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BAe Sea Harrier

Carrierborne VSTOL Strike Fighter Aircraft

United Kingdom | 1978

"The British BAe Sea Harrier became a navalized form of the revolutionary land-based Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR.3 VTOL strike platform."

Power & Performance
Those special qualities that separate one aircraft design from another. Performance specifications presented assume optimal operating conditions for the BAe Sea Harrier FA2 Carrierborne VSTOL Strike Fighter Aircraft.
1 x Rolls-Royce Pegasus Mk 104 turbofan engine developing 21,500 lb of thrust.
734 mph
1,182 kph | 638 kts
Max Speed
52,493 ft
16,000 m | 10 miles
Service Ceiling
2,237 miles
3,600 km | 1,944 nm
Operational Range
50,000 ft/min
15,240 m/min
The nose-to-tail, wingtip-to-wingtip physical qualities of the BAe Sea Harrier FA2 Carrierborne VSTOL Strike Fighter Aircraft.
46.6 ft
14.20 m
O/A Length
24.9 ft
(7.60 m)
O/A Width
12.2 ft
(3.71 m)
O/A Height
14,052 lb
(6,374 kg)
Empty Weight
26,235 lb
(11,900 kg)
Available supported armament and special-mission equipment featured in the design of the BAe Sea Harrier Carrierborne VSTOL Strike Fighter Aircraft .
2 x 30mm ADEN cannons in under-fuselage pod fairings.

4 x Matra rocket pods (18 x SNEB 68mm rockets each).
4 x AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles.
4 x AIM-120 AMRAAM medium-range air-to-air missiles
R550 Magic air-to-air missiles
ALARM Anti-Radiation/Anti-Radar air-to-surface missiles.
Martel air-to-surface missiles
Sea Eagle anti-ship missile
Coventional Drop Bombs
Practice Bombs
WE.177 Nucelar Bomb
2 x Fuel Drop Tanks
Reconnaissance Pod as needed

Up to 5,000lbs of external ordnance on four underwing pylons (two to a wing).
Notable series variants as part of the BAe Sea Harrier family line.
FRS.1/FRS1 - Initial Production Sea Harrier; single-seat strike and reconnaissance platform; entering service in April 1969; 57 examples produced.
FRS.2 - Initial Designation for Upgraded FRS.1 Sea Harriers
F/A.2 - Initial Designation for Upgraded FRS1 Sea Harriers
FA2 - Upgraded Sea Harriers; fitted with Blue Vixen pulse Doppler radar system; compatibility with AIM-120 AMRAAM medium-range air-to-air missile; deliveries beginning April 1993.
FRS51 - Export FRS1 Models for India; 23 delivered; compatibility with Matra R550 Magic air-to-air missiles.
T.Mk 4N - Navalized Two-Seat Trainer based on the Harrier T.Mk 2; sans radar system; 4 examples delivered.
T.Mk 60 - Export Version of two-seat conversion trainer for India; 4 examples delivered.
T.Mk 8 - Two-Seat Trainers with FA2 model upgrades; sans radar system; at least 7 examples delivered; since retired beginning March 2006.
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited: 06/21/2018 | Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com | The following text is exclusive to this site; No A.I. was used in the generation of this content.

The arrival of the land-based Hawker Siddeley Harrier revolutionized the British military approach upon its inception into RAF service in 1969. The system allowed for vertical take-offs and landings by providing the hovering capabilities of a helicopter with the performance capabilities of a subsonic jet. After the first successful landing of a P.1127 XP831 trial Harrier on the deck of the HMS Ark Royal on February 8th, 1967, the legacy of the Sea Harrier was born. At its core, the Sea Harrier retained all of the inherent advantages of its Royal Air Force sister while at the same time becoming a more polished air defense fighter for the Royal Navy (with ground strike capabilities as a secondary role).

Breakdown of the Harrier Family Tree

The Harrier family line consists of four major versions composed of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier, the British Aerospace (BAe) Sea Harrier, the Boeing/BAe AV-8B Harrier II and the BAe Systems/Boeing Harrier II. Confusing at first, each model does differentiate from the other in some distinct way. The initial production model and beginning of the Harrier lineage was the Hawker Siddeley Harrier. The Sea Harrier (as the name implies) became the dedicated navalized version of the base Harrier and utilized for air-defense as a primary role and ground strike as secondary. The Sea Harrier also made use of the powerful Blue Fox radar and was a direct development of the land-based RAF Harrier GR.3. The Boeing/BAe AV-8B Harrier II became a "second generation" Harrier and is a highly-modified version of the original Harrier for use by the USMC while the BAe Harrier II is a British-modified strike version of the USMC Harrier II.

Hawker Aircraft Limited was absorbed by Hawker Siddeley Group in the late 1950s and became British Aerospace (BAe) in 1977.

This article covers the original first generation BAe Systems Sea Harrier, coming after the Hawker Siddeley Harrier and before the Harrier II classes. Other models are reviewed elsewhere on this site under their respective manufacturers.


The British Admiralty was mildly interested in a sea-based Harrier and drew up a requirement in 1962 for a carrier-borne interceptor with V/STOL capabilities to replace its aging de Havilland Sea Vixens. A Hawker Siddeley known as XP831 completed a carrier-based landing on February 8th, 1963 along the deck of the HMS Ark Royal. The Royal Navy pursued development of a larger supersonic form of the Harrier under the project designation of P.1154(RN).

However, the rise of the Labor Party on the British political scene in 1964 brought about the cancellation of the P.1154(RN). Instead of funding the costly development of a new supersonic fighter, the decision was made to purchase Rolls-Royce Spey-powered McDonnell Douglas F-4K Phantom IIs and continue conventional carrier operations until 1978. By 1966, development of the British would-be CVA-01 aircraft carrier was also cancelled, setting up many-a-question mark as to the future direction of the Royal Navy. With no new conventional carriers on the horizon, the Royal Navy was in need for a viable replacement for the outgoing fleet of fixed-wing fighters. Along with Blackburn Buccaneers, the Phantom II was disbanded from Royal Navy service on December 15th, 1978 as was the conventional carrier HMS Ark Royal. The Royal Navy was essentially left without much in the way of firepower to wield in an increasingly turbulent world, limited to aircraft operating from land bases and its fleet of helicopters.

In the late 1960s, a class of "through-deck" carriers was envisioned, with its preparers staying far away from directly terming the class of ships as "aircraft carriers" for fear that funding requests could be rejected as the CVA-01 was before it. Alongside the new carriers, the Royal Navy was granted permission to look into an air defense solution based on the Harrier. Two Harrier GR.Mk 1s were used in tests atop the deck of the HMS Eagle, in both day and night operations and featuring only some slight internal system modifications to compensate for operations at sea. The British government approved of further development in May of 1975 with the new aircraft to be designated as the FRS.Mk 1 "Sea Harrier" ("FRS" for "Fighter, Reconnaissance, Strike". Three pre-production aircraft were on order followed by an order for 31 production units and a single two-seat T.Mk 4A trainer.

As it stood, the through-deck carriers became the three "Invincible-class" of ships that, though they lacked the facilities to accommodate and operate the larger conventional fixed-wing aircraft, they fit perfectly into the forte of the smallish Harrier jump jets. These ships would subsequently and collectively be known as "Harrier Carriers" and came complete with a 12-degree angled "ski jump" type arrangement at the end of the flight deck - perfect for the launching of S/VTOL (Short / Vertical Take-Off and Landing) jets. As only six of the new Sea Harriers could possibly fit aboard these new carriers, this explained the small number of production aircraft on order for the Royal Navy.

The land-based Harrier had undergone a slight evolution to become the Sea Harrier and naval strategists were not blind to the small yet powerful stature of the land-based Harriers coming online for the RAF. Taking the GR.Mk 3 as the starting point, a new redesigned forward fuselage (with folding nose cone) was built to house a Ferranti Blue Fox radar. The Blue Fox radar was pivotal for the operations of the Royal Navy's Lynx helicopters so it came as a proven system for the new Sea Harrier. This particular Ferranti product did undergo some modifications for the Sea Harrier to compensate for its air-to-air role as well as air-to-ground. The cockpit was revised as more ergonomically friendly while the pilot's seating position was raised a full ten inches to afford for better visibility out of the cockpit under a new "bubble" type canopy. The Martin-Baker Mk 9 series ejection seat was replaced by the newer and faster-reacting Mk 10 model.

The HUD (Heads-Up Display) was now be powered by a more powerful computer than that as found on the land-based Harrier. A Doppler pulse radar was fitted in place of the inertial-based unit of the GR.Mk 3 to compensate for air travel over the ocean. The Sea Harrier saw its radio system updated as well as the implementation of a simplistic form of autopilot. Vertical hovering controls were improved while the original landing gear undercarriage arrangement was retained. Though the Pegasus Mk 104 series turbofan engine received its new designation, it was nothing more than a "navalized" version of the land-based 21,500lb thrust Mk 103 series. All of the five underwing and centerline hardpoint pylons were revised for better efficiency and reaction while the outboard stations were now wired for compatibility with the AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missile. Much of the magnesium of the original Harrier construction was replayed by aluminum alloys to help retard corrosion of the metal at sea. Likewise, the folding nose cone helped keep the Sea Harrier's footprint aboard the carriers as small as possible. The trainer T.Mk 4N did not feature the space-saving hinged folding nose cone and therefore could not be stored under the flight deck. Despite all of these internal changes, the Sea Harrier weight only 100lbs heavier than her land counterpart.

The first Sea Harrier (Hawker Siddeley designation of P.1184) achieved flight on August 20th, 1978 at Dunsford and later this same aircraft became the first Sea Harrier to land on the HMS Hermes on November 13th. Development, on the whole, encountered relatively few snags along the way. No. 700A Flight squadron was formed to handle the intensive deck trials for the new aircraft and clear it for operational use. To expedite development even further, a pair of specially-modified Hawker Hunter T.Mk 8 trainer airframes were fitted with Sea Harrier equipment for critical in-flight testing of systems in action.

May 15th, 1975, saw the first quantitative production contract come through and included three pre-production aircraft as well as twenty-one production Sea Harriers. A single T.Mk 4A was also purchased by the Royal Navy and subsequently "gifted" to the Royal Air Force for allowing its pilots to train on RAF Harrier mounts in the interim. By the end of the first round, some 57 single-seat production Sea Harriers were ordered thanks to follow-up contracts and high expectations. The second production Sea Harrier (XZ451) completed her first flight on May 25th, 1979 and then came to the Royal Navy Intensive Flying Trials Unit (IFTU) at Yeovilton on June 18th of that same year. The squadron was then disbanded on March 31st, 1980 and reformed as No. 899 Squadron. The initial carrier-deployed Sea Harrier unit became No. 800 aboard HMS Invincible.

In all, four Royal Navy squadrons accommodated this new class of fighter into their ranks, these becoming the aforementioned No. 800 (established April 23rd, 1980), No. 801 (established February 26th, 1981) and the No. 899 Naval Air Squadrons (NAS). Nos. 800 and 801 represented ship-born Sea Harrier groups while the 899 was a land-based squadron that was also charged with training Harrier pilots. The 809 squadron appeared for a short time - established and disbanded in 1982 - during the Falklands War to help shore up the Sea Harrier contingent in the conflict. The 800, 801 and 899 NAS were all equally disbanded as recently as 2006.

Walk Around

The Sea Harrier essentially maintained the same external appearance and layout to that of the land-based Hawker Siddeley Harrier with the major exception being the forward fuselage. The cockpit was raised approximately 10 inches and the nose cone was completely redesigned to make room for the new radar system - a key component that the base Harrier lacked and, once installed, made the Sea Harrier a "true" fighter aircraft. The raise cockpit also improved all-around visibility for the pilot as the fuselage spine of the original Harrier all but obscured his vision to the rear of the aircraft - the critical "six" position.

Overall, however, the Sea Harrier looked every bit the part of her land-based sisters complete with her swept-back high-mounted monoplane wings, conventional single-finned tail unit and unique two-legged undercarriage complimented by two wingtip wheeled struts. The engine series remained the Rolls-Royce brand Pegasus type of which itself was a special navalized version of the Mk 103 - now marked as the Mk 104 - with an impressive rating of 21,500lb standard thrust output (Sea Harriers, like the base Harrier, were subsonic aircraft incapable of breaking Mach 1 or utilizing afterburner). The powerplant powered the four all-important thrust vectoring nozzles - a trademark of the Harrier series - affixed as pairs to the either side of the stout fuselage body. Magnesium was utilized on the outer skin of the Sea Harrier to help combat the salty nature of water-borne operations in the open sea. Different avionics were also installed and helped to further differentiate the type from her origins.

The Radar is What Made it Different

The Westland Lynx helicopter was already making good with her use of the "Sea Spray" radar suite so it was understandable evolution that this system could now benefit the new Sea Harrier. As such, the Feranti Blue Fox pulse Doppler AI multi-mode radar unit was born and supplied to the Sea Harrier line with a powerful search-and-tracking suite that was integrated to the Heads-Up Display (HUD), making the aircraft capable of tackling air-based and ground-based targets with equal fervor and lethality.

Improvements throughout her early production run eventually made the Sea Harrier a tougher opponent. The HUD was redesigned and integrated to a new aiming computer to help assist in weapons delivery. The autopilot system was revised and designed to take on more of the pilot's workload - a godsend across those hours-long sorties. The radar-warning receiver was also improved and a life-saving chaff/flare dispensing system to combat enemy missiles and radar tracking was ultimately added - the latter in April of 1982.

Arms Control

Like the RAF Harriers before it, the Sea Harrier made use of a pair of optional 30mm ADEN cannons mounted to the sides of the fuselage centerline with approximately 100 rounds per cannon. This could easily be complimented with an array of air-to-air and air-to-surface weaponry to fit the mission role up to 5,000lbs to include anti-ship missiles. Munitions were fielded on four underwing hardpoints at pylons in two inboard and two outboard positions. Outboard pylons were wired to fire the AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missile and eventually were made to field a double-launch rail for the missile.


AIM-9L Sidewinders, based on the American-made short-range air-to-air missiles, were produced by Bodenseewerke and became a staple of early air defense Sea Harriers. Sea Harriers would also become the first UK-based aircraft (as in the Sea Harrier FA2s) to field the all-important American-made AIM-120 AMRAAM medium range air-to-air missile. This missile provided for multiple target-tracking and beyond-visual-range (BVR) capability at medium ranges. The French Matra R550 Magic was another short-range air-to-air option and proved a healthy alternative to the American product the world over.

Not to be outdone by her contemporaries in other air forces, the Sea Harrier also made use of radar-defeating missiles such as the "ALARM" anti-radiation missile. Similar in scope to the American HARM developed by Texas Instruments/Lucas Aerospace, these systems were designed to detect enemy radio emissions and home in on their sources. The missile would then "ride the line" to the source and destroy the target via a proximity fuse high-explosive warhead.

Another anti-radar option became the Anglo-French Martel missile produced in two major variants as the AS 37 (radar-guided anti-radar) and the AJ168 (video-guided air-to-surface). The Blackburn Buccaneer also made use of this powerful class of weapon as did the SEPECAT Jaguar. The Martel offered up excellent range and a hefty warhead and was found suitable for use against naval vessels as well as ground-based targets thanks to the two methods of guidance and its 150 kilogram proximity-fuse detonation device.

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The Sea Eagle was a product of the British Aerospace Corporation and was classified as a medium-weight fire-and-forget anti-ship missile. Its introduction occurred in 1985 and has since been fielded by a handful of nations while frontline use of the missile continues today. The Sea Eagle uses an inertial guidance system with active radar homing capabilities and is designed to combat small, medium and large surface vessels (up to carrier-class sizes) despite the enemy use of countermeasures suites. The Sea Eagle has proven adept when launched from both rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft which made the system a given for use on the Sea Harrier (she was essentially an amalgam of both aircraft types). The Sea Eagle is a sea-skimming missile system with a range of up to 68 miles.

Nuclear, Conventional and Practice

As with any aircraft since the days of World War 1, the Sea Harrier also made use of various size conventional drop bombs (also called "iron bombs"). Original Sea Harriers were cleared for use with the WE.177 nuclear bomb as well, this until 1992, with these weapons essentially lightweight (600lb) nuclear-tipped systems intended to deter similar use of such weaponry by the Soviets. It was not uncommon to give any new aircraft design in the Cold War nuclear "tossing" capabilities like this. Practice bombs came in the form of the CBLS 100.

Rocket pods have always been a favored tool in the Harrier war chest and the Sea Harrier was no different. Four of the French Matra 18-shot 68mm rocket pods could be carried aloft as well as Royal Navy 36-shot 51mm pods.

Rounding out the available stores options were 2 x 100-, 190- or 300-gallon drop tanks for extended ranges and loitering times. The 300-gallon versions were used for ferrying the aircraft about while the 190-gallon served as an improvement over the original 100-gallon types beginning use in August of 1982. A reconnaissance pod could be utilized on those recce missions as needed.

Reconnoitering Sea Harriers

Sea Harriers were built with a basic F.95 oblique bomb camera installed along the starboard side of the aircraft nose assembly and featured an adjustable shutter speed of up to 1/3,000 seconds. The system was "basic" in that it was restricted to daytime use and was primarily utilized to help target enemy surface ships. During the Falklands conflict, this camera proved all but useless in assessing the damage post-strike of bombs dropped on Port Stanley.

The Sea Harrier FA2

The FA2 appeared as a mid-life upgrade to the FRS1 and improved upon the airframe, avionics, armament capabilities, cockpit and radar of the former. The upgrade came about when BAe was contracted to complete a definition study of their product and recommend improvements. Initial flight of the FRS.2 prototype was on September 19th, 1988. Thirty-two FRS.1 models were tabbed for conversion to this new standard while others appeared as "new-build" systems. The designation of F/A.2 was used as a replacement for the initial designation of FRS.2. Deliveries of this new Sea Harrier (conversions followed by new-builds) began in April of 1993 and lasted until 1998.

In the FA2, the Blue Fox AI radar of old was modernized to the more powerful Blue Vixen system fitting an all-new radome. Like the Blue Fox before it, the Blue Vixen was a multi-mode pulse Doppler radar unit but now applicable to operations in all-weather with tracking and targeting of multiple land- and air-based enemies through an improved suite. Additionally, the system allowed for a track-while-scan mode and "lookdown-shootdown" capability. HOTAS (Hands-On Throttle and Stick) and multifunction displays all greeted the new Sea Harrier model as did a slightly lengthened airframe.

AMRAAM capability was brought online with this FA2 and these aircraft were fielded in anger over Bosnia by No. 889 Squadron off of the deck of the HMS Invincible. Performance for the FA2 included a maximum speed of 735 miles per hour with a service ceiling of approximately 51,000 feet and a rate-of-climb equal to 50,000 feet per minute. The ferry range was listed at 2,000 miles with a combat radius of 620 miles. Maximum take-off weight was listed at 26,200lbs.

Indian Sea Harriers

India initially maintained a healthy collection of 30 Sea Harriers (designated as FRS51 and based on the FRS1) beginning in December of 1983 with these beginning service the INS Vikrant and ultimately switching to the INS Viraat. Since then, the collection has dwindled to a paltry 13 operational systems. Additionally, some seven Indian pilots have been killed in 17 crashes involving these Sea Harriers. Regardless, the Indian Navy is working on upgrading a fleet of 15 Sea Harriers (with help from Israel) and intends on fielding the system for a few more years (perhaps up through 2012 for the time being). Upgrades to the system will include support for the Rafael Derby medium-range air-to-air missile and installation of Israeli Elta ELM/M-2032 radar. Indian Sea Harriers make up the 300 Naval Squadron and represent the only foreign use of the Sea Harrier model.

Sea Harrier Variants

Since the Sea Harrier was branched off of the land-based Harrier GR.3 production models (and was only acquired in limited quantity), it maintains only a handful of variants to its name. The initial production version became the FRS1 (formally FRS.1) and entered service in April of 1969. The FRS1 was powered by a single Rolls-Royce Pegasus Mk 104 series turbofan engine allowing for a maximum speed of 1,185km per hour with a cruising speed equal to 850km per hour at 36,000 feet. High altitude combat radius was limited to 750km. Maximum take-off weight was 26,200lbs.

These specifications were improved with the arrival of the FA2 (formally using the FRS.2 and F/A.2 designations). It is these production models that first featured the powerful Blue Vixen radar pulse Doppler radar system and the first British aircraft to add compatibility for the American-made AIM-120 medium-range air-to-air missile. The final FA2 was delivered in January of 1999 and can be considered the definitive Sea Harrier in the group.

The FRS51 was the export version of the FRS1 production model and delivered to the Indian Navy. These Sea Harriers featured compatibility with the French Matra R550 Magic air-to-air missiles. Twenty-three such aircraft were delivered to the Indian Navy beginning in 1983.

Like its land-based counterpart, the Sea Harrier added a collection of two-seat trainers to its production mix. The T.4N was a navalized form of the land-based T.Mk 2 used by the Royal Air Force. These were delivered sans radar and minimal Sea Harrier instrumentation and were used to train would-be Sea Harrier pilots on the ins-and-outs encountered with the FRS1 production model. Four T.Mk 4Ns were delivered to the Royal Navy.

The T.Mk 8 was a similar two-seat trainer based on the FA2 production model and, again, delivered without the radar system. Seven such T.Mk 8's were delivered to the Royal Navy and ultimately retired from service as of March of 2006. The T.Mk 60 was the export version of the Royal Navy T.Mk 4N and delivered to the Indian Navy. Four of these twin-seat Sea Harriers were sold to India and utilized as land-based trainers.

Sea Harriers in the Falklands Campaign

The Argentine dictatorship moved in to occupy the Falkland Islands group in 1982 and the British moved into action to protect their interest. Both the Harrier GR.Mk 3 and Blue Fox/Sidewinder-equipped FRS1 were the two Harrier types involved. Sea Harriers arrived in their identifiable "Extra Dark Sea Grey" paint scheme as part of the British Task force making the 8,000 mile journey to the region. The Falklands Island chain was a collection of seemingly useless islands off of the southeastern coast of Argentina. The Argentine dictatorship saw fit to invade and wrestle these islands from British control, laying claim to them as their own. The Falklands War was the first time that Harriers of any type were to see action.

Twenty eight Sea Harriers in total were available for use by the Royal Navy with 24 of these split between the HMS Invincible and the HMS Hermes. A merchant vessel, the MV Atlantic Conveyor, became home for the remaining two Sea Harriers as well as six RAF GR.Mk 3s. No sooner were these Harriers transitioned to the HMS Hermes that the MV Atlantic Conveyor was struck and sunk by an Argentine French-made Exocet missile.

The first Sea Harrier attack sortie occurred on May 1st, 1982. Two separate strikes involved low-level swipes using cannons and cluster bombs against Argentine targets at the Port Stanley airfield and the Goose Green airfield. In response to the attacks, Argentine forces went to the air. The Sea Harriers proved their air-to-air worthiness by claiming an English Electric Canberra, a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and a Dassault Mirage with no Sea Harrier losses. The Sea Harrier fared equally well in their secondary roles when tasked as such but were relegated to air defense as more and more RAF GR.Mk 3 dedicated ground strike models arrived in the theater. From then on, the Sidewinder-equipped Sea Harriers operated in Combat Air Patrol (CAP) sorties as needed. Eventually, GR.Mk 3 ground attack models were fitted with Sidewinder-ready outer pylons for self-defense.

Further actions involved the Sea Harrier in the amphibious landing operation at San Carlos Bay. Despite more Argentine response through the air, the Sea Harriers maintained the advantage against the ill-trained Argentine air force pilots. The British recorded 23 enemy aircraft downed to just one Sea Harrier loss, and this being to Argentine ground fire. In one such engagement, a pair of Sea Harriers engaged and dispatched no fewer than four Dassault Mirage IIIEA fighters.

The Falklands Conflict brought about some in-the-field pathwork for the Harrier line. Countermeasures had always proven quite simplistic and lacking for the Harrier so a Tracor ALE-40 chaff dispenser was fitted as were Marconi Sky Shadow jammer pods, the latter taking the place of the cannon fairings.

Sea Harriers covered some 2,000 sorties in the conflict from the available 28 airframes. Just six Sea Harriers were lost in the conflict with two of these related to Argentine ground fire and the other four to accident. No Argentine aircraft could lay a single claim to destroying a British Sea Harrier in the war. In turn, British warplanes netted 32 total Argentine aircraft destroyed (21 of these through air-to-air combat). When all was said and done, this successful debut afforded the Sea Harrier one of the best air-to-air kill ratios of all time with a 90% overall mission effectiveness rating - a value that few aircraft, if any, could ever match. At their peak usage, two Sea Harriers were being launched on patrol every 20 minutes.

If the release of Sea Harriers to combat in the war had any limitations it was in the operating radius afforded to the pilots. As the Argentine Exocet-armed warplanes proved early in the conflict, British naval ships could be hit if within range to the Argentine mainland. As such, the HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes were kept a safe distance away from the heat of the action, in effect, shortening their operational range considerably. Consequently, the fuel-thirsty mounts of the Argentine pilots also limited the range and window of opportunity from which to operate in when encountering British fighters and bombers.

Though Sea Harrier in the conflict enjoyed their healthy kill-to-loss ratio, the British never attained true air superiority. Argentine aircraft could consistently get airborne if needed and it was only in kill numbers that the RAF/Royal Navy really held the advantage. The British lacked any sort of effective Airborne Early Warning (AEW) network at the time and the harsh environment of the South Atlantic worked against both parties in the conflict. Regardless, the Sea Harrier proved her worth and the Falklands War ended in a decided loss for the Argentine dictatorship.

Harrier FA. Mk 2

The Falklands War also provided for a real-time assessment stage in realizing the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the Harrier line. While some weaknesses were eventually rectified through in-the-field modifications, some were left to future improvements when possible. The Blue Fox radar did its job admirably well enough once in the field, but it was an essentially limited air-to-air implement. Despite the Sea Harrier being available for operations from sea, and therefore making enemy ships a potential target to them, the Sea Harrier had no anti-ship capabilities. The Royal Navy knew it had a proven winner on its hands but it also knew that it could be bettered in many regards.

Beginning in 1985, the Royal Navy moved to modify two Sea Harrier FRS. Mk 1 models. To alleviate the air-to-air limitations, the Blue Fox radar was replaced by the more powerful Blue Vixen radar, allowing for track-while-scan mode and true lock-down, shoot-down capability while being tied to the powerful AIM-120 AMRAAM medium-range air-to-air missile. Provision was made to mount the AMRAAM on wing pylons and two underfuselage hardpoints in place of the little-used cannon pods. The Blue Vixen, attached to a Marconi Sky Guardian ECM system, was tested aboard a modified BAC-111. Anti-ship prowess was addressed by the implementation of the BAe Sea Eagle anti-ship missile support. In one swoop, the Royal Navy now had a multi-faceted and lethal performer at its disposal. The rear fuselage was of all new construction while a new radome was fitted at to the forward fuselage. Wing leading edges were now kinked and a new navalized Pegasus Mk 106 engine of 21,500lbf (based on the USMC AV-8B powerplant) was fitted. Cockpit changes included the integration of HOTAS (Hands-On Throttle and Stick) to help simplify pilot workload in a pressure environment. The new Sea Harrier was designated as the FRS Mk 2 though a later name change resulted in the redesignation of the system to the FA.2 ("FA" for "Fighter, Attack").

The first of two Sea Harrier FA.2s achieved flight on September 19th, 1988 with the production contract coming on December 7th, 1988. The second evaluation model followed airborne on March 8th, 1989 and this same unit went to the air with the Blue Vixen system on May 24th, 1990. The production contract called for the conversion of 31 total FRS.1 models to the new FA.2 build while a further 10 new-build FA.2s were ordered. Carrier testing was accomplished over a 9-day period in November of 1990 with AMRAAM clearance tests finished in 1991.

Over Bosnia and Kosovo

The Sea Harrier was unleashed in limited numbers over the skies of Europe in the war in Bosnia (1991 through 1995) and later in the 1999 operation Allied Force. One Sea Harrier was shot down by an enemy surface to air missile though the pilot ejected safely over friendly territory. The Sea Harrier represented in this conflict were Sea Harrier FA.2's complete with AMRAAM capability operating from the flight deck of the HMS Invincible.

The Beginning of the End

With the high-tech joint venture Lockheed F-35 Lightning II set to replace a plethora of aircraft (including the Harrier series) when it becomes operational sometime in 2012, the Harrier is perhaps writing the final chapters of her well-established and irrefutable legacy. The Sea Harrier has already been retired by the Royal Navy as of March 2006, replaced by the Harrier GR.Mk 9 serie,s but the writing seems to be on the wall nonetheless for this magnificent British aircraft. The Sea Harrier had an additional shot at longevity between the time it was contemplated for retirement and when the F-35 would be coming online but the financial numbers associated with keeping the aircraft aloft for a short six years worked against the Sea Harrier.

The 150 F-35s on order are expected to operate from Britain's new Queen Elizabeth-class future carrier expected to enter service between 2014 and 2018. The HMS Queen Elizabeth and the HMS Prince of Wales are the two ships so far slated for the class. Each vessel would accommodate up to 36 advanced F-35's with VTOL capability and stealth characteristics.

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Global customers who have evaluated and/or operated the BAe Sea Harrier. Nations are displayed by flag, each linked to their respective national aircraft listing.

Total Production: 118 Units

Contractor(s): British Aerospace Systems (BAe) - UK
National flag of India National flag of the United Kingdom

[ United Kingdom (retired); India (retired) ]
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Image of the BAe Sea Harrier
A BAe Sea Harrier under deck; color
8 / 10
Image of the BAe Sea Harrier
A pair of BAe Sea Harriers ready for take-off; color
9 / 10
Image of the BAe Sea Harrier
Front right side view of a BAe Sea Harrier at rest; color
10 / 10
Image of the BAe Sea Harrier
Right side view of a BAe Sea Harrier at rest; color

Going Further...
The BAe Sea Harrier Carrierborne VSTOL Strike Fighter Aircraft appears in the following collections:
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