In December 2010 the Harrier aircraft was retired from service. The Harrier was the only truly operational VSTOL jet aircraft in the world. The fundamentally simply concept of a single powerful engine with four rotatable nozzles enable fast jet operation from small and unprepared areas. It is particularly suitable for flying from small aircraft carriers, particularly if they are fitted with a 'ski jump'.
The Harrier was designed as a ground attack aircraft. Its vertical and short take-off capability means that it does not have to be based at large vulnerable airfields, and in this way for many years the Harrier provided a widely dispersible force that was far less vulnerable to detection and destruction by enemy forces. Using the same capability, the Harrier was well-suited to operation from ships without the expensive equipment of catapults and arrester wires necessary with conventional naval aircraft. The Harrier and Sea Harrier could, and did, operate from far smaller ships than the big carriers.
The Harrier was thus uniquely able to operate on austere land sites, very close to the troops that it was designed to support, giving very rapid response times. Operations could be mounted with such speed that the time from a call for support to arrival over target could be as little as thirty minutes. This was without interruption for in-flight refuelling. The ability to do this was built into every aspect of the design, systems, and operation of the aircraft. In a moving territorial campaign, the Harriers could remain based very close to the front line. They did just this with the US Marine Corps in the Gulf Wars. In this form of operation, supersonic performance was neither needed nor desirable.
Similarly the Harrier and Sea Harrier were able to operate from any ship that had a helicopter platform, and could be taken by sea to any theatre of operations in the world without over-flight permission having to be obtained, and without the use of operating airfields on third-country soil. The Harrier did not impose operational constraints of the kind customary with conventional carrier operations, such as turning into wind, phased take-off and landing, and severe restrictions in poor visibility. The Harrier is the ultimate flexible aircraft for the support of ground operations, anywhere.
The Harrier T10, two-seat trainer version of the GR7, came into service in 1995 and was fully operationally capable. the two-seat T10 which, when not used as a training aircraft, can also be used in combat.
The sharply downward-sloping wing and tailplane, and the large air intakes of the Pegasus engine make the Harrier very distinctive. The undercarriage is also unusual, in that the main wheels and nose wheel retract in tandem into the fuselage and there are two outrigger wheels that retract into housings on the wing at about two-thirds span. The cockpit glazing is large and pronounced on all versions. The T10 has a much more pronounced 'hump' for the twin cockpit and is slightly longer than the GR7.
The 1998 Strategic Defence Review included a commitment to establish Joint Force Harrier (JFH) - a joint, flexible and deployable force ideally suited to the demands of the new strategic environment. This was intended to build upon the success of recent joint operations from our aircraft carriers involving the Royal Navy's air defence Sea Harrier FA2 and the Royal Air Force's ground attack Harrier GR7. This concept involved the formation of a joint force which would be deployable as a key element of the new Joint Rapid Reaction Force. The headquarters of Joint Force 2000 was to be established in a new fixed-wing maritime group, which would also include Nimrod maritime aircraft, within RAF Strike Command under the control of a Royal Navy Rear Admiral. It was to be commanded by an RAF Air Commodore and was to be in place by the year 2000.
JFH was formed on 1 April 2000 under the command of 3 Group, Strike Command and operated two aircraft types - the Sea Harrier FA2 air defence fighter, and the RAF Harrier GR7 offensive support aircraft. On 23 February 1999, it was announced that the Sea Harrier FA2 and Harrier GR7 Squadrons would be collocated at RAF Cottesmore and RAF Wittering in 2003.
Both RAF and Royal Navy Harriers and Sea Harriers formed a single Group, No 3 based at RAF High Wycombe, in Strike Command. Uniquely, this RAF group was commanded by a Royal Navy Commodore. Further plans for the two aircraft types involved the move of the Sea Harriers from their base at RNAS Yeovilton to Cottesmore and Wittering and the eventual replacement of the two types with a single aircraft developed from the winner of the US Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) competition, the Lockheed Martin F-35.
In early 2008, the Harrier fleet underwent an upgrade. The GR.7s modified as GR.7As, GR.9s or GR.9As, while the two seat t.10s becoming T.12s. the GR.7A has a Rolls-Royce Pegasus Mk.107 power plant in place of the GR.7ís Mk.105, adding 3,000lb (13.4kN) of thrust. A total of 40 such modifications made. in addition, around 70 GR.7s, GR.7As and T.10s benefiting from an avionics and weapons upgrade to become GR.9s and T.12s, the new baseline standard for the Harrier fleet. GR.7As which have gone through both the avionics and engine upgrades are known as GR.9As.
As part of the move towards Future Force 2020, the October 2010 SDSR announced several changes to the configuration of each of the Services. The recommendations were wide-ranging and some extremely controversial. Among the proposals were: to decommission the UK's current aircraft carriers and Harrier aircraft, thereby creating a 10-year gap in Carrier Strike capability[ and to continue with the procurement of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier and procure the carrier-variant of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) from 2020. The outcome of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which set out how the Government will deliver the priorities identified in the National Security Strategy, was published Tuesday 19 October 2010. In order to meet this new structure the Royal Navy will decommission HMS Ark Royal immediately; decommission either the helicopter landing ship HMS Ocean or HMS Illustrious following a short study of which would provide the most effective helicopter platform capability, and place one landing and command ship at extended readiness.
"The current, limited carrier-strike capability will be retired. We must face up to the difficult choices put off by the last Government. Over the next five years combat air support to operations in Afghanistan must be the over-riding priority: the Harrier fleet would not be able to provide this and sustain a carrier-strike role at the same time. Even after 2015, short-range Harriers - whether operating from HMS Illustrious or HMS Queen Elizabeth - would provide only a very limited coercive capability. We judge it unlikely that this would be sufficiently useful in the latter half of the decade to be a cost-effective use of defence resources."
Fleet flagship HMS Ark Royal returned to her home port of Portsmouth for the final time 03 December 2010, ending 25 years of service to the Royal Navy across the globe. The aircraft carrier is being decommissioned early in 2011 and sailed into Portsmouth Naval Base following a brief farewell tour of the UK and a stopover in Hamburg. As the Harrier departed from the deck of HMS ARK ROYAL for the final time 10 December 2010, flown by Lt Cdr James Blackmore of the Fleet Air Arm, the event was recorded for posterity from a Sea King ASaC of 849 Squadron based at RNAS Culdrose. Four Harriers were embarked in HMS Ark Royal for her final voyage before being decommissioned next year. Fittingly, the final sortie involved practice Air Combat and was controlled by the Sea King crew using the powerful Searchwater Radar.
The British government was reported 01 November 2010 to be seeking buyers for the country's fleet of Harrier jump jets that are being decommissioned in defense cuts announced in October 2010. India and the US are seen as two possible buyers of the fighter aircraft which Britain can no longer afford to fly. The alternative will be to scrap the planes or consign them to museums. India bought around 30 earlier versions of Sea Harriers in the 1980s. Versions are also used by Spain and Italy.
In November 2011 it was reported that the US was buying Britain's entire fleet of 74 Harrier jump jets, which were controversially decommissioned in the 2010 defence review. The sale to the US marines for intended use until 2025 is expected to be finalised within weeks and raised further questions about the retiring of the much-admired aircraft, which leaves Britain without carrier strike capability until the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers in 2019. The Ministry of Defence confirmed that negotiations were in their final stages of the deal, which the Americans are reportedly paying $59 million for spare parts alone. The US Marine Corps currently operated around 120 Harrier AV-8B aircraft, including training variants, which are expected to be phased out in the middle of the next decade when the vertical landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), comes into service. The British Harriers had been kept in storage since being decommissioned in a move which the MoD said would save millions of pounds.
The demise of the Harrier jump jet, culminating in the fleet's sale for parts to the United States in December 2011, marked the irreversible beginning of Britain's carrier strike 'holiday' as set out in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. It would be nine years before the UK's fixed wing carrier strike capability is restored through the second Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier, and it may be a further 10 years before that ship, HMS Prince of Wales, was fully capable, a committee of MPs warned this week. Added to the fact that the Royal Navy will not have enough personnel to operate both carriers when HMS Prince of Wales launches in 2020, Britain's carrier holiday seems to be getting longer and more arduous. But late November 2011 also saw the announcement of the first successful electromagnetic aircraft launch system test with the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter - two key components of Britain's regenerated capability.
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