UK Harriers debut with Sniper pod

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BAE-led targeting upgrade enters use in Afghanistan

The UK's Joint Force Harrier has flown its first missions in Afghanistan using the Lockheed Martin Sniper targeting pod acquired under an urgent operational requirement deal with BAE Systems earlier this year.

Intended to boost the combat effectiveness of the UK's BAE Harrier GR9/9A ground-attack aircraft, the new sensor was used for the first time on 18 May, less than two months after contract signature, says Nigel Davey, BAE's business director, Harrier.

BAE has now delivered 32 of the UK's eventual fleet of around 70 modified Harrier GR9s and T12 trainers to be upgraded under a project worth about £500 million ($990 million). The first two GR9As to be deployed operationally arrived at Afghanistan's Kandahar airfield last January, where the type is committed to remain in use until 2009.

The UK Royal Air Force is conducting operational clearance work on the GR9's Capability C enhancement package, which will introduce the 225kg (500lb) Paveway IV precision-guided bomb and successor identification friend-or-foe system from later this year. BAE also recently conducted the first test firing of an MBDA Brimstone air-to-surface missile from a Harrier, with the weapon to form part of a Capability D package to be released next May.

A contract for the programme's last current planned phase, Capability E, is now being defined and should be signed later this year, introducing secure communications equipment and a Link 16 datalink from 2009-10.

Davey says the GR9 programme's combined maintenance and upgrade line at RAF Cottesmore in Rutland has already demonstrated its ability to meet surge requirements in support of the Afghanistan campaign, and adds that BAE is confident of signing an availability-based contract with the Ministry of Defence before year-end. This agreement will see the company provide support for operations of the Harrier until the type's planned out of service date in 2018-19, although industry sources suggest this could be extended further.