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JOINT FORCE HARRIER - The future is not Sea Grey

Harrier T8 ZD990 at Wittering, March 2002 - a sight not to be seen much moreGary Parsons looks at the recent announcement of the demise of the Sea Harrier.

On 28 February the Armed Forces Minister, Adam Ingram, announced the strategy to take forward Joint Force Harrier (JFH) into the era of the Future Joint Combat Aircraft (FJCA) and the Future Carriers. In announcing the plan he said: "Recent commitments to the next phase of the Joint Strike Fighter programme, confirmation of the order for a further three Type 45 air defence destroyers, and the entry into service of new smart weapons have given renewed impetus to the offensive role of Joint Force Harrier. These have allowed us to plan with greater certainty its way ahead, taking it into the era of the Future Joint Combat Aircraft and the future carriers. We have concluded that Joint Force Harrier should migrate to an all Harrier GR force maximising investment in one aircraft type. It is further planned to upgrade the GR7 to GR9 to ensure a credible expeditionary offensive capability is maintained until the aircraft leaves service." A MoD spokesman was quoted in the 'Daily Mail' as saying "These days we don't fight the kind of wars where our ships need defending from enemy warplanes far out at sea. Aircraft Carriers are now mostly supporting shore operations by flying strike missions and it makes far better sense to spend our money on Harriers which can do that best. If necessary, we can rely on coalition forces to provide to provide the outer air defence for surface ships."

This signalled the end for the venerable Sea Harrier. Despite recent upgrades, it will be retired sooner rather than later, commencing from 2004 and be done by 2006, the previously planned move to Wittering and Cottesmore also cancelled. The MoD stated that the planned withdrawal of the Sea Harrier reflects certain limitations in its capabilities, and the introduction later in the decade of the new Type 45 destroyer which boasts a "very capable area air defence system" (the Type 45 will be equipped with ASTER and is due in service during 2007). The Strategic Defence Review of 1999 had included a commitment to establish JFH, building on the success of Royal Navy and RAF Harrier aircraft operations in joint carrier air groups. It was a radical initiative to form a truly joint, flexible and deployable force optimised for the demands of the new strategic environment and at the time envisaged operating two aircraft types - Sea Harrier FA2, an air defence aircraft flown by RN personnel, and Harrier GR7, an offensive support aircraft flown by RAF personnel.

Both types need expensive structural work, and early Sea Harrier airframes are approaching 25 years old. GR7 needs a replacement back end to combat accelerated fatigue - this is being done as part of the planned GR9/GR9A upgrade. Also, because of its poor serviceability, the Sea Harrier cannot provide adequate Air Defence cover unless a certain number of aircraft are embarked, making it impossible to embark sufficient GR7s for offensive support operations (it also underlines that our current carriers are to small and the need for the larger Future Carriers under consideration). The ultimate plan for JFH is to operate a common aircraft type, which will replace both current aircraft types. This aircraft is currently designated the Future Joint Combat Aircraft (FJCA) with an In Service Date of 2012 and will be Britain's version of the F-35, or JSF as it is more commonly known. The current plan will see two RAF and two RN squadrons operate from Cottesmore with the combined OCU at Wittering, initially with GR9/GR9A until JSF.

GR7The Harrier GR9/9a programme is basically the Harrier GR7 Integrated Weapons Programme (IWP) which brings together a number of discrete weapon-system enhancement projects and forms the crux of bringing the GR9 and T Mk12 aircraft into service. The programme builds upon the current capabilities of the GR7 and T10 in terms of the cleared legacy weapons and by the integration of the smart weapons; Storm Shadow, Brimstone and latterly ASRAAM. Although the introduction of these smart weapons is the backbone of the IWP, the GR7 requires various system upgrades before it can operate these weapons effectively. Principally, a state-of-the-art MIL-STD-1760 Stores Management System (SMS) is required, which combined with the new High Order Language (HOL) Operational Flight Programme (OFP) software and a new Open-system Mission Computer (OSMC) will permit the aircraft to interact with the weapons. The smart weapons also necessitate the introduction of a new Inertial Navigation System/GPS (INGPS), which is capable of providing the weapons with navigation data via the 1760 SMS. Improvements to the aircraft display system will also be required to cope with the additional symbology requirements. On safety grounds, the Programme also covers the introduction of a Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS). Furthermore, the IWP covers two studies looking to expand the flight envelope of the aircraft. The first, BRCP 779, is exploring the forward centre of gravity (CG) limits of the aircraft in an attempt to reduce the existing CG management workload on the operator. The second study, BRCP 821, aims to increase the all-up mass of the aircraft to 34,000 lb, and perhaps beyond, to cover heavyweight roles such as Storm Shadow. This work is being contracted to BAE SYSTEMS as the prime contractor in two or more phases. The contract for the first of these phases, known as IWP1, was awarded on 2 December 1999. A GR7 that has been through the IWP programme will be designated GR9.

Also planned for GR9 is the provision of enhanced Pegasus engines in the form of the Mk107, which provides approximately 3,000 lbs extra thrust, for approximately 40 airframes. To allow the Mk107 to be fitted to the Harrier GR7, a number of airframe and systems modifications are required and it is planned to carry out these and then install the Mk107 during the Harrier GR9 Programme. A GR7 Harrier that has been modified during IWP and that has the Mk107 Pegasus fitted will be designated as the Harrier GR9A. In the meantime, the IPT will be working towards placing a contract with BAE Systems for the Mk107 integration aspects as well as developing the Mk107 support package. Combined BAE Systems and Defence Evaluation & Research Agency (DERA) flight trials are planned to commence in 2001 and the first production Harrier GR9A is due to enter service in 2003. The net cost of the project is approximately 110 million.

One aspect of the Sea Harrier that will be sorely missed is its air-to-air BVR capability as the GR7/9 does not, and will not, carry a radar of such potency as he FA2's Ferranti "Blue Vixen" track-while-scan, multi-mode, Pulse Doppler unit. The future lack of air cover available to the Navy until JSF has been the subject of much discussion since the announcement of 28 February - one remembers the statements of Duncan Sandys in the late '50s that pilots were a thing of the past. Let's hope that the events of Operation Corporate are not forgotten, and that something similar doesn't happen in the next ten years or so...

Acknowledgements: BAE Systems, RAF, RN, PPruNe


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