into a Missile Engagement Zone by an air force that didn’t have an ARM capability (don’t suppose you can think of any?). Something and nothing would have largely the same effect. Sometimes, however, something is very much better than nothing and, as the Harrier GR3 along with its FRS Mk1 stable mate proved in the Falklands crisis – you can be the best at what you do if you’re the only show in town. The Harrier was pretty good at being there. With an engine designed to hover and therefore gulp air down like it was going out of fashion (it won’t so please don’t panic sell air on my account) it had a blistering first 100 paces or so and could therefore use short runways to operate from. That meant that not only could it do dispersed operations, it could do austere operations and sea-based operations. Having afterburners can be pretty cool, opponents will argue. Needing them to take off or tank is totally uncool. I cannot speak for the customer but I can’t think a JTAC or a ground commander would probably be very glad indeed to have CAS at hand in some out of the way location, Belize, the Falklands, Kandahar amongst others whilst someone else worked out how to get the best in class to the fight, let alone into it. Yes, everything is a compromise (may have mentioned that!) so short strips and small regional runways do not equal large weapon loads but on the other hand – rapid turn rounds at austere locations can give you belt-fed CAS if you’re good at it. There are other considerations such as it being possible to base yourself a little too close to the enemy but, by and large, the Harrier’s ability to be there probably takes us into adequate, maybe even beyond.
9. Das Boot.
There are a lot of odd things written about sea basing. They usually take the form of left and right of arc zealotry. On the one hand it’s argued that carriers are far too vulnerable to be viable and on the other that only carriers can give you worldwide freedom of manoeuvre. Neither are true. But everything’s a compromise so the ability to base a VSTOL fighter at sea and move it around between days gives you some flexibility in where you may appear from. I believe that may be called surprise and in war it’s one of those things that is worth doing. It’s not half the battle though. Moving around could give you the ability to attack someone without having to ask a third party’s permission to over fly them on the way, or indeed base yourself there for the fight. That gets awkward for everyone. It hopefully goes without saying that sea basing isn’t a great idea if the aircraft isn’t actually designed for it or if the crews and maintainers aren’t trained. But if you do have a VSTOL aircraft, then you probably have a sea base-able one as well and you may roam the high seas looking for trouble. And if you can roam the oceans, land on the land, and patrol the skies…well that only leaves space, so I think we are on safely adequate ground.
8. So we may as well mention VSTOL. The main benefit of VSTOL is actually nothing to do with airshows or aircraft carriers. It takes a little explaining. Aircraft carry more fuel than they need. This is obviously totally inefficient and everything on an aeroplane should be absolutely vital for the types operation. If that’s not the case then you are carting stuff around you don’t need which means less space for stuff you do need and more work for engines pushing things you don’t need through time and space. Why do people of sound mind do this? Simple. It’s to do with redundancy when things go wrong or when the enemy gets a vote. So a triplex redundant hydraulic system is great if you want to cope with a failure or battle damage. So long as you’re happy to take it along with all that entails. Fuel is very similar and people carry more than they need to in case the weather is bad, the cross wind exceeds limits or someone ahead of you crashes. VSTOL removes at least two of these reasons and VSTOL aeroplanes therefore carry less contingency (wasted) fuel then their conventional counterparts. There is no crosswind in a vertical landing and if the guy ahead of you crashes, you can land on the taxiway or any other surface. I once read about a particular high-level ISR aircraft operating over Afghanistan whose crew were using a taxiway as a divert option. Whilst innovative for that type – that’s always been the Harrier fuel plan! So VSTOL, underwritten by true engineering genius really is a useful tool. I’d call that adequate. Possibly better than adequate.
7. Canopy. Have you ever looked at a hunched aircraft and wondered what they were thinking? Frogfeet are particularly bad as an exemplar.
The Harrier cockpit as modelled by the AV-8B and Harrier GR5/7/9 were and are superb. The canopy is simply excellent for Close Air Support and the much underrated skill of looking out of the window. If the transparency surrounds you then it is a natural contributor to Situational Awareness and SA is what you need to build to win battles. Yes there is a canopy rail, but apart from that no forward supports to get in the way, so maybe not up there with the ‘good’ F-16 beauty but certainly not poor either. Rearwards visibility is fine, some would say for good reason as you may spend a fair amount of time scurrying around hiding from people. That’s a separate point. The long and the short of it though is that the canopy was just the job, whilst accepting that the Viper community probably have a cooler one.
What sorts of things would one need for a CAS mission? Nice big TV screens, Sniper Pod picture direct to the pilot. Mission computer able to accept Lat/Long and grid. A decent moving map. A Digital Terrain Elevation Database and all of a sudden you have all you need. If it’s all there at your fingertips with minimal button pushes to access data and weapon modes then you have an easily adequate system. The same could be said of a strike mission with up to six Paveway 4 weapons. Need to take your own targets? Just be sure to ‘Box’ the blue plan on the stores page. Want to change and double tap your wingman’s? Easy. Unbox blue and box yellow. Want to use a spare weapon on a different target because the Tornados are a jet short (again), no dramas you can load the target direct to the weapon using the predictive text function – you just have to know what it’s called. These sorts of things are important because they free up time for other activity such as flying the jet, although to be honest that’s quite straight forward (insert VSTOL joke of your own here) so no major dramas. The jet will need a communications fit of frequency agile and secure radios, hopefully with Saturn and Havequick available. The Harrier had those. It was due, in UK service, to receive Link-16 too…but then the darkness came, leaving it with only 250 or so channels for radio frequencies – which is somewhere on the bit of the scale marked ‘easily enough’. Another system you may want to consider was the FLIR. The ability to see through dust is a useful one; as is the ability to see whilst flying at low level into the sun in winter. The ability to have a spare HUD on one of your TV screens was a good thing to have for ramp launches. The ability to project FLIR onto the HUD for night flying was exceptionally useful. The ability to carry the Digital Joint Recce Pod gave another string to the bow. Let’s call that adequate.
5. Single seat. Oh no, he went there. There are plenty of good multi-crew aircraft. B-1, B-52 are great examples as are tankers and trash-haulers. In tactical flying there are fewer great examples of world class platforms that are twin seat and a huge list of those that aren’t. Spitfire, P-51, A-10, F-15C, F-16, F-18, F-22 are a couple of single-seat examples of greatness. To be fair though one does have to think of greats such as the Mosquito, Tomcat and F-15E when making sweeping generalisations. Then again, out of the Mosquito (kind of) came the Hornet. Half the chairs, more performance. However, the crux of this is that if the platform can present the pilot with all the information they need then you’d be daft to design a twin seater if you could avoid it. Think Uber. Have you ever felt the need to order a cab and then give someone else you phone so they can tell you where it is? No. Why? Because it’s a simple and effective bit of Human-Machine Interface that works and doesn’t need complicating. This is similar to a CAS situation where a mind meld between pilot and JTAC is what is required. There are other really boring reasons why single seaters are better for air forces than multi-crew. These range from the simple maths of it being half as likely that one of your formation might be ill in the morning, to the need for the HQ to only provision for one pension instead of two…not very interesting but worth considering.
Now remember, we aren’t trying to be good. We’re aiming for adequate, for now. The Harrier could carry various 118, 218 and BOL countermeasures, had a Missile Approach Warner and could even carry a TERMA pod with another missile detection device in it. That probably takes it out of poor. With the addition of 2 x Sidewinder in the AIM-9L and AIM-9M guise one really wouldn’t want to be thinking of taking on roles such as Offensive Counter Air but you could certainly have a crack at other muds if you saw them. The jet was actually very good at certain aspects of Basic Fighter Manoeuvres, particularly the single circle and slow speed fights. No, the Harrier was not a fighter (you wouldn’t believe how many people have reminded me of that since the book came out) but for a striker it had an adequate air-to-air capability. Until someone gave it the APG-65 and the ability to carry the AIM-120. That’s right, the currency air-to-air weapon of every fighter in Christendom. Imagine the CAP briefing the day that became a thing. No longer the ability to stay high, come down the 1000ft per mile gradient with a bit of aspect and use a shoot-look-shoot Fox 3 to Fox 2 policy as you came down the hill. The game had changed and there would be slammers coming the other way. That’s completely different; adequate in anyone’s language, maybe even better. So by bringing the AV-8B II+ into the scan – we start talking about a completely different beast.
(By the way this paragraph actually brings up one of the great tragedies of our time. The FA2 prototype flew in 1988 and it entered service in 1993. In a parallel lane the RAF were procuring and upgrading GR5/7/9. However, at the same time the AV-8B 2 plus was also reaching maturity. If a radar equipped Harrier II is available but you procure a Harrier 1 with a good radar – including 18 new builds – and a radar-less Harrier 2 in dissimilar fleets instead. You may want to have a word with yourself!)
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3. Weapon loads
The Harrier could find a way of cracking most tactical nuts. Let’s get one card on the table, it didn’t in UK service have a cannon – which was odd on the grounds that the GR1, GR3, FRS1 and FA2 all did as does the AV-8B. That’s a minus. However, there were lots of pluses. Where to start. 540 and 1000 lb freefall and retarded weapons with impact or air burst fusing. (Please don’t be suckered into the ‘everything must be a PGM’ story. It really doesn’t have to be, not for accuracy and not for Law of Armed Conflict and not for Rules of Engagement. There are plenty of scenarios where an unguided munition will be just fine if you can drop, loft or scrape it onto the target accurately). CRV-7 rockets in either training pods of 6 or Op Pods of 19. Heads could be high explosive semi armour piercing or point detonating. PGMs include Paveway, Enhanced Paveway, Enhanced Paveway Plus, Paveway 3, Paveway 4. Maverick in TV and IR guises. That will probably offer a way of skinning most cats. And yes carriage of some would require the use of a balancing store or in the case of Paveway 3 a lower than ideal fuel load – but all jets have their short comings. It has to be said though that medium level strikes were boring, even with a Deck Landing to look forward to. That leaves the Harrier as a competent striker. For now let’s assume competent and adequate are about the same.
2. The big engine
There are some truisms in military aviation. It usually makes things more difficult if you try them at night; it usually helps if you add more power. That’s exactly what they did with the Harrier. The GR7 and 9 became the GR7A and 9A. There were fewer engine limits and the amount of thrust the engine could produce was now even more staggering than the staggering amount we started off with. So what? Well, the point of inflexion in all of the compromises above moved towards the correct end of the spectrum. VSTOL was easier and safer, because there was more thrust available. The aircraft’s ability to operate off short strips was improved. Bring back was improved. Survivability was improved as one could get above the threat quicker. The aircraft’s already adequate handling in air-to-air was improved. In short, a system that was hovering (pun intended) at the higher end of the adequate range was made better. Now, it would be wrong to argue that the threat hadn’t increased or that this modification took us into good. Let’s just say it nailed on adequate. Even in the heat, even when high.
1. The sum of all adequacies. If you end up with a single seat striker, that can look after itself in the air-to-air arena, that has a broad range of weaponry, that through unique characteristics is able to get to almost any fight and contribute when it gets there. You’ve got a reasonable machine. If you can carry a counter measure pod, a recce pod and a targeting pod along with your war load from a hot and high strip, you’ve got a reasonable aircraft. If your designers and engineers have created the ability to land with minimum fuel reserves and have given you a machine that can operate in dust and at night, you’ve got a reasonable machine. If you have the ability to come from a highway strip, a gap in the trees or from the vast expanses of the open ocean. You have a reasonable machine. If the cockpit gives the pilot everything he needs along with superb visibility, you have a reasonable machine. You know what? I’ve argued myself to a standstill. If you wrap up all of the above I don’t think the Harrier is/ was adequate. I think it was bloody brilliant.