U.S. Marine Corps Harriers Are Getting Better and Better
New aviation plan gives jump jets new missiles, electronics
The U.S. Marine Corps has decided to bring forward the retirement date of its 108 AV-8B Harrier jump jets from 2030 to 2025. But in their remaining decade of front-line service, the diminutive attack jets could get a host of upgrades—including new weapons, jammers and communications.
An unsafe and unreliable design for much of its long history, the subsonic Harrier has gotten better with age—and could bow out of service at the peak of its lethality.
The jump jet updates could go a long way toward transforming the Navy’s 10 assault ships into veritable light aircraft carriers. Until the Marines bring the F-35B vertical-takeoff stealth fighter into service starting in 2016, the Harriers are the only fixed-wing planes that can launch from and land on the assault ships, which lack the space and catapults of the Navy’s full-size carriers.
The Navy and Marines have long wanted the assault ships to fill in for carriers on some missions—but to do that, the smaller vessels need better fighters. The Harrier upgrades are a step in that direction.
The enhancements start with the single-engine plane’s sensors. In the first half of 2015, according to the Marines’ new aviation plan, the AV-8B will finally get the full software installation for the Litening targeting pod, which gives the jump jet a powerful day and nighttime camera that can also guide smart missiles and bombs to their targets during ground-attack missions.
The Litening is also a useful air-to-air sensor—able to detect enemy planes without the Harrier needing to switch on its radar, which can betray its own presence to the bad guys.
In 2015 the Harriers will also get an electronic messaging system, allowing troops on the ground to request close air support without having to talk to the jump jet pilots on the radio.
After that, the Marines will fit the AV-8Bs with new digital radios and also Link-16 datalinks—another form of voiceless comms that helps planes, ships and ground stations swap target data. The jump jets will also get new jammers for scrambling enemy radars and communications.
And in the “near term,” according to the aviation plan, the Harriers will benefit from “expanded carriage” of the AIM-120 AMRAAM medium-range air-to-air missile.
In theory, any Harrier with an APG-65 radar—most of the Marines’ jump jets carry the sensor—can fire AMRAAM missiles at targets beyond visual range. The British Royal Navy fitted AMRAAMs to its own upgraded Sea Harriers way back in the early 1990s, before prematurely retiring the jets in 2006.
But in practice, the U.S. Marines’ Harriers never carried AIM-120s, instead packing just a couple short-range Sidewinder infrared-guided missiles for self-defense. That’s because the American jump jets were mostly bombers—and because the enemies they usually bombed typically lacked jet fighters of their own. The Taliban, for instance.
Today the Marines are refocusing on the prospect of high-tech warfare against a powerful foe—Russia, China, North Korea or Iran. The Harriers need to be able to fight their way through enemy air patrols before attacking ground targets, a skill the Marines call “self-escort.”
West Coast Harrier squadrons began practicing with AMRAAMs in 2011. In August this year, the East Coast squadrons started training with the missiles, too. “By working air-to-air flights into our training plans, we increase our confidence in the jet,” said Capt. Matthew Forman, a Harrier pilot with Marine Attack Squadron-223.
Altogether, the planned updates could make the AV-8B—and, by extension, the assault ships that carry the jet—much deadlier and more survivable.
Of course, plans are just that—plans. Congress must agree to pay for the Harriers’ enhancements. It’s not clear how much the upgrades cost.