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FA2 Sea Harrier

Occasionally British industry and ingenuity has produced classic and highly successful weapon systems at a sensible price. In modern times, the Harrier and the Sea Harrier are prime examples of this. In 1979, the Sea Harrier cost 12 million per aircraft, was extremely reliable and versatile, deployed to the South Atlantic in 1982 and won the air war over the Falkland Islands in spite of the overwhelming numerical odds against it (the Mirage III fighter, the Mirage 5 Dagger and the A-4 Skyhawk).

A review of MoD history demonstrated that a clear conflict of interest emerged between the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy fixed wing Fleet Air Arm. To remain a third single Service, the RAF needed to demonstrate that they had a substantial war fighting role. To do that they needed to take over all flying, Navy and Army, rotary and fixed wing. This would be on the basis that airpower is indivisible and must be kept in the hands of a capable single Service. However, the carrier battle groups of the Royal Navy with the Fleet Air Arm embarked continued to demonstrate their utility and flexibility at many trouble spots around the world since the end of World War II.

The role of the Royal Navy carriers was not primarily to defend the fleet, but it is in line with the expeditionary doctrine that underpins our defence policy, much more about the ability to project power a distance, precisely the point Sir Jock made. The Sea Harrier makes little contribution to this frankly. The GR7 makes a much more substantial one and will make an even greater one when it is upgraded to GR9. That is the first point.

Clearly Sea Harrier provided a useful defence against attacking aircraft, but in general terms it offers no protection against sea-skimming missiles launched from ships, from submarines, from land or from aircraft standing off from distance and that is something that those who attack this decision have never tried to answer. The real issue here is that Sea Harrier does not help against sea-skimming missiles from wherever they are launched. Now, that sea-skimming missile is now assessed to be the primary threat to maritime assets.

The FA2 is a single seat multi-role day/night all-weather aircraft, whose roles in Air Defence and Surface Attack were interchangeable according to the tactical requirement. It is the only true multi-role jet aircraft in service in the UK inventory. Optimised for operations from ships at sea, it's short take-off and vertical landing capability has dramatically enhanced the ability of the Invincible class of Aircraft Carriers to project air power in support of UK interests worldwide. The F/A2 is charged with providing the Air Defence for the Fleet at sea and has the secondary roles of reconnaissance, strike and close air support. The aircraft is equipped with Blue Vixen multi-mode Pulse Doppler Radar, and is armed with the advanced medium range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM), making it one of the world's most potent naval fighters.

The FA2 is essentially a modified Harrier GR3, an all-metal aircraft that was withdrawn from RAF service in the late 1980s. The GR7 is of a more modern design, is largely constructed of composite materials and designed to accept the more powerful Pegasus 11-61 engine similar to the one used by the US Marine Corps.

The Royal Navy Sea Harrier FA2 program consisted of 52 aircraft: 18 were purchased from new and a further 34 were converted from Sea Harrier FRS1. The conversion program was completed in 1999. Allowing for attrition losses, By May 2000 the Royal Navy had 47 Sea Harriers of which 29 were available to meet operational requirements. Of the remainder, a number were undergoing updates to the navigational system. The balance was held in reserve. By mid-2001 there were 19 Sea Harrier FA2 aircraft in the sustainment fleet, available to sustain an operational fleet of 28 Sea Harrier FA2s. The sustainment fleet includes those aircraft formerly considered as the attribution reserve fleet.

Approval for airframe modifications to the Sea Harrier FRS1 to enable uprating to FRS2 standard with Blue Vixen radar and advanced medium range air-to-air missiles was expected in 1988. Work to update the Sea Harrier air defence fighters began in 1983 at British Aerospace for the aircraft conversion and Ferranti for the Blue Vixen radar. The first FRS 1 aircraft was to be delivered to British Aerospace for conversion to FRS 2 standard in 1990. In March 1990 the Navy placed an order for a further 10 Sea Harrier FRS2 aircraft to replace those likely to be lost through attrition and sustain the Sea Harrier capability. It was planned that 29 of the Royal Navy's Sea Harrier FRS 1 aircraft were to be modified to FRS 2 standard. There would also be two development aircraft, making a total of 31. The FRS.2 development was dropped in favor of Sea Harrier F/A.2 featuring enhanced capabilities for air defense such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile. All 33 Sea Harrier FRS1 aircraft operated by the Royal Navy at the time of the conversion program were upgraded to FA2 standard.

The Royal Navy's three aircraft carriers, HM Ships Invincible, Illustrious and Ark Royal, with their aircraft offer a very potent form of sea power. They provide an excellent platform for command and control as well as extensive communications. This capability is complimented by the flexibility of the air group. Now, in addition to the advanced Sea Harrier FA2 Fighter/Attack aircraft, the aircraft carriers can carry RAF ground attack Harrier GR7s as well. While Sea Harrier FA2 remained one of Europe's most potent air defence aircraft, power projection of a carrier air group was enhanced with the integration of specialist ground attack RAF Harrier GR7.

The Sea Harrier FA2 was withdrawn from service in the period 2004 to 2006. Although the FA2 had a capable weapon system, it is constrained by a lack of performance in some areas, and after 2006 required significant investment for it to remain credible until the F-35 entered service. In addition, even with an upgrade the FA2 could not match the capability delivered by the upgraded Harrier GR9 in the offensive support role. Furthermore, the design of the Sea Harrier predates the more modern GR7 by a considerable number of years. The decision to scrap the Royal Navy's 24 Sea Harriers in 2006 will leave aircraft carriers without air cover until the introduction of the joint strike fighter in 2012. The entry into service of the Type 45 destroyer equipped with PAAMS from 2007 will increase the ship-borne air defence of the fleet. The Sea Harrier FA2 will become increasingly obsolescent as the decade progresses.

The aircraft to form the strike force of the Navy's new aircraft carriers is the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and Britain signed a 1.3 billion deal with America to procure this aircraft. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) will replace the Navy's Sea Harrier FA2 and the RAF's Harrier GR7 with 150 of the new single-seat supersonic aircraft which will then take their place on the flight decks of the Navy's new aircraft carriers that were due in service by 2012 under initial plans, and in 2023 as of 2013.

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Page last modified: 24-05-2014 18:58:04 ZULU