Much has been written about the Royal Navy’s Sea Harrier force in the Falklands War. The story of the handful of fighters battling vastly superior numbers of Argentinian aircraft has become the stuff of military aviation legend but this largely overshadowed the RAF’s contribution with its Harrier GR.3. In all 10 aircraft were deployed to take part in Operation: Corporate – the British name for the operation to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982 but when news of the invasion reached No.1 Squadron back in the UK the pilots and ground crews were more preoccupied with an impending deployment to Canada for a NATO exercise and possibly even a starring role in an upcoming BBC documentary series.
The truth of the matter was that the Royal Air Force found itself at war uncertain to just what use it could be. The Falkland Islands were located at least four thousand miles from a friendly air base well out of the range of the RAF’s aircraft without air-to-air refuelling and even then only a handful of the RAF’s types were equipped to undertake this. There were rumours that Avro Vulcans would be used as conventional bombers but other than that it looked as though the RAF would spend much of the war in the logistics role supporting the Navy. Very soon however questions began to be asked about whether the RAF’s Harrier force could operate aboard the Royal Navy’s carriers
On paper there seemed no real reason why not. The older model Harrier GR.1 had undertaken sea trials aboard RN carriers during the 1970s and the Royal Navy’s Sea Harrier FRS.1 was basically an RAF Harrier GR.3 fitted with a radar and engine components more suited to working at sea. The problem however was that only a handful of RAF pilots were qualified in operating off a carrier and even then most of those were already with the Navy to shore up their number of pilots. One such pilot was Flt Lt David Morgan who would down three Argentine combat aircraft in the Sea Harrier. If the Ministry of Defence was serious about sending the RAF and their Harrier GR.3s in to the fray then the pilots would have to quickly learn how to undertake carrier landing and take-offs and get their aircraft ready for combat in the South Atlantic. What this meant was that when the Royal Navy left port to head south the RAF was not onboard and would have to join them later.
A week after the islands were invaded it was looking increasingly likely that the RAF’s Harriers would be taking part. In order to get them there a container ship called Atlantic Conveyor was considered and an RAF detachment went to Liverpool Docks to assess the vessel. Atlantic Conveyor was less than a month old and the RAF determined that with just a few modifications she could safely land Harriers and perhaps the even more important Chinook helicopter; a key asset in the planning of the land campaign once troops were on the ground.
The question that was hanging on the lips of the planners however is just how best to use the RAF’s Harrier. The most obvious answer was to use it to support the troops on the ground by providing close air support. This was the very role the aircraft had been tailored for and was what the RAF pilots trained for in Germany. The fear that was developing in the Ministry of Defence however as the taskforce sailed south was that the Royal Navy’s Sea Harrier force would be overwhelmed by enemy numbers that were far in excess of the the twenty aircraft sat on the decks of the two carriers, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. This fact was not lost on the personnel of No.1 Squadron who were asking for consideration to be given to fitting the AIM-9 Sidewinder infra-red air-to-air missile. Initially the AIM-9G version would be carried by the Harrier GR.3 but later the more sophisticated and capable AIM-9L version would be adopted as this was the type that the Navy were using and had plenty of stores onboard the carriers already. If the Sea Harriers did take heavy losses then the RAF Harrier GR.3s would certainly be used as a fighter.
There was a mixed response regarding the aircraft being used in this way. On the one hand the RAF pilots were established dogfighters having trained thoroughly for the within visual range arena but only in a self defence capacity. If they were to take on an air combat role in the South Atlantic they would have to perform Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) to defend ships and possibly ground troops despite lacking an all important air interception radar. This would mean that the intercepts would have to be handled by the ships of the taskforce in what is known in military parlance as Ground Control Interception (GCI). The Harriers were quickly fitted with the LAU/7 launch rails necessary to carry the Sidewinder scrounged from the RAF’s Phantom force.
Meanwhile work continued on getting the aircraft and pilots ready for carrier operations. A number of modifications to the GR.3 were deemed essential for carrier operations and these therefore took priority such as the fitting of shackles to tether the aircraft to the deck. Another problem that needed addressing was that the aircraft’s Instrument Navigation System (INS) was designed to work from a fixed point at take off. When operating from a carrier the aircraft is never truly standing still like on land and if not calibrated properly to take this in to consideration then the normal navigational error margin is increased many times over. Given the amount of commonality between the Harrier GR.3 and the Royal Navy’s Sea Harrier these problems were rectified without too much trouble.
By mid-April RAF Harrier pilots were at RNAS Yeovilton undergoing carrier take off training using the dummy ski-jump. The ski-jump was a novel invention designed to allow the Sea Harrier to take off from an aircraft carrier with greater ease and safety (if the ship was pitching in stormy weather then the aircraft was thrown up away from the sea). As the trials were being undertaken the RAF received confirmation that they were to deploy to the Falklands to support the Sea Harriers. Things began to move a lot faster for the squadron with this news. Ten aircraft were chosen to participate in the operation and these received the most attention to get them ready.
In the meantime it was looking increasingly likely that the Harrier would undertake some kind of fighter role. To that end the Harrier pilots managed to arrange some vital training thanks to the French Armée de l’Air (French air force) who had a handful of Mirage IIIs at RAF Conningsby. This was the same aircraft that formed the backbone of the Argentine fighter force and now the RAF pilots could train against them as well as take a flight in the backseat of the trainer version. It was vital experience for the RAF who could now formulate the best tactics for using the Harrier against the delta winged fighter. Perhaps even more vitally the French Navy made their Super Etendard aircraft available for air combat training over the English Channel. This was the aircraft that carried the Argentine Exocet missile and was a high priority target. Many people in the UK held resentment to the French believing they were on the side of the Argentinians since they sold them so many weapons before the war. The reality is that France came to Britain’s aid when the war broke out by stopping the flow of supplies for the Exocets, enforcing an economic embargo against Argentina and provide training such as this all of which contributed greatly to the British war effort.
The RAF Harrier was now close to working up to being ready for combat. There was even an opportunity to train with the British Army’s 5 Brigade who would be going to the Falklands as well. On the morning of May 1st the Harrier pilots selected for the Falklands campaign learned that some of their compatriots in an Avro Vulcan B.2 had undertaken the longest bombing mission in history the night before and struck the airfield at Port Stanley. It was a huge morale boost to know that after being unsure what combat role the RAF would take in the conflict; now they had fired the opening shots and in dramatic fashion. On 2nd May the Defence Secretary, John Nott, visited the pilots at RAF Witterring and informed them that he expects an escalation of the conflict soon and that they will be a vital part of that.
The next day the RAF’s Harriers took off for the Ascension Islands, the midway staging point for Operation: Corporate. The plan was for the aircraft to go down in waves supported by a tanker. However all did not go according to plan as the Victor tanker with the first wave had trouble taking on fuel itself and therefore only had enough to get two Harriers to Ascension while the third got diverted. It took two days to get the entire Harrier force down to Ascension by which time Atlantic Conveyor had arrived and was ready to embark the Harriers and Chinooks. The time at Ascension was not all fun and games however as the RAF Harriers were employed as point defence fighters for the island. Just what the threat was while they were at Ascension is unclear but was most likely to do with Argentine reconnaissance aircraft.
While at Ascension, news of how the war was going was hitting home that this wasn’t going to be a bloodless victory. Hot on the heels of the apparent success of the Vulcan bombing mission came news that the Argentine cruiser, the ARA Belgrano, had been sunk by a British submarine and the Royal Navy’s Sea Harriers appeared to be winning the fight against the Argentine air force. Then the news came on May 4th that HMS Sheffield had been hit by an Exocet missile. Less than a week in to the fighting there were already the highs and lows of war.
On the 6th May the Harriers embarked aboard the MV Atlantic Conveyor. For most of the pilots it was their first time landing aboard a ship and the tight confines of the container ship were perhaps more challenging than landing on the carriers themselves. A handful of Royal Navy Sea Harrier FRS.1s that weren’t ready to go when the taskforce left the UK were also onboard. During the transit south the aircraft were covered up to protect them from the salt water spray as the ship made its way through what was a worsening South Atlantic winter. During the journey an Argentinian Boeing 707 maritime reconnaissance aircraft was detected nearby and one of the Sea Harriers was made ready for flight to intercept it. The aircraft would have to take off vertically and meet a tanker if it had any chance of success but in the end no attempt was made. In a second instance the Sea Harrier was launched but the mission is cancelled soon after as the aircraft proved to be an RAF tanker rather than a Argentinian Boeing 707.
The RAF Harriers got within range of HMS Hermes on Thursday 18th April by which time the Royal Navy Sea Harrier force had been in combat for nearly three weeks. In that time they had shown the Argentinians that they were a force to reckoned with but at the same time they had lost three aircraft and pilots; two in a mid air collision due to appalling weather and one to ground fire. It is therefore understandable that the ‘late comers’ in the RAF Harrier force were not exactly welcomed with open arms by some aboard Hermes especially her Captain, Lin Middleton, who had a known dislike of the RAF. Nevertheless the RAF pressed on and settled themselves in to their new home aboard the carrier and it was not a moment too soon for the British were about to start the next phase of the war; landing troops on the Falklands. While at first the Harrier GR.3s looked like they would be used as fighters it was decided that given their superlative performance so far against the Argentinians it would be better to free up the Sea Harriers of the ground attack role by giving this job to the RAF leaving the Sea Harriers to the fighter role.
However just one day after arriving on Hermes two Harrier GR.3s on a training exercise were suddenly called in to action to intercept another marauding Boeing 707 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Vectored in by naval radar the 707 turned away from the taskforce and disappeared from radar as it went below the ships’ horizon. The RAF Harriers pursued intending to use the good old fashioned “Mark One Eyeball” to find it but to no avail. Although no shots were fired (in fact had they intercepted the 707 their orders were to persuade it to leave rather than shoot at it) the Harrier GR.3 had now entered the Falklands War.
Having completed the transfer of the RAF Harriers from Atlantic Conveyor to HMS Hermes it was now time for the Harrier GR.3 to get stuck in to the fight. It was May 20th, the day before the British landings at San Carlos, when they finally got their chance to do what they do best; attacking enemy ground forces. Their first target was a fuel and lubricant storage depot at Fox Bay on West Falkland where the Argentinian 8th Motorised Infantry and 9th Engineer Company were stationed. It had been the scene of several attacks by the Royal Navy already including one on May 16th when Sea Harriers strafed an Argentine Navy support ship the ARA Bahía Buen Suceso with gun fire rendering it immobile.
The aircraft were armed with BL755 cluster bombs, a common weapon for the GR.3 in Germany. The BL755 was designed to dispense 147 small submunitions over a wide area in order to disable or destroy lightly armoured vehicles. It also has a secondary anti-personnel role. It was selected for this mission because the fuel storage tanks were spread out so a small number of aircraft could cover a wider area with these submunitions than conventional bombs thus increasing the damage. Given that the Argentinians were more or less cut off from the mainland at that point any loss of supplies would be a massive blow.
At 1400hrs the RAF Harriers took off for their first combat mission of the war. They were afforded fighter cover by the Royal Navy’s Sea Harriers whose success in the air had by now had earned them the nickname La muerta negra (the black death) by Argentine pilots. Bad weather played a major part in the planning phase and they had three possible approach routes to take. The RAF approached the target at high altitude in order to conserve fuel but as they neared the islands they dropped to low level to reduce the chances of detection by any curious Argentine radars.
Closing in on the target area the pilots readied their weapon system. The Harrier GR,3 was far more capable in the ground attack role than the Sea Harrier thanks largely to its Laser Rangefinder and Marked Target Seeker (LRMTS) which is what gives the GR,3 its distinctive prod-like nose. This was a laser that was fired at the target area to determine range and angle. This information was then fed in to a computer that presented target information on to the Heads-Up Display in the cockpit for the pilot to make corrections.
The Harriers dropped their cluster bombs on to the target area arriving totally undetected. A large area was sprayed with submunitions causing numerous secondary explosions indicating that the fuel and lubricant oils were igniting. They had hit their target and were soon escaping out to sea before the Argentines could respond.
The Harriers landed back aboard Hermes a short while later and in doing so made good on all the effort made in the 1960s and 1970s to give the RAF a truly viable V/STOL combat aircraft. The Harrier had finally laid to rest any further criticism of the concept because no other aircraft in the RAF could have been committed to the war on such a level as the Harrier with its ability to land and take off anywhere. That’s not to say that the RAF’s Harrier force had it easy in the Falklands. On the contrary; four aircraft were lost on operations but they provided vital close air support to the troops on the ground and earned the same respect as their Royal Navy counterparts.
There is good reason why the Harrier is remembered as fondly as the Spitfire and the Lancaster in the UK.