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Harrier Rescues The F-35B
by James Dunnigan
June 16, 2013

The U.S. Marine Corps is now preparing to upgrade many of their 140 AV-8B Harrier jet fighters to keep them in service, at least until 2030 (instead of 2027). This is because the replacement for the AV-8B, the F-35B, was supposed to begin replacing AV-8Bs this year, but that has been delayed at least two years. Extending the useful life of the AV-8Bs is possible largely because two years ago Britain sold all its Harrier jet fighters, spare parts, and ancillary gear to the marines. The American marines are the largest operator of Harrier aircraft. Harrier production ceased in 1997, as did major refurbishment of older aircraft in 2003.

Three years ago Britain retired its fleet of 74 Harrier vertical-takeoff jets as a cost-cutting measure. The aircraft were put into storage but with enough maintenance services to keep them in shape for rapid reactivation. It was hoped that a buyer could be found. The American marines were not interested initially, because they were expecting the new F-35B to arrive in time to replace their aging Harriers. The F-35B has since suffered numerous delays and is now even threatened with cancellation. This led to the purchase of Britain's Harrier aircraft and spare parts. This could keep the marine Harriers in service for at least another two decades. Without the infusion of British equipment the American Harriers would have been retired in the late 2020s.

Most of the British Harriers are being cannibalized for spare parts. The British and American Harriers are largely identical. A lot of the electronics are different but the airframes and engines are interchangeable. The marines paid $180 million for the stock of spare parts and decommissioned British Harriers.

The Americans are not the only ones having problems keeping their Harrier forces going. Five years ago Britain sold four surplus Harrier aircraft to India, to be cannibalized for spare parts. In the previous twenty years, India had lost half of its 30 Harrier vertical takeoff fighters to accidents, and the fifteen remaining aircraft often could not fly because of a shortage of spares. Britain also offered help with Harrier refurbishment.

The Harrier has the highest accident rate of any current jet fighter. This is largely because of its vertical flight capabilities, which give it an accident rate similar to that of helicopters. The U.S. Marine Corps has lost a third of its 397 Harriers to such accidents in 32 years. That's about three times the rate of the F-18C. However, accident loss rates for combat aircraft have been declining over the last century. Current Harrier rates are similar to those for many fixed-wing aircraft operating in the 1970s. Harrier pilots simply accept the fact that since they operate an aircraft that can fly like a helicopter, they have to expect the higher loss rates that go with it.

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