Warplanes: How The Harrier Holds Its Own


November23, 2006: How does the AV-8 Harrier, a ten ton, vertical take off warplane, match up against other aircraft? The answer can be quite surprising. The Falklands War in 1982 proved the Harrier could win a war, and this was with earlier versions. Today, the Harrier is a potent multi-role aircraft that can operate in many areas that other combat planes cannot. Today, the main versions of the Harrier are the AV-8B, in service with the United States Marine Corps, Spain, and Italy, and the GR.9, in service with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. India also uses a version of the Harrier, the Sea Harrier Mk 51, and Thailand flies AV-8S Harriers.

The Harrier's potential opponents are fixed-wing aircraft, and many of them have much higher performance. The Harrier is not even able to break Mach 1, whereas planes like the Rafale and Typhoon have supercruise (the ability to reach Mach 1 without using afterburners). The Harrier's range is also limited - for instance, the Harrier's maximum range is 1667 kilometers. The Mirage 2000 has a combat radius (which is how far a plane can fly and return from a combat mission) of 1482 kilometers. Payload is also an issue. The Harrier typically carries six five hundred pound bombs on a combat mission, and can carry a total on four tons on a combat mission. The Mirage 2000 can carry nearly six tons of ordnance.

But why does the Harrier pick up a lot of support? The answer is that the Harrier is not as tied to immobile - and highly vulnerable - land bases. From the outset, the Harrier was seen as something that could operate from relatively Spartan forward bases. This ability to take off made it a natural for countries who could not afford full-deck carriers. In 1980, the British introduced the Sea Harrier, which would prove its operational capabilities in the Falklands alongside RAF Harrier GR3s.

This is why the Harrier has its admirers. The bomb load limitation is less of a factor now that GPS guided smart bombs are available. When upgraded with radars and missiles like the AIM-120 AMRAAM and the IAI Derby, the Harrier is a deadly opponent for most fixed-wing aircraft, particularly if the Harrier is flown by a very good pilot (and American and British pilots tend to be very good). The Harrier has flown in combat in the Falklands, Iraq (both in 1991 and 2003), Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Since then, it has proven to be one of the best close-air support planes in the world, greatly outlasting the Russian answer, the Yak-38 Forger (which was retired in 1995, along with the Kiev-class carriers). The Harriers have measured up quite well in combat, and that performance led to a version of the F-35 that maintains the VSTOL capability - the F-35B. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)


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