U.S. Marine Corps leadership recently decided to extend the service life of the fleet of AV-8B Harrier II attack aircraft to 2028.
The U.S. Navy has awarded defense contractor Boeing with a $71.3 million contract to upgrade its T/AV-8B Harrier II short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) capable fighter jets, of which approximately 80 are currently in active service. The contract for upgrades is accompanied by a further $16 million contract for engineering and support for the Harrier II fleet.
“We will continue to be a fourth-gen/fifth-gen fleet out until about 2030, with Harriers probably going to 2028 and F/A-18s going to 2030-2031,” said Lt. Gen. Steven R. Rudder, the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for aviation. He testified April 4 during a hearing of the Tactical Air and Ground Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.
The Harrier, based on the British-designed Hawker-Siddley Kestrel, entered service in the Marine Corps in the 1980s. Its twin intake Rolls Royce engine produces more than 23,000 pounds of thrust, enough to rocket the sleek 24,000 pound aircraft into flight in less than 844 feet, the length of the Bonhomme Richard. With a maximum speed of nearly 650 miles per hour and a range of 2,400 miles, the Harrier has extended the reach of the Marine Corps across entire regions and strategic sea-lanes during the last three decades.
The AV-8B, technically a vertical/short takeoff and landing aircraft, combines maneuverability, adaptability, reliability and inherent combat-power into its 46-foot frame. It launches into flight in roughly seven seconds, using the aft-facing sea breeze to generate lift beneath its 30-foot wingspan, to provide close-air-support to ground troops with one 25 mm cannon and up to 9,200 pounds of ordnance.
As the F-35B enters service onboard the U.S. Navy’s Wasp and America Class assault ships in fast-growing numbers, the usefulness of the Harrier II is increasingly limited.
The number of years the platform has left in service are numbered, though Spain’s inability to afford the F-35B and Italy’s recent cancellation of its order for the platform – also largely a result of its deteriorating economy – means that the aircraft in foreign service could considerably outlive their U.S. operated counterparts.
The F-35B for its part, while arguably the least combat capable of all fifth-generation fighters including its land and supercarrier based counterparts the F-35A and F-35C, appears to eclipse the capabilities of the Harrier across the spectrum – flying faster, further, and with overwhelmingly more powerful sensors and electronic warfare systems. The Harrier II is unlikely to see combat again, and will most likely not be deployed to contested theatres such a the Asia-Pacific where the F-35B is increasingly being relied on to counter the growing capabilities of America’s near-peer adversaries.
Marine Corps extended the Harrier’s service life in view of delays of the delivery F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike.
To date, the F-35B aircraft has deployed on two amphibious assault ships, USS Wasp and USS Esse