Since the intervention by the United States and coalition partners began in 2014, the Middle East's skies have become crowded with the very best in modern air power. The air is full of flashy fourth-generation fighters (like the Air Force's F-15s and F-16s and the Navy's F/A-18E/Fs), and newer fifth-generation fighters (like the F-22). But also flying proudly with these other planes is a Marine Corps mainstay generally not considered a fourth-generation platform and unlikely to win any beauty contests—the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II. That plane has, time and again, proven itself a highly effective multirole combat aircraft.
The Harrier II is unique among American military aircraft as one of few to have been adapted from a foreign design. The AV-8B's origin traces back to the British Hawker Siddeley Harrier, which was designed in the 1960s. Though not the first vertical/short take-off and landing (V/STOL) aircraft built, it was the first fully operational and successful example. V/STOL capability was revolutionary because it created an aircraft that could operate from short or less-than-ideal runways, or from no runway at all.
V/STOL caught the eye of the U.S. Marine Corps and, by 1971, the service was flying harriers. Designated the AV-8A, the American export model was similar in most respects to the British Harrier GR.1. A single-seater, the Marines intended for the Harrier to conduct ground attack, close air support (CAS), reconnaissance, and fighter missions. Despite giving the appearance of radical design, the AV-8A was quite unsophisticated on the inside, possessing bare-bones navigation and attack systems. Its armament was limited to AIM-9 Sidewinder infrared-guided air-to-air missiles and unguided air-to-ground ordnance such as rockets and general-purpose bombs.
Despite its drawbacks, the Marines were happy with the Harrier, and it continued to serve from both forward bases and aboard amphibious warfare ships. At the same, the Marines sought to improve deficiencies in payload and range and, in the mid-1970s, began development on what would become the Harrier II. By the end of the decade, the project had come entirely under the direction of American aircraft manufacturer McDonnell Douglas. Designated as AV-8B, the improved Harrier entered service in 1985 and, by 1987, all A and C-models (an upgrade of the A) were withdrawn from service.
Like its predecessor, the AV-8B was initially capable of day attack only but added the AN/ASB-19 Angle Rate Bombing System (ARBS), which was equipped with a laser spot-tracker and television, plus the AN/ALR-67 radar warning receiver (RWR). By 1991, a night attack version emerged, equipped with a nose-mounted Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR), night-vision goggle (NVG)-compatible cockpit, and a digital moving-map display.
The latest variant of the AV-8B in operation is the Harrier II+, first introduced in 1993. Like other fighters currently in U.S. service, such as the Air Force’s F-15E Strike Eagle or the Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Harrier II+ is a leaps-and-bounds improvement from the AV-8A and even the original “Day Attack-Only” AV-8B. In addition to the features on the “Night Attack,” the “Plus” added the AN/APG-65 radar, the same radar initially fielded on the F/A-18 Hornet. Along with the Sidewinder, it also fires the AIM-120 AMRAAM, giving the Harrier II beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air capability.
The AV-8B is, of course, an attack aircraft, first and foremost. It is geared with a single GAU-12 Equalizer 25mm cannon and six hardpoints that can carry up to 9,200 pounds of ordnance—two hardpoints and over 4,000 pounds more than the original Harrier. In addition to rockets and unguided bombs, the Harrier II now employs the AGM-65E Maverick laser-guided ground-attack missile, GBU-12 and GBU-16 Paveway laser-guided and Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) satellite-guided bombs. Precision strike is conducted through the AN/AAQ-28(V)1 LITENING targeting pod, which offers high-resolution target imagery from altitudes up to 50,000 feet and a laser designator. This followed the evolutionary roadmap established by attack aircraft like the Air Force's A-10 Thunderbolt II. Like the A-10, the Harrier II was initially a dedicated CAS platform which eventually adopted precision-strike capabilities that tremendously expanded its mission set. More recent upgrades also include integration into the Link 16 data exchange network, which allows the AV-8B to transmit and share data with other platforms. The LITENING pod also permits Harrier pilots to transmit real-time imagery to troops on the ground via the ROVER system, allowing the latter to see what the former is seeing from the air.
Furthermore, the Harrier II is powered by the Rolls-Royce Pegasus F402-RR-408 thrust-vectoring turbofan, producing 23,500 lbs. of thrust, making it both more powerful and reliable than the original Pegasus powerplant. It is a subsonic aircraft, with an airspeed of less than Mach 1 (673 mph.) and has a combat radius of only 300 nautical miles. The limitation in range, however, is mitigated by V/STOL, which permits the Harrier to be deployed far forward without relying exclusively on air bases or carriers like other fixed-wing aircraft. Much like helicopters, it can instead utilize Forward Area Refueling/Rearming Points (FARPs).