AV-8B Harrier Operations
During the 1982 Falklands Conflict a total of 28 Sea Harriers and 14 RAF Harrier GR3s were eventually deployed to the South Atlantic. Over 1,100 combat air patrol missions and 90 offensive support operations were flown by Sea Harriers and 125 ground attack and tactical reconnaissance sorties by Harrier GR3s. These aircraft were a major success, showing themselves to be flexible, robust, reliable and effective. Sea Harriers, which are intended largely for air defence, were also employed in the ground attack and reconnaissance roles: the Harrier GR3s, primarily ground attack aircraft, were converted within a week to use Sidewinder AIM 9L air-to-air missiles in the air defence role. There was 95% availability at the beginning of each day and 99% of all planned missions were flown. Sea Harrier demonstrated itself to be more than a match for Argentine conventional fixed wing aircraft with 20 confirmed and 3 probable kills, of which 16 and 1 respectively are attributable to Sidewinder AIM 9L missiles. Six Sea Harriers were destroyed, of which two were lost to enemy fire-one to small-arms fire and one to a Roland surface-to-air missile. Three GR3s were also lost to enemy fire, all to ground gunfire. Most aircraft engaged in offensive support survived damage, which usually resulted from intense Argentine anti-aircraft gunfire. The need was demonstrated for certain improvements to Sea Harrier to provide greater endurance and weapon carrying capacity and a better radar. As a result, Sea Harriers, starting with those already deployed in HMS Illustrious, were given greater endurance by the fit of larger drop tanks, and increased armament by the fit of four rather than two Sidewinder missiles.
Operation Desert Storm in 1991 was highlighted by expeditionary air operations performed by the AV-8B. The Harrier II was the first Marine Corps tactical strike platform to arrive in theater, and subsequently operated from various basing postures. Three squadrons, totaling 60 aircraft, and one six-aircraft detachment operated ashore from an expeditionary airfield, while one squadron of 20 aircraft operated from a sea platform. During the ground war, AV-8Bs were based as close as 35 nautical miles (40.22 miles) from the Kuwait border, making them the most forward deployed tactical strike aircraft in theater. The AV-8B flew 3,380 sorties for a total of 4,083 flight hours while maintaining a mission capable rate in excess of 90%. Average turnaround time during the ground war surge rate flight operations was 23 minutes.
During April and May 1999 the 26th MEU participated in Operations Noble Anvil and Shining Hope. While supporting Noble Anvil, the unit participated in the NATO bombing Campaign in Kosovo with AV-8B Harrier Attack Aircraft. Marines aboard USS Kearsarge acted as the Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel (TRAP) Force as AV-8B Harriers showed their strength overhead by participating in the NATO bombing campaign over the former Republic of Yugosalvia (Operation Allied Force). The Marine Corps provided an outsized contribution to the air campaign as well. In addition to the expeditionary Prowlers, VMFA(AW)-332 and -533 F/A-18Ds deployed to Taszar, Hungary. Complemented by 12 AV-8B Harrier IIs from Nassau and Kearsarge, together they flew nearly 500 sorties, destroying significant high-value targets. Marine Corps aircrews, along with supporting ground forces, maintained a continuous Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel alert throughout the conflict. During the 1999 campaign in Kosovo, RAF Harrier GR7s were deployed. At the beginning of 1999, eight Harriers deployed to a base in Italy, together with two Tristar tankers, to support the Kosovo Verification Mission. This force was increased to 12 Harriers in late March. In the main, these aircraft dropped either cluster bombs, gravity bombs or precision guided weapons. RAF Harriers conducted cluster bomb attack on munitions storage site in Kosovo on 18 April 1999. No aircraft were lost during the campaign.
In July 2000 Aviation Systems Command ordered a temporary suspension of flight operations for a portion of the Marine Corps' AV-8B Harrier fleet. The decision to temporarily suspend flight operations was based upon preliminary engineering findings that pointed to the number three engine bearing assembly in the F402-RR-408 engine as the likely cause of an engine fire that resulted in the loss of an AV-8B during a training mission at Twenty-Nine Palms, CA on 21 June 2000. The pilot of that aircraft ejected safely. Officials addressed concerns about the number three engine bearing assemblies when they previously ordered a recurring 15-flight hour oil sampling/analysis process. Although these precautions successfully identified problems in at least two engines recently, they were unable to identify the symptoms of the impending failure that led to the June 21 mishap. Until the cause of this latest engine failure is fully under-stood, Naval Air Systems Command ordered suspension of flight operations to ensure the safety of the pilots and aircraft. The F402 Engine Group team to include Rolls Royce, Naval Aviation Depot, Cherry Point and the Naval Air Systems Command Team, completed their review of the engineering findings of the investigation. At that time, the commander of Naval Air Systems Command determined the course of action required to return the fleet to flight status. This action affected 105 AV-8B Harriers, 11 of which are deployed. AV-8B aircraft with F402-RR-406 engines installed were not affected by this flight restriction because of a different number three bearing design.
During the late-2000 WestPac deployment on LHA 1 Tarawa the Aviation Combat Element (ACE) for the 13th MEU(SOC) was Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-161 [HMM-161 Reinforced]. This unit included 12 CH-46E Sea Knight medium lift helicopters, four CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters, four AH-1W Super Cobra gunships, two UH-1N utility helicopters and six AV-8B Harrier attack jets. The Marine Corps grounded all of its Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing jets 12 July 2000 due to problems with the main engine bearing. This grounding initially included all of HMM-161's Harriers. Four of the newer-model Harriers were relocated from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, AZ, directly to USS Tarawa to replace the grounded ones. Squadrons often swap aircraft in order to accomplish the mission. In this case, the mission was to deploy six active Harriers with the 13th MEU(SOC). During the late-2000 Mediteranean deployment on LHA 2 Saipan, the Aviation Combat Element (ACE) for the 26th MEU(SOC) was Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 264 (HMM-264 Reinforced). This unit included 12 CH-46E Sea Knight medium lift helicopters, four CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters, four AH-1W Super Cobra gunships, two UH-1N utility helicopters and six AV-8B Harrier attack jets.
By July 2001 the Marine Corps' AV-8B Harriers had returned to full deployment status after undergoing major engine repairs and other systems enhancements to resolve Harrier engine problems and the slowly improving mission capable rate of the Harrier fleet. Harrier squadrons deployed a detachment with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) in the Western Pacific, and deployed with the 26 th MEU on the East Coast and the 15th MEU on the West Coast. Commanders have implemented necessary training and qualification courses, to regain pilot proficiency and experience lost during the Harrier grounding.
All-too-often, pilot proficiency degrades during the six-month deployments. A common post-cruise complaint is that there is just not enough quality flying. This is an obvious risk considering that these pilots fly a high performance, single-engine, single-seat airplane at night aboard ship as their primary mission.
The surveillance and precision approach radars found on many of the amphibious ships would be unacceptable by USN Carrier standards. Yet, USMC Harriers perform very similar missions from these small-deck ships, often in support of real-world operations, and in a wide range of weather conditions during both day and night. And, they do this without any self-contained approach capability. These deficiencies have been known for many years and although upgrades to these systems have been planned, they are continuously being delayed or diluted as amphibious ship upgrades fall victim to budget priorities. As a result, the embarked squadron's flexibility is severely hampered when rapidly changing weather conditions prevail. The lack of capability and dependability seen in these systems often causes squadrons to hold their aircraft on deck just in consideration of the potential for change in the weather. When aircraft are airborne, they are always at risk to rapidly changing weather.
AV-8B shipboard operations continue to be of concern, since the community experiences relatively poor success in its efforts to become truly integrated as a relevant weapon system for the deployed MEU (SOC). At program inception, the AV-8B was a credible attack platform with a unique and very relevant basing capability. Over time, increasing both system capabilities and the basic performance of the aircraft reinforced these attributes. The Night Attack and Radar/Night Attack variants were the results of these efforts. However, despite a substantial level of effort on the part of the Marine Corps, the aircraft still lacks an appropriate synergy of attributes that would make it truly relevant in today's operational environment, which now focuses primarily on support of the Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) (MEU(SOC)).
Although the Radar/Night Attack aircraft have excellent night vision and navigation suites, they lack a targeting pod and future weapons capabilities (JDAM/JSOW) which would provide the day/night precision strike, standoff, lethality, urban engagement and minimum collateral damage effects required in the most foreseeable scenarios. Although the aircraft possess excellent navigation and digital communication systems that would enable them to conduct all-weather Close Air Support (CAS), they lack a compatible protocol that will permit communication with the USMC's emerging ground digital terminal. Although the amphibious basing capability and radar of the Harrier II+ provide the opportunity to provide force protection for our amphibious shipping and assault support evolutions, the aircraft lacks a beyond-visual range air-to-air weapon system that can provide the full range of protection that is required. Last, and certainly not least, the aircraft is uniquely available to meet the MAGTF's ground attack needs. This is particularly true with regard to the provision of responsive CAS support and tightly integrated Armed Reconnaissance. Unfortunately, the AV-8B is susceptible to IR missile threats and its vulnerability is less than desirable in exactly those types of employment scenarios.
To sustain its warfighting capabilities, the Harrier requires investment in four key areas: precision targeting, connectivity, force protection, and survivability. Investments should be focused on providing maximum platform relevance to the MEU(SOC) mission. Due to hardware limits with the current architecture, most of these upgrades hinge on incorporation of computers with increased processing capability such as the Open Systems Core Avionics Requirement (OSCAR). OSCAR is a Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) technology program that replaces some of the critical avionics with commercially available processors using higher order language. Increasing this capability is a critical requirement if an upgrade path for the aircraft is to be maintained.
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