The UK Royal Navy will mourn the retirement of its last Sea Harrier fighters this week, but its Fleet Air Arm is far from finished as a fast-jet power
Twenty-four years after gaining legendary status during the Falklands War, the UK Royal Navy’s last British Aerospace Sea Harrier fighters will be retired this week, completing the service’s transition to conducting joint fast jet operations with the Royal Air Force. The Fleet Air Arm will observe this end of an era at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset on 28 March, when its last six Sea Harrier FA2s will be decommissioned, along with its last operational fast-jet squadron to fly the type: 801 NAS. The aircraft will be flown to RAF Shawbury in Shropshire the next day and be placed in storage while discussions over their possible transfer to India can be concluded over the coming months.
|The fighter, reconnaissance and strike mark I (FRS1) was the first variant|
Equipped with Blue Vixen multi-mode radar and armed with Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM medium-range air-to-air missiles, the FA2 has for more than a decade provided the UK with an aircraft carrier-capable air defence service. The type was embarked aboard an RN vessel for the last time on 28 February, following a 2002 Ministry of Defence decision to retire the fleet early rather than find an expensive and technically risky further upgrade to the Sea Harrier design.
“Although the FA2 has a capable air-defence weapons system, post-2006 it would require significant investment to remain credible until the Joint Combat Aircraft [Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter] enters service towards the middle of the next decade,” the navy says. A possible upgrade to the FA2 would have included replacement of its Rolls-Royce Pegasus 106 engine, which provides limited operating margin and weapons bring-back capability in hot conditions.
These factors led to the conclusion that the FA2 was “less viable as a platform” than the BAE Systems Harrier GR7A and upgraded GR9 platforms, says Cdr Henry Mitchell, the RN’s Commander Sea Harrier Force. The GR7/9 “is a much more relevant platform for power projection” and offers greater flexibility to support allied troops on the ground, he says. “In the Cold War bring-back was a paper exercise. Recently it has been a big issue.”
But the removal from service of its last six FA2s and two Sea Harrier T8 trainers is not the end for the RN’s fighter force. Joint Force Harrier’s squadron structure is to be transformed from 31 March, on the way to its eventual complement of four squadrons of BAE-modified Harrier GR9/9As. The Harrier GR7/7As of the RAF’s 3 Sqn will be transferred late this week to revive 800 NAS, which previously operated the Sea Harrier.
|The RN's last Sea Harrier FA2s only saw 10 years of service|
Joint Force Harrier will eventually comprise two RAF and two RN squadrons and have a roughly 50:50 split of pilots from the two services – a balance that will be retained as the UK transitions to future operations of the Joint Strike Fighter. All the command’s four frontline squadrons will be home-based at RAF Cottesmore in Rutland and supported by the RAF’s 20 Sqn operational conversion unit at nearby RAF Wittering in Lincolnshire. Meanwhile, 801 NAS will be reborn on 1 October, with the squadron to achieve full operational capability with the Harrier GR7/9 on 1 April 2007.
The future RAF and RN Harrier squadrons will be largely populated by personnel from the respective services, although the navy says a degree of “cross-pollination” will be retained to ensure that the units retain common skills and do not develop different specialities. “We have a common bond in terms of what we want to achieve in terms of airpower,” says Mitchell.
Two of 801 Sqn’s FA2s were delivered to RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall in late February to support aircraft-handler ground training, with one of its T8 trainers to be delivered to the facility this week. The majority of the squadron’s pilots have already transitioned on to the Harrier GR7/7A, although three have accepted instructor positions at RAF bases Linton-on-Ouse in Yorkshire and Valley in North Wales. Many of the unit’s junior ratings have moved to support Harrier operations at Cottesmore and Wittering, although a number of more experienced support personnel have decided not to follow suit.
While the FA2 performed admirably on its final operational exercise, recent use of the type has been marred by reliability issues linked to a fan blade upgrade to its Pegasus 106. Intended to improve the powerplant’s resistance to foreign object damage, the modification resulted in increased engine vibration and a reduction in individual blade life from 500h to around 90h.
BAe FA2 SEA
|Engine||1x Rolls-Royce Pegasus 106, producing 21,500lb (95.6kN)|
|Max speed (sea level)||540kt (1,000km/h)|
|Max operating altitude||45,000ft (13,700m)|
|Weapons loads||4 x Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAMs; 2 x AMRAAMs and 4 x Raytheon AIM-9 Sidewinders; or 3 x 450kg (1,000lb) bombs and 30mm cannon|
Mitchell acknowledges that losing the Sea Harrier’s beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile capability will strip the UK of one level of its current air defence cover, but says this shortfall can be remedied during joint operations with allied nations. “With the JSF that gap will be firmly closed,” he adds. Current plans call for the UK acquisition of the short take-off and vertical landing F-35B, although issues with US technology transfer could threaten its proposed purchase of the JSF (Flight International, 21-27 March). The UK’s new Joint Combat Aircraft will conduct land operations from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, with Cottesmore and RAF Marham in Norfolk shortlisted should a second base be required for the type.
Passage to India
India is negotiating the possible purchase of eight ex-RN FA2s, having voiced interest in the type around six months ago. If delivered, the fighters will bolster the Indian navy’s fleet of 16 Pegasus 104-powered Sea Harrier FRS51s, with the service having lost six in accidents over the past 24 years.
© Jamie Hunter / Aviacom
Eight of the RN's retired Sea Harriers could be heading to India
India’s FRS51s will by late 2007 complete a Hindustan Aeronautics-conducted upgrade, which will equip them with Elta’s EL/M-2032 fire-control radar and Rafael’s Derby beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile.
A UK MoD source close to the negotiations says an Indian delegation has already inspected the FA2s at Yeovilton, but that the agreement of a “meaningful” long-term support package with original equipment manufacturers BAE and R-R will be vital to concluding an aircraft transfer “within the next few months”. The potential sale will not include the FA2’s Blue Vixen radar, AMRAAM air-to-air missiles or radar-warning receiver equipment, while some US-sourced software will also have to be removed from the 10-year-old aircraft.
CRAIG HOYLE / RNAS YEOVILTON
Read defence editor Craig Hoyle's first hand account of exactly what it's like to fly a multi-million dollar fighter very low and very, very fast when he has the opportunity to fly in – and take control of – a Royal Air Force Harrier T10 trainer
Flight International produced cutaway drawings of the Sea Harrier FRS1 and FRS2 – the latter of which was later redesignated the Sea Harrier FA2 (pictured above).
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