The Harrier heads for a half century of service.

Douglas Barrie/LONDON

THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, something dubbed the P.1127 took to the air for the first time. It was a far-from-glorious free flight, however, as the airframe was firmly tethered to the ground.

British Aerospace marked the anniversary by handing over the first of the Royal Navy's 18 new-build Sea Harrier FA2s on 20 October.

The FA2 and the Royal Air Force's Harrier GR7 are now pencilled in to remain in service for around another 20 years - which is ironic, given that the Harrier design originally met neither service's requirement.

Barry Pegram, who has been associated with the Harrier programme for over 30 years, and who is now head of Harrier airworthiness at BAe, says: "The RAF and RN requirements were both for a supersonic vertical short take-off and landing aircraft." When these requirements were killed by the Labour Government of the day, Pegram says that, "...we ended up with an aircraft that nobody wanted".

The ugly duckling that was the Hawker P.1127, however, has proved to be a cash cow for BAe and provided the RN and the RAF with a family of versatile combat aircraft.

In its latest derivation for the RAF, the GR7 will give the service a highly capable all-weather battlefield interdiction aircraft, providing that all the associated weapons are procured.

With the service-entry date of the Eurofighter EF2000 constantly changing, the RAF is keen to enhance the combat capability and survivability of the GR7. The aircraft may have to soldier on beyond 2015.

The GR7 benefits from a substantially increased wing area. Martin Rushton, BAe director and chief engineer for the Harrier programme, says that this allows "...more stores, and more fuel...the payload/range and bring-back capability is better".

All of the RAF's squadrons have had their aircraft upgraded to the full GR7 night-attack capability, having initially fielded the interim GR5 standard.

The RAF wants to equip the GR7 with the weapons which emerge from competitions for Staff Requirement (Air) 1238, for an advanced air-launched anti-armour weapon, and SR(A) 1236, for a conventional stand-off missile.

Both weapons are now intended for the Harrier fleet, although with SR(A)1238 now in its third iteration (the requirement was put on hold for a second time in the late 1980s), doubts about this ever materialising persist.

SR(A)1238, in particular, is viewed by many in the RAF as essential, if the GR7's full combat capability is to be exploited, and its survivability enhanced. The ability to carry out stand-off attacks is growing increasingly important as the quality of short- to medium-range surface-to-air missiles improves. The GR7's electronic warfare suite is also, earmarked to be upgraded.

The RAF is also keen to provide the GR7 squadrons with an organic laser-designation capability in the shape of the GEC thermal-imaging airborne laser-designator (TIALD). BAe is now studying the incorporation of the pod on to the aircraft, for use in association with the Texas Instruments Paveway II laser-guided bomb. The RN is also likely to equip its FA2s with a limited number of the pods.

The RAF's GR7 will be the first to be fitted with the BAe Dynamics advanced short-range air-to-air missile. This will provide an agile high off-bore-sight weapon, which has a better engagement envelope than the late-model AIM-9 Sidewinders now deployed.

The RAF is also beginning to receive the Harrier T10 two-seat combat-capable trainer. A total of 13 T10s is being procured, all of which will have a full night-attack capability.

AFTER THE HARRIER

The RN remains wedded to the advanced short take-off and vertical-landing (ASTOVL) concept, and the Harrier's successor will almost certainly emerge from the US/UK Joint Advance Strike Technology (JAST) programme. The RAF's position is different, as Nigel Came, who heads BAe's Harrier future programmes admits. "ASTOVL for the air force is becoming a nice-to-have rather than a must-have," he says.

With RAF procurement priorities focused on the Eurofighter EF2000 and, in the longer term, the Future Offensive Aircraft (FOA) replacement for the Tornado GR4, an ASTOVL replacement for the GR7 remains third on the priority list.

If (and it remains a large "if") the conventional derivative of the JAST design meets the FOA requirement, then the RAF could opt for the ASTOVL variant as a direct replacement for the GR7. If the JAST conventional design is not deemed capable of meeting the FOA requirement, then the UK is likely to pursue a collaborative European option. If this is the case, then an ASTOVL replacement for the GR7 would appear financially untenable.

Whatever the outcome, the UK, in the shape of the RN, is likely to remain an ASTOVL operator beyond the FA2, with the Harrier clocking up some 55 years of service before it is replaced - not a bad performance from an aircraft nobody wanted.

Source: Flight International