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Harrier III - back to the future?

With the succesful test flights of both STOVL JSF contenders (see News) Boeing and Lockheed Martin can now concentrate on winning the overall competition. However, even with this milestone passed the future of the JSF, and the STOVL variant especially, is far from secure. BAE Systems are rumoured to have a fall-back plan to develop the Harrier to fill the gap that any cancellation of the STOVL JSF would leave. In this special feature, Nicholas Binns looks at the potential for the development of a 'Harrier III'.

JSF v Harrier III - by Nicholas Binns

The JSF project is rightly regarded as one of the most important aviation projects ever undertaken. For the first time service chiefs have had their heads banged together and a degree of common sense has emerged. After all, look at joint service aircraft such as the Phantom - naval aircraft first, then adopted by the airforce. The Buccaneer and Sea King are similar examples of succesful aircraft operated by naval and air forces. The basics needs of land and sea-based operators are not all that different - if I were an American taxpayer I would look at the F14 and F15, and the F16 and F/A18, and ask “what is the difference?”

However, joint projects have a poor record. The F-111 on one side of the Atlantic and P.1154 on the other were both deliberately ruined by service chiefs throwing their toys out of the pram. One has to question what is the future of the Osprey? Originally 602 for the Marines, 231 for the Army, 50 for the Navy and 50 for the Air Force. Now they are down to an initial tranche of 16.

So let us take a cynical view and make a prediction. The much-vaunted winner-takes-all JSF competion is instead split, with the U.S. Navy getting one company’s product and the U.S. Airforce the other. Technical lobbying to a Government that is not well disposed to foreign countries produces the scrapping of the STOVL option. The Boeing version compromises the 2 CTOL types too much, courtesy of engine positioning and too large a fan for everything except vertical flight. The Lockheed idea relies on an unproven clutch and does not take into account the vital transition phase of the STOVL aircraft. (It is quite easy to make an aeroplane take off vertically. Also easy to make it fly in a straight line. Going from one to another is the difficult bit.)

So everyone rushes back to the Harrier. Now effectively approaching its half century (I work from Michel Wibault’s original concept date - 1956). How do we make it better? What are the limitations of the Harrier? Well thanks to brilliant aerodynamic work by McDonnell Douglas in the 1970/80s, it is now seen to be able to carry more than a pack of cigarettes around a football field. Is it fast enough? Stealthy enough? Safe enough? Easy to operate? What is the primary role?

Let me answer my last question first. In a word, flexibility. If you want an aircraft to fly out to support a counter-insurgency operation in Africa, it had better be the Harrier - unless you have a 90 000 ton carrier nearby. Likewise if you want to transport aircraft into combat on a container ship. Want to give close support to rapid reaction troops in the Gulf? Harrier again. If you are a small country and want an aircraft carrier, there is only one way. Bazan or Fincantieri will do you a very nice one, but there will be only one kind of plane on the options list.

So its carrying capacity both in terms of fuel and warload is OK as is, except if you want to come back to a carrier or landing zone with weapons and fuel aboard. Fuel can be ditched, but do you really want to ditch £2 million worth of hi-tech missiles? Remember the problems that the Sea Harrier F/A 2s had in the Gulf? Of course it might have been a good idea to put the AMRAAMs somewhere else than in the nozzle efflux, but I am only concerned with weight at this point. In pure combat the Harrier is perfect. Load it up with fuel, bombs, missiles and cannon shells; off it goes from a ski jump at 31,000lbs or 26,000lbs (depending which wing you have!). Back it comes 2 or 3 hours later, stops, then lands at 14,000lbs. Nice! But in the modern mission it is not always possible to unload all ones armament at the enemy.

BAe 'Harrier III' model from 1990

So more power is the cry. How much more can Rolls get out of a 1950s design that is, at heart, an Orpheus? Is there another way to achieve our objective?

Back in the 1950s the word was VTOL, then common sense recognised that if you could take off, even over a short run, then life was much easier and the term became STOVL. Why not equip the Harrier III with an arrestor hook; call it STOBAR and it would then be able to land back on carriers at much higher weights. Yes, there would be structural issues, but BAe put a hook on a Hawk - why not a Harrier? It would still have the option of VL, as this is better and safer. Everything else that is normally beefed up for naval use is strong enough already.

Can we make it faster? Do we need to? After all compare the Mirage v Harrier scores from the Falklands. Also the Mujadheen shot down a number of Soviet jets, and how many Afghan rebels can travel at supersonic speed?

A model of a possible Harrier III shown by BAe at Farnborough in 1990, the product of joint investigations with MDC.

Stealth may be an issue, which will go in and out of fashion. After all, JSF and Harrier II+ both have radar, so how stealthy can they be? We cannot be that far from a radio wave jammer that can cause radar reflections to go to places other than the receiver. The horribly unstealthy intakes of the Harrier do need some shielding. In IR terms some say the 4 nozzles are worse than one, but there is no doubt that if you really want to attract a Sidewinder, you switch on your afterburner.

How about folding wings? The Harrier is pretty small as it is, but in terms of a carrier hangar, the narrower the better. Since the Harrier II moved the outriggers inboard, it has looked possible to me.

I hope that by now enough people reading this have an image of a 21st century Harrier III. A little more power, another landing option, more sensible weapon carriage and some detail design improvements.

Nicholas Binns. June 2001

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