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Sea Harrier

In 1966, after a major Defence Review, the British Govern­ment decided to disband fixed wing naval aviation and its Navy's aircraft carriers. The British Navy managed however to safeguard its air arm by obtaining sanction for the "Through Deck Cruiser". This was basically a flat topped ship, without catapult or arre­stor gear which would operate the short/vertical take off and land (STOL/VTOL) Harrier aircraft which were then under develop­ment. The subsequent addition of a ski-jump in the bows enhanced the aircraft operating potential of the ship.

The ground version of the Harrier entered service in the Royal Air Force in 1969. The US Marine Corps ordered the Harriers for their amphibious assault ships. The Royal Navy then asked British Aerospace to develop a maritime version of the Harrier (to be called Sea Harrier) for the roles of shipborne air defence and strike, with a specific requirement that it be able to withstand the corrosive marine environment. The Indian Navy decided to await the developments of the Sea Harrier.

In 1977, Government approved the acquisition of 8 Sea Harriers, including 2 trainers. The first British Sea Harrier flew in 1978. By mid 1979, it was undergoing intensive flying trials. In 1979, NHQ placed an order for 6 Sea Harriers and 2 Harrier Train­ers for delivery in 1983. The Sea Harrier entered service with the British Navy in 1980. In 1982, it proved its capability in the British operations against Argentina in the Falkland Islands.

The training in Britain of Indian Sea Harrier pilots started in 1982. The first three Sea Harriers landed at Dabolim on 16 December 1983. The first Sea Harrier landed on VIKRANT's deck on 20 Dec 83.

On 03 June 1983, INAS 300 – The White Tigers squadron personnel assembled at RNAS Yeovilton, Somerset, for the Sea Harrier induction. Three batches of IN pilots finished conversion on the Harrier. On 16 Dec 83, three Sea Harriers namely, SH 603, 604 and 605 were ferried to India and INAS 300 reformed at INS Hansa under the command of, then, Cdr Arun Prakash. By the early 1990s, the Navy had 26 Sea Harrier fighters and four trainers in its inventory. The squadron was since been the very core of the Naval Air Arm’s offensive capability and the pride of the Navy.

INS Vikrant, India’s first aircraft carrier was acquired from Great Britain and commissioned on 04 March 1961. On 18 May 1961 Lt Cdr RH Tahilhiani (later Admiral and Chief of Naval Staff) landed the first Seahawk, piloted by an Indian, onboard the INS Vikrant. In December 1983 the Sea Hawks were bid adieu and the squadron inducted the Sea Harrier FRS Mk 51 aircraft. Over the years these aircraft have proven themselves after having been eye-to-eye with the best in the business viz the carriers and the flying machines of the American, French and British navies.

India acquired HMS Hermes, a Centaur class STOVL carrier and a veteran of the Falkland War. INS Viraat was commissioned on 12 May 1987 as India’s second aircraft carrier and India’s first STOVL carrier operating the Sea Harrier aircraft. Soon after the acquisition of INS Viraat, INS Vikrant was also converted from a CATOBAR carrier to a STOVL (Short Take-off and Vertical Landing) carrier. INS Vikrant was decommissioned on 31 Jan 1997, after 36 years of service under the Indian ensign.

The Indian Navy’s fleet of Sea Harrier hovered at the end of 2007 at a perilously low figure of 13 aircraft—nine fighters and four twin-seat trainers—which raised serious doubts on its capability to defend its fleet at the sea. The greatest threats for a carrier battle group out at the sea is from long-range maritime patrol and strike (LRMP/S) aircraft which operate far beyond the range of the ship’s sensors and surface-to-air missiles. An LRMP/S like the P3-C Orion can fire up to four Harpoon missiles, each with a range of over 120 km.

A single hit from an anti-ship missile can disable a carrier and prevent it from launching aircraft. The only weapon the navy has to speedily intercept enemy aircraft are the Sea Harrier jump jets. Now consider this alarming scenario. Over the next five years, the task of protecting the carrier battle group—the Viraat, destroyers, frigates and fleet tankers—will fall on just nine Harriers or just half a squadron of aircraft. This is less than half the required strength of fighter aircraft.

The total number of Sea Harriers with the navy came down to 13 by 2007. Since 1983, seven pilots have died in 17 crashes involving the Sea Harrier. India inducted a fleet of 30 Sea Harriers in 1983, using 25 of these for operational flying and the remaining to train pilots. More than half of the fleet was gone, lost mostly to routine sorties.

A Sea Harrier of the Indian Navy crashed at Dabolim Air Station in Goa on December 25, 2007 while it was attempting a vertical landing. The pilot of the aircraft, Cdr Janak Bevli ejected to safety, an Indian Navy officer said. The crash took place at 11.15 am when the pilot returning from a “routine sortie” was landing, the officer said.

“There has been no loss of any other property or person in the accident. A Board of Inquiry has been ordered to investigate the cause,” the officer said. Sources said that the pilot, Cdr Bevli, is among the most experienced fliers of the aircraft that the navy has. “He was attempting a vertical landing,” an official, who did not wish to be named, revealed.

In about the last one year, this was the fourth accident involving a Sea Harrier. The last crash involved another Sea Harrier that went down while trying to land on the Naval carrier INS Viraat during the Malabar naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal. Another fighter had plunged into the sea in Goa after it took off, killing the pilot. Sea Harrier pilots were considered the cream of naval fliers.

The navy said it was concerned but refused to divulge reasons behind the spate of crashes which have destroyed over 60 per cent of the Harrier fleet. Yet at least one crucial factor unifies most recent crashes: all of them occurred while the aircraft were making their landing approach suggesting a loss of control and loss of power in the final stages of landing. Clearly, an engine related issue in an aircraft that is already 25 years old. “The navy conscientiously maintains its aircraft but perhaps there are some components deep inside which are not apparent at regular inspections,” says former navy chief Admiral (retired) Arun Prakash, who flew in the first Harriers in 1983.

The spares for the Sea Harrier aircraft were procured in 2003 from the Original Equipment Manufacturer of the aircraft in the UK. No spares for the Sea Harrier are being procured from the US.

In 2005 defence minister Pranab Mukherjee announced that HAL would upgrade Sea Harriers. The limited upgrade of the 13 aircraft would give them Israeli Elta radars and Derby BVR missiles. The aircraft are to be delivered by 2009 and will serve the navy for another decade, With the navy deciding to extend the life of the Viraat by another decade and the Harrier already out of production in the world, analysts feel it has no option but to purchase second-hand aircraft from the UK.

The upgrade of the Harriers was carried out by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) in Bangalore and the first Limited Upgrade Sea Harrier (LUSH) jet is set to fly in the next six months. This upgrade will deliver to the navy a formidable interceptor. Its new Elta EL/M-2032 radar can spot the enemy from over 100 km away and its Derby Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missiles can engage them at 60 km.

Unfortunately, at the current crash rate of nearly two aircraft every year it seemed doubtful that there will be any Harriers left to last through another decade [ie, to nearly 2020] the navy wanted them to be in service.

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Page last modified: 30-10-2015 19:05:43 ZULU