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Carry On, Harrier looks at the future of the Royal Air Force's Harrier Force on its withdrawal from operations in Afghanistan.


Harrier GR9 ZD433/45A of 1(F) Squadron taxies in at RAF Cottesmore on July 1 2009 on return from Afghanistan. Key - Gary Parsons

Rumours of the Harrier’s demise seem to be greatly exaggerated – on April 23 the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, Quentin Davies, announced the signing of a major maintenance contract with BAE Systems that will see the aircraft through to its previously published out-of-service date in 2018.

At a sunny RAF Cottesmore in mid-April, the signs were for an equally bright nine years ahead for Joint Force Harrier, even though the aircraft is being withdrawn from Afghanistan later this year. The Minister gave some assurances in a press briefing that the aeroplane was safe in this government’s hands and will play a key role in Britain’s defence through the next decade, despite speculation on Internet forums that the Chief of the Air Staff was offering the type for disposal to meet stringent Treasury demands.

Harrier GR9 ZG500/71 was the latest conversion at the time of our visit on April 23. Key - Gary Parsons
The new contract, the Harrier Platform Availability Contract (HPAC), is worth £574 million over the next nine years and will ensure continued availability of Harriers to support frontline forces, as well as securing up to 300 civilian jobs on site and at BAE Systems sites at Warton, Samlesbury and Farnborough. BAE Systems underlined the importance of the contract by tagging it as a ‘major milestone for the company’. Under the HPAC contract, BAE Systems will take over responsibility for depth maintenance jointly with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Navy (RN) at Cottesmore – the RAF and RN will continue to carry out day-to-day flightline maintenance.

Up to 15 current contracts, including the Joint Upgrade and Maintenance Programme (JUMP), are being incorporated into HPAC. A recent report by the National Audit Office on fast jet support stated that BAE Systems’ existing contracts have already reduced the cost of maintaining the Harrier by £109 million, helped cut the cost per flying hour by 44% and made an additional eleven aircraft available to the frontline. The awarding of HPAC follows the signing of a ten-year £198 million contract with Rolls-Royce in January for the support of the Pegasus engine.

BAE Systems employees work closely with their MoD counterparts. Key - Gary Parsons
Group Captain Andy Ebdon, MoD Defence Equipment and Harrier Integrated Project Team Leader, said “We’ve been working on a transformation programme for Harrier for seven years with the challenge to reduce support costs. It’s been a series of incremental steps and we’ve gradually built up confidence with industry in a partnership manner. One of the bigger steps was JUMP, initiated in 2004, to consolidate all aircraft maintenance into one hangar where we do all the scheduled maintenance and upgrade activity for the GR9 programme. That has been a very successful programme. We met our in-service date on time in 2006 and were able to deploy to Afghanistan just four months later.

“Having built on the confidence gained through JUMP, we now have a full availability contract that covers all aircraft maintenance, full technical support and a very large part of the supply chain. It will now see us through to the end of the aircraft’s service life in 2018. Manning levels won’t change. The new contract is about extending current activity.

“It’s very much a partner programme, but not a case of the MoD handing over full responsibility to industry and saying ‘thanks very much, please get on with it’. We have shared facilities with clearly defined responsibilities. We have industry, RAF and RN personnel working alongside each other.

“In terms of savings, it provides £70 million over the life of the contract. It’s also an incentivised contract for industry to find ways of even greater cost savings. We’re very excited about it. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work by both industry and MoD.”

Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, Quentin Davies tries out a Harrier T12, closely advised by Group Captain McCann. Key - Gary Parsons
Quentin Davies gave the Government’s view on the importance of Harrier to the nation: “The Harrier will soon be withdrawn from Afghanistan. Five years is a very long time and we deserve a break. But we’re far from the end of the life of the Harrier. It will go on until 2018 and be gradually phased out as the JSF is phased in towards the end of the next decade. The contract we’re signing today will last the full length of that time; it gives us assurance that we have first-class service and support available and it gives BAE Systems and industry the assurance of the terms under which they will operate. There are a number of flexible mechanisms incorporated to cater for contingencies.

“I’d like to pay a tribute on behalf of the whole country to the absolutely incredible job which the Harriers have been doing for the last five years in Afghanistan. There’s never before been an occasion when the Harriers have been providing valuable support to our armed forces in a very difficult operation.

“We now look at procurement and logistics together, something we didn’t do in the past, which is why I’m called the Minister for Equipment and Support. This is an availability contract. We instruct industry to provide 45 available aircraft and a number of flying hours; they decide how they do that, how many spares they need. We have clear terms and conditions. There’s a sense of jointery, not just between the light blue and dark blue, but also with industry. We’re buying availability, not just a piece of hardware. We’re buying outputs, not inputs.” The contract has flexibility to allow for surge periods of high demand and an increase in capacity up to 20%, but normally will require 45 GR9s and 7 T12s to be available for operations from a pool of 66 and 9 respectively, which is a particular challenge regarding the two-seat T12 with only two reserves to play with. The recent loss of a Harrier T12 in Cyprus on February 9 is stretching two-seater availability. Group Captain Ebdon confirmed that a recent review had looked at purchasing US Marine TAV-8Bs, were they were considered too far from RAF standard to be viable.

Harrier GR9 ZD346/13 fresh from the JUMP on air test in April 2009. All Harriers will be adopting the lighter-grey scheme to suit maritime operations. Key - Gary Parsons
The last GR7 will go through the GR9 upgrade process at end of this year. It takes about six months for conversion, against three months for normal deep-level maintenance. HPAC is split into phases, with the aircraft statically progressing through the phases until Phase 11, the flight test.

“We’re making a fuss about the Harrier being 40 years old, but the Harriers we have here are, of course, Harrier IIs introduced in the mid-eighties,” said Group Captain Ebdon. “There’s a lot of composite material in it, there’s a lot of life left in it. It’s a very strong structure and could go on longer than 2018. The GR9 upgrade has given it reliability in avionics systems, a new mission computer, and a new weapons control system and has done away with a lot of obsolescence.” There are 49 GR9s available from a fleet of 66 single-seaters.

It was thought by industry observers that the Harrier’s rear fuselage may need to be replaced before the aircraft’s out-of-service date. “Not so,” said Group Captain Ebdon. “Rear fuselage issues have not materialised – the aeroplane is very strong. We have a 6,000-hour airframe life, which extends beyond 2018 (current fleet average is between 2,500 and 3,000 hours). A ten percent extension could also be possible if required – there’s life in the old girl yet!” Another factor in that equation is low fatigue life – operations in Afghanistan have not dented fatigue as much as the RAF had expected although flying hours are high, as most operations are conducted at medium altitude. Operating in a sandy, hot and high environment hasn’t raised any significant maintenance requirements either – “The worst thing for us is salt in maritime operations,” said Group Captain Ebdon.

From early next year, the single-seat fleet will be standardised as the GR9. All GR9s can take the uprated Pegasus 107 engine, of which the RAF has 39. The 107s will be fitted as operational tasking requires, so there is “no such thing as a GR9A.” Previously the GR7 required modification to accept the Pegasus 107, hence the interim designation of GR7A.

Group Captain Ken McCann, JFH Commander April 2009. Key - Gary Parsons
With the withdrawal of the Harrier from Operation Herrick in Afghanistan from this September, there has been speculation that the whole Harrier force would be offered for Treasury cuts, prompting a ‘capability gap’ until the arrival of F-35 in 2015. But the Harrier’s success in Kandahar operating in an austere environment has highlighted its flexibility, something the British Armed Forces could miss very much if any new expeditionary operation is undertaken. Group Captain Ken McCann, Commander of Joint Force Harrier since September 2007 and veteran Harrier pilot with more than 3,000 hours, spoke about the challenges of being in JFH: “Each squadron – 1 Squadron, 4 Squadron and the Naval Strike Wing – have each done four months in Afghanistan every year for the last five years, and that has worked very well.”

“For the boys and girls flying the aeroplane, we’ve got at least nine years flying ahead of us, which in a young pilot’s life is important. There is no shortage of pilots – we still have many volunteers coming through the training system who want to fly this aeroplane – it is iconic. Nobody should be in doubt; it is the best pilots that the flying training system can produce that come here to Harrier because of the additional demands of stopping an aeroplane before you land it! It is a demanding aeroplane to fly, but a very rewarding one. I am blind to the colour of uniform – they either make the grade or they don’t.”

Harrier GR7 ZD329/10 on the GR9 conversion line. Note the peeling 801 NAS markings on the tail. Key - Gary Parsons
Since the amalgamation of the Sea Harrier squadrons, JFH has been operating as a three-squadron force, but the intention has always been for four – two RAF and two RN. The Naval Strike Wing has been operating under the guise of 800 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) since 2006, with 801 NAS rumoured to be reforming year on year.

“There’s every chance that the second Fleet Air Arm squadron will form in the future,” said Group Captain McCann, “but we need to get the timing right – what I do not want to do is to stand it up for any other reason than we’re ready and it makes sense to do so. The structure we have now with three squadrons rotating as they have done has served us well – before we change that structure we need to be ready in terms of supervision. We also need to get clarity on the stand-down of Harrier squadrons and the work-up of F-35 squadrons. We need to maintain the capability.”

After Afghanistan, Harrier’s future will be a mainly maritime one, being used to create a pool of experienced pilots ready for the transition to F-35. The drawdown will commence in 2015, assuming F-35 is on time, with the first JSF squadrons forming at RAF Lossiemouth during that period. Of course, this plan is only as certain as the next defence review or change of Government, and with public borrowing at an all-time high, some hard decisions are going to be made in the next three years on the country’s ability to maintain its defence posture in the world.

Filed Under Military Aviation Features.


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