Naval Air: Harrier Fades Away Reluctantly


May 23, 2016: India is retiring its last Harrier vertical take-off fighter-bombers in May 2016. That leaves only three operators of the Harrier; the United States, Spain and Italy. These three nations plan to replace their Harriers with American F-35B vertical take-off jets in the 2020s. At this rate the Harrier may end up serving for at over fifty years before the last one is retired.

The Harrier was developed jointly by American and British firms and first entered service in 1969. That version was used mainly by the British Royal Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. It was an 11 ton aircraft (7 tons when taking off vertically) that carried about two tons of weapons. In the 1980s, a more powerful 14 ton Harrier II version was developed, which could carry three tons of weapons.

On the downside, the Harrier has the highest accident rate of any jet fighter. This is largely because of its vertical flight capabilities, which give it an accident rate similar to that of helicopters. India has lost over half of its Harriers to accidents and the remaining aircraft often could not fly because of a shortage of spares. The U.S. Marine Corps has lost about 40 percent of its Harriers to such accidents. Over 800 Harriers have been built.

The marines are currently upgrading many of their 140 AV-8B Harrier jet fighters to keep them in service at least until 2030. Extending the useful life of the AV-8Bs is possible largely because in 2011 Britain sold all its remaining 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 and major refurbishment of older aircraft ceased in 2003.

In 2010 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 then experienced numerous delays. 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 F-35B, which will replace the Harrier, is a 27 ton aircraft that can carry six tons of weapons and is stealthy. In vertical takeoff mode, the F-35B will carry about twice the weapons as the Harrier, and have about twice the range (800 kilometers). But that is then, the Harrier is now, and probably will still be in service by the time the 50 year mark (2019) rolls around.


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