Until Lockheed Martin’s F-35B Lightning II becomes operational with a front line squadron only two aircraft can carry the title of operational V/STOL naval fighter – the British Aerospace Sea Harrier and the Yakovlev Yak-38 ‘Forger’. While both aircraft have an uncanny resemblance to one another they are in fact two entirely different aircraft.
So with that in mind let’s take a look at how these two aircraft compared.
PLEASE NOTE; I am only referencing the Sea Harrier FRS.1 as this was the version of the ‘SHar’ that would have most likely faced the Yak-38 in combat during the 1980s had the Cold War turned hot.
In the aftermath of the Sea Harrier’s superlative performance as a traditional fighter in the Falklands War it has long been forgotten that this was not the role envisioned for the type in the 1970s. The Admiralty knew that they weren’t fielding an aircraft on a par with the rest of NATO and the Soviet air forces (at least on paper) and instead planned to use it to simply protect the fleet from lumbering maritime patrol and bomber aircraft such as the Il-38 and the Tu-95 where it wouldn’t have to ‘mix it’ with fighters. Even after the Falklands this remained the primary mission of the aircraft with a secondary attack and reconnaissance role.
The Yak-38 had an almost identical role but was far more limited in its use because of performance and command structure restrictions. The Yak-38 was primarily intended to fly just outside the limit of the mother ship’s surface to air missile battery and knock out US P-3 Orions or RAF Nimrods tracking the fleet’s progress with their long range radar. It would perform a hit and run attack on the enemy aircraft then retreat back to the ship hopefully before it ran out of fuel. A Yak-38 was never expected to dogfight anything larger than a Sea Gull and while it was utilized as a close air support (shturmovik in Soviet parlance) aircraft it was not well liked or suited for that role. The fact of the matter is that the Yak-38 was always supposed to develop operating principles for V/STOL aircraft rather than be a serious naval combat aircraft like the Sea Harrier. These principles would then be adopted by the more capable (and ultimately cancelled) Yak-141 “Freestyle”.
Power for the Sea Harrier came from a Rolls-Royce Pegasus thrust vectoring turbofan engine which was also what gave the aircraft it’s V/STOL capability by directing thrust downwards around the aircraft’s center of gravity. The Sea Harrier had a level speed of 735mph with a service ceiling of 51,000ft which are impressive when you consider that the Rolls-Royce Pegasus is a non-afterburning engine. Although range figures vary depending on what load is carried the Sea Harrier is quoted at having a combat range of around 600 miles with external fuel tanks.
The Yak-38 achieves lift by vectoring the forward thrust from the Tumansky R-28 V-300 turbojet engine downwards in conjunction with two RD-38 ‘lift jets’ located behind the pilot. This resulted in far higher fuel consumption than the Sea Harrier’s method of achieving V/STOL and this imposed a severe penalty on range with a maximum range (without any weapons) being around 800 miles. When ground attack weapons were added this figure fell far below the Sea Harrier but again depends on what type of weapon was carried. Figures for speed and altitude vary as getting reliable data even after the fall of the iron curtain is difficult but most sources agree that top speed was around Mach 1 bringing it on a par with the Sea Harrier. Service ceiling is somewhere around the 35,000 feet mark, far below what the Sea Harrier could achieve.
The Sea Harrier was fitted with the Blue Fox air intercept radar which had both air to air and air to surface modes. It was hardly a modern radar set even in 1978 and lacked many of the modes that could be found on the RAF’s frontline fighters such as the Phantom FGR.2 and the Tornado F.2. It was good enough for the original role envisioned however and it was expected to be under ground or ship control up until the intercept point. It could track around twelve targets at a time (some sources claim more but I am doubtful) but had very little look down/shoot down capability. It was far superior to the Sapfir-23 radar which is what the export MiG-21 and MiG-23s were fitted with and at one time China was looking at fitting it to their version of the MiG-21, the J-7, for sale to Pakistan. The Sea Harrier also had an excellent radar warning receiver, the Sky Guardian, which was almost the standard set for British aircraft in the 80s.
By contrast the Yak-38 was more akin to the Harrier GR.1 or AV-8A Harrier versions in that it lacked any radar optimized for the fighter role despite it’s interceptor mission. It did have a very simple ranging radar to aid with targeting and this was linked to a gunsight that was taken straight out of the MiG-21. Originally there were to be two versions of the Yak-36 (the designation given to the early Yak-38s) with one featuring a multi-mode radar and medium range air to air missiles. This would have made it the superior to the Sea Harrier FRS.1 but the project was cancelled with the intention of fitting these systems later although this too failed to materialize.
The Sea Harrier FRS.1 was equipped with the excellent AIM-9L Sidewinder which introduced all-aspect detection capability meaning a pilot didn’t have to get on an enemy plane’s tail to acquire the target. The missile had a powerful fragmentation warhead which meant that even a proximity hit could do potentially fatal damage to a single engined aircraft. In the fighter role the AIM-9 was backed up by two ventral 30 mm guns whose mounting was designed to help give the aircraft increased stability. The aircraft had a wide range of unguided weapons available to it from rockets to bombs and the maximum warload was around 8,000lbs spread out between a total of five pylons (excluding the two dedicated 30mm cannons). A seldom carried weapon that was nonetheless available to the Sea Harrier was the Sea Eagle anti-ship missile which was a potent open ocean weapon and was capable of disabling all but the largest warship.
The Yak-38 could only carry just over half of the warload of the Sea Harrier at 4,500lbs on just four pylons. Primary air to air armament was the miniscule R-60 (AA-8 ‘Aphid’) infra red missile. The AIM-9 dwarfed the R-60 in terms of size but the R-60 had several advantages over the Sidewinder. The R-60 was all-aspect like the AIM-9L but had a much wider detection scope with the later R-60MK variant having limited off boresight capability albeit with a reduced range. The weapon could also be fired at much closer ranges than the Sidewinder making it especially deadly in a very tight turning dogfight but its main drawbacks was far less range and a very small warhead. As a result to carry out its role of destroying multi-engined patrol aircraft the Yak-38 would most likely have to get very close to the target and ripple fire its R-60s to mortally wound it. The Yak-38 also had a wide array of unguided bombs and rockets to call upon for the ground attack role but if guns were needed then a pod had to be carried taking up one of the wing pylons. The Yak-38 could use the Kh-23 (AS-7 ‘Kerry’) guided air to surface missile but had to carry a datalink on a pylon to do so thus further limiting what could be carried.
The Sea Harrier pilot trained on a two seat conversion aircraft that well represented the frontline type. By contrast, looking at the Yak-38U trainer its amazing the aircraft ever flew. It was hardly a graceful aircraft and had a range that was described as being just outside the fence of the base in the Ukraine where the Yak pilots trained. The Yak-38 did have a unique feature (although I am sure Yak-38 pilots wish it didn’t) in it’s automatic ejection system. Reflecting the dangerous nature of carrier operations the Soviets took the bold step of programing the ejection system with a series of conditions that they believed warranted the pilot’s ejection. Sadly however it would prove fatally flawed and resulted in ejections without reason which meant the loss of the aircraft and the dismissal of the pilot (it was always presumed that there was nothing wrong with the aircraft). Sea Harrier pilots on the other hand had to contend with an aircraft that many believed was still a dangerous and skittish aircraft to fly even when V/STOL operations had become routine. Malfunctions dogged both these aircraft although it has to be said that the Yak-38 suffered worse. Losing an aircraft to a malfunction was not as big a problem for the Soviets as it was for the Royal Navy however because while there were only 111 Sea Harriers there were 231 Yak-38s.
The Sea Harrier FRS.1 was by far and away the superior aircraft. I think even Yakovlev himself would be hard pressed to defend his aircraft in comparison. As I said earlier however the truth is the Yak-38 was never intended to be a serious naval fighter and was intended to simply prove the concept worked operationally. In this sense the aircraft was successful but by the late 1980s the Soviets had lost interest in V/STOL and had begun work on the Kuznetsov-class carriers.