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Still a force to be reckoned with...Sea Harrier - still alive & kicking!

Gary Parsons visits 899 Squadron during its recent ACMI visit

Despite rumours to the contrary, the Sea Harrier is still alive and kicking, training continuing regardless of the recent political decision to axe the fleet by 2006. True, some SHARs have already been retired with one now performing 'guard' duties at Yeovilton's main gate, but all three squadrons continue to train and maintain their effectiveness should they be called into action.

On 28 February 2002 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.

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...


899 visits Waddington twice a year for ACMI training, each time enabling three fresh pilots to gain experience of air-to-air combat against different adversaries. This time was the turn of Leeming's Tornado F3s to pit their wits against the Navy's finest and the Harrier's viffing technique - two very different types of aircraft, but each enjoying a similar success rate against the other. Each will play attacking red or defending blue forces, with the Tornados deliberately flying 'clean' to give them a better chance against the nimbler Harriers - the navy pilots thought this wasn't terribly 'sporting'!

Current plans will see one of the front-line squadrons disband in April next year, with 899 following in 2005 and the other front-line unit by 2006. Exactly when the transition to Harrier GR7A/9 will happen isn't clear, but logic would dictate that the joint OCU at Wittering will form before 800 and 801 Squadrons become operational at Cottesmore - this suggests a mid-2005 timetable for a joint 899/20(R) Squadron formation. Whatever, 899's disappearance will be brief, ensuring its tradition of training Navy pilots continues.

800 Squadron

800 NAS was formed on 3 April 1933, together with 801, with which it has a strong bond and friendly rivalry. Its motto, "Nunquam Non Paratus", means "Never Unprepared", and it was the first jet unit within the Fleet Air Arm. First aircraft in 1933 were Hawker Nimrods, the navalised version of the Fury, and during the Second World War the squadron operated from HMS Ark Royal, flying Blackburn Skuas against such targets as the battleship Scharnhorst. Sea Hurricanes replaced the Skuas later in the war to support the North African landings, and towards the end of the war Hellcats from the unit helped 617 Squadron in the destruction of the Tirpitz.

Seafires followed post-war, then the first jets in the shape of the Sea Hawk FGA6 during the Suez Crisis, flying from HMS Albion, progressing through the Scimitar and Buccaneer until disbandment in 1972. Re-formed on 31 March 1980 with the Sea Harrier FRS1, the squadron saw action in the South Atlantic two years later with HMS Hermes, its pilots being awarded many decorations for their heroic efforts against the Argentine forces.

801 Squadron

Commissioned on 28 January 1981 with the Sea Harrier, 801 Naval Air Squadron provides air cover and overland support for ground troops when required. Equipped with eight aircraft, 801 is normally based at RNAS Yeovilton or operated from the Invincible class carriers, but can easily operate from any type of runway in the style of its RAF counterpart, the Harrier GR7.

Formed in 1933 as a Fleet Fighter Squadron, 801 saw extensive service during the Second World War protecting the Malta convoys, battling in North Africa and against the German battleship Tirpitz. Types flown throughout the conflict included the Skua, Sea Hurricane and Seafire. It later saw action in Korea, with the Sea Hornet and Sea Fury, and in 1982 was heavily involved in the Falklands conflict where eight Argentine aircraft were shot down by the Squadron's recently acquired Sea Harrier FRS1s. More recently it has seen action in Yugoslavia and Bosnia, losing a Sea Harrier in the latter while trying to defend a town against Serb tanks.

899 Squadron

899 Squadron can claim to have formed the basis for the modern-day flying element of the Australian Navy, as it was used as a Operational Training Unit during April to September 1945 to train ex RAAF aircrew who had transferred to the RAN, Supermarine Seafire F111 aircraft operating from HMS Arbiter and HMS Indomitable. The squadron originally formed at Hatston in December 1942 as a fighter squadron with twelve Seafire IICs, and in March 1943 embarked on HMS Indomitable for the Mediteranean to take part in the landings on Sicily. When the ship was damaged by a torpedo the squadron disembarked at North Front, Gibraltar. In August the squadron embarked on HMS Hunter to provide cover in the landings in Salerno the following month, one detachment being shore based at Paestrum.

In April 1944 the squadron embarked on HMS Khedive with twenty Seafire LIIIs and took part in the landings in the south of France in August 1944. In September 1944 the squadron took part in attacks off Crete and Rhodes, subsequently spending most of winter at Long Kesh.

In February 1945 the squadron embarked on HMS Chaser with 24 Seafire LIII, and subsequently disembarked at Schofield, Australia in April 1945 to became the Operational Training squadron with the task to train experienced former RAAF pilots for naval duties to form the nucleus of the Australian Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Australian Navy. The squadron was training on HMS Arbiter on VJ-Day.

Post-war, by 1956 the Squadron, by then flying Seahawks, took part in the Suez Campaign, and ten years later, equipped with the Sea Vixen, enforced the Beira Blockade during the Rhodesian UDI Crisis. A Sea Vixen of 899 NAS was the last aircraft to leave Aden after the British withdrawal in 1967 and carried the Union Flag back to HMS EAGLE. The Squadron disbanded in 1972.

It reformed in 1980 with the Sea Harrier FRS1 and became the Royal Navy's fixed wing training squadron. Despite periods embarked in HMS Hermes during the Falklands Campaign and a detachment to HMS Invincible for operation in the Adriatic and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Squadron has continued in the training role, upgrading to the FA2 in 1993.

Sea Harrier - dogfighter extraordinaire

The FA2 version of the Sea Harrier is a development of the FRS1 which, with a much improved avionics and weapons system, has a greater emphasis on air-to-air combat capability. Installation of the Blue Vixen radar in the more bulbous nose (compared to the FRS1) and equipment with the AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles has given it capability in the Beyond Visual Range (BVR) combat scenario. With the FA2 entering service in September 1993, all surviving FRS1 airframes have been converted and eighteen new build ones received. This versatile all weather (day or night) aircraft can also carry out a variety of other tasks including close air support of ground forces, anti-ship attack with the Sea Eagle missile and reconnaissance, and can also operate, very successfully, with the laser guided bomb, as has been shown during operations in the former Yugoslavia.

A total of 57 FRS1s was built between 1978 and 1988, 22 of which have been written-off. All existing FRS1 aircraft have been converted to FA2 standard, and a total of 52 has been received by the Navy, including the 18 new-build machines delivered in the mid-nineties.

Credits: Royal Navy website, CRO RAF Waddington


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