The UK Ministry of Defence has contracted BAE Systems to maintain its Harrier GR7/9 ground attack aircraft for the next nine years, but programme officials say the bulk of the fleet could fly until 2022 without major additional work.

Worth £574 million ($850 million), the Harrier Platform Availability Contract will deliver "depth" maintenance and technical support services for the short take-off and vertical landing type at Royal Air Force base Cottesmore in Rutland. Building on previous partnering agreements on the Harrier, the deal is expected to save at least £70 million by the aircraft's planned out-of-service date in 2018.

"The contract represents a real win for the MoD, RAF, Royal Navy and industry," says Steve Millward, BAE's managing director, Harrier and Tornado. "We will deliver the right numbers of aircraft with the right capability at the right time." The MoD signed a separate support deal for the Harrier's Pegasus 105/107 engines late last year with Rolls-Royce.

Harrier Paveway IV
 © Crown Copyright

Including RAF and RN squadrons, the UK's Joint Force Harrier has 67 single-seat GR7/9s and nine Harrier T10/12 trainers, with 52 of these declared to the forward operating fleet.

The MoD currently plans to phase in its replacement Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighters from 2015 to 2018, and recently ordered three STOVL aircraft to participate in US-led initial operational test and evaluation activities.

However, "by the time we get to 2018 we aren't necessarily going to be in the last throes of the aircraft, and if we needed to use it longer we believe we could", says Harrier integrated project team leader Gp Capt Andy Ebdon. Each airframe is expected to deliver 6,000 flight hours, with the potential to grow this by 10%. "The aircraft are being managed carefully now to get to the 6,000h mark, but it doesn't come in 2018," says Ebdon.

The RAF's 1 Sqn in April assumed close air support responsibilities at Afghanistan's Kandahar airfield from 4 Sqn, which returned to Cottesmore after a four-month detachment. The Harrier's five-year commitment to NATO's Afghanistan mission will stop around mid-year, with RAF Panavia Tornado GR4s to be deployed to Kandahar after the completion of aircraft upgrades and delayed base infrastructure work.

BAE's ongoing Harrier GR9 upgrade will see the aircraft receive Capability D- and EA-phase equipment from mid-2009, says Ebdon. This will include digital Joint Reconnaissance Pod integration and the addition of MBDA's Brimstone air-to-surface missile, which has recently undergone during firing trials with the Harrier at the China Lake test range in California.

Source: Flight International