Issue 11 - Harrier: The Harrier Abroad

Published: 08:54AM Jul 28th, 2011
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Overseas customers for the Harrier were surprisingly few. Interestingly, all the foreign air arms to operate the Harrier bought their aircraft through the United States with two exceptions.

Issue 11 - Harrier: The Harrier Abroad

The Italian Navy McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II Plus aircraft can now carry the AIM-120. Caliaro Luigino

With the exception of the British and US armed forces, who were partner countries in building the aircraft, there was little interest shown by other nations in ordering large numbers of the unique Harrier. However, several overseas customers were forthcoming, the largest order coming from the Indian Navy. Spain, Italy and Thailand also ordered both early- and late-model Harriers, and all still keep the aircraft in frontline service today.

Aside from these countries, Hawker Siddeley did have expressions of interest from a number of others, including Australia, Brazil, Switzerland, India and Japan.

Interestingly, after the political thaw in East–West relations during the 1970s, the Chinese Air Force entered into negotiations, but this deal was quashed as part of the adverse reaction to China’s invasion of Vietnam in 1979. Below are listed the countries who did buy the Harrier, and the types they purchased.

Spanish Navy

Spain’s interest in the Harrier was complicated by long-standing political friction between the British and Spanish governments during the 1970s, particularly over issues like Gibraltar. In order to complete the deal for six AV-8Ss and two TAV-8Ss, as the Spanish version of the Harrier AV-8A and TAV-8A were known, the aircraft were sold through the US, which acted as an intermediary to avoid any political entanglements or embarrassments. Both aircraft were powered by the Pegasus 11 Mk 150 with 21,500lb (9752kg) thrust and were equipped with mostly US avionics.

The aircraft were given the company designations of Harrier Mk 54 for the single seaters and Mk58 for the two seaters by Hawker Siddeley, but known as the VA-1 and VAE-1 in Spain. They were built in Britain, then shipped to the McDonnell Douglas factory in St Louis to be assembled and delivered. Thus it appeared the deal was brokered between the US and Spain, and political honour was satisfied. In Spain, the aircraft were called Matadors and operated from the airfield at Rota and the aircraft carrier Dédalo, formerly the USS Cabot (CVL-58). In 1980 BAE sold a second batch of five single seaters directly to Spain without difficulty or political repercussion.

In March 1983, the Spanish Government signed an order with McDonnell Douglas for 12 AV-8Bs, making the country the first overseas customer for the Harrier II. The aircraft were powered by the Pegasus 11-21 Mk 152-42 with 21,450lb (9730 kg) thrust and known as EAV-8Bs to the manufacturer but designated as VA-2 Matador II in Spain. The first aircraft were delivered on October 6, 1987 to the Naval Air Station at Rota and were purchased to serve on board the new Spanish aircraft carrier.

Named the Príncipe de Asturias, this was fitted with a ski-jump and cleared for Harrier operations in July 1989, the Dédalo having been retired in 1988. The 12 EAV-8Bs were all allocated to 9a Escuadrilla which was was formed on September 29, 1987 to become part of the Alpha Carrier Air Group. In March 1993, Spain ordered eight more AV-8Bs, this time the Harrier II Plus radar equipped version of the aircraft, as well as a single example of the TAV-8B two seat trainer. This contract was extended in 2000 when Boeing and the Naval Air Systems Command agreed to modify 11 of the original EAV-8Bs to Harrier II Plus standard with the addition of the radar, new avionics and an uprated engine. The new build and modified aircraft are both powered by the Pegasus 11-61 or F402-RR-408 of 23,800lb (10,795kg) thrust and can carry the AIM-120 AMRAAM air to air missile. The first new build aircraft were delivered to ➤ Rota in 1996 and later were deployed as part of the NATO forces participating in Operation Deny Flight over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Royal Thai Navy


The Spanish Navy negotiated a deal with the Royal Thai Navy in 1992 for seven of its original fleet of single seat AV-8As and two of the two seat TAV-8As. The aircraft were operated from the light aircraft carrier HTMS Chakri Naruebet, which was built in Spain by IZAR and delivered in August 1997. The Thai Harrier pilots were trained in the US during 1995, then converted on to the AV-8A at Rota in Spain during 1996. The aircraft are all operated by 1 Squadron, part of the First Air Wing and are based at U-Tapao. In order to delay any problems with acquiring spares for the aircraft, as the same time as it purchased the Spanish aircraft, the Thai Government also bought a number of ex-US Marine Corps AV-8As from storage.

The entire fleet of nine Spanish aircraft were delivered during 1996 and 1997, and remain in service today. The aircraft are no longer known as Matadors, the Thai Navy adopting the original name of Harrier.

Indian Navy

The Indian Navy was interested in the Sea Harrier to form the air wing of its aircraft carrier INS Vikrant (the former HMS Hercules). In 1983, six Sea Harrier FRS.51s and two Harrier T.60s were ordered, both powered by the Pegasus 11 Mk 151 with 21,500lb (9752 kg) thrust. The FRS.51 was identical to the FRS.1 with the exception of some avionics and other detail changes, including the ability to fire the Matra Magic air to air missile. The T.60 was the equivalent of the RAF’s Harrier T.4. The first three FRS.51s were delivered by a direct ferry flight from the UK, covering 4800 miles from Dunsfold to land at Goa, the home of 300 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) of the Indian Navy. A further 10 FRS.51s were ordered in 1985, along with another two T.60s, the last of this order being delivered in 1991. Due to the high accident rate experienced in service, a further seven FRS.51s were ordered in 1991 and delivered during 1992. The INS Vikrant was retired from service and scrapped, being replaced by the INS Viraat, which was fitted with a ski-jump in 1991. INS Viraat was formerly HMS Hermes, of Falklands War fame. Lastly, in 2002, another two T.60 aircraft were delivered, having been modified from two former RAF T.4s and designated as T.4Is by BAE. Israeli Aircraft Industries has begun an upgrade to 15 of the Indian Navy’s Sea Harriers. This includes fitting the Elta EL/M-2032 radar and ability to carry the Rafael ‘Derby’ medium range air to air missile. It is intended that the Sea Harrier will remain in service until beyond 2012, after which it will be steadily replaced by the MiG-29K carrier fighter which will operate from the new aircraft carriers it is planning to acquire. Currently, the entire Indian fleet of Harriers is operated by 300 NAS, known as the White Tigers.

Italian Navy

In 1968, Hawker Siddeley demonstrated the Harrier to the Italian Navy on board the helicopter carrier Andrea Doria, piquing Italian interest in acquiring the aircraft.

Strangely, an Italian law of 1937 prevented this acquisition, as fixed wing aircraft were solely the responsibility of the Italian Air Force, the Navy were forbidden to operate anything except helicopters. It was not until this law was repealed in 1989 that the Navy was able to pursue its interest any further. During the late 1980s, both the Sea Harrier and AV-8B were the subject of a prolonged evaluation by the service.

In May 1989, this resulted in an initial order for two TAV-8Bs, but built to Harrier II Plus standards with the Pegasus 11-61 or F402-RR-408 engine of 23,800lb (10,795kg) thrust. These two aircraft were delivered to the Primo Gruppo Aereo Marina Militare at Grottaglie in August 1991, and were used for proving flights on various Italian ships, including the aircraft carrier Guiseppe Garibaldi. While these first trainer aircraft were being built in the US, a contract was negotiated for a further 16 AV-8B Harrier II Plus single seat radar equipped fighters. The first three of these were built in the US, the rest were assembled in Italy by Alenia Aeronautica from kits supplied by Boeing. The first three single seaters were delivered in 1994 to MCAS Cherry Point, where Italian navy pilots underwent conversion training. In January 1995, the Italian Navy Harriers conducted a three month deployment to Somalia as part of a stabilisation force following the UN withdrawal from that country. During the mission, the Harriers flew reconnaissance and other sorties from the Guiseppe Garibaldi and maintained a 100% availability rate, an impressive reliability record.

Words: Tim Callaway

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