- Crew: 1
- Role: Multi-role Naval Combat Aircraft
- Length: 47 ft 7 in (14.5 m)
- Wingspan: 25 ft 3 in (7.6 m)
- Height: 12 ft 2 in (3.71 m)
- Empty weight: 14,052 lb (6,374 kg)
- Max. takeoff weight: 26,200 lb (11,900 kg)
- Powerplant: 1 × Rolls-Royce Pegasus mk.104 vectored thrust turbofan, 21,500 lbs (95.64 kN)
- Maximum speed: Mach 0.9 (737 mph)
- Ferry range: 1,740 miles
- Service ceiling: 51,000 ft
2-4× AIM-9 Sidewinders
2× 30 mm ADEN guns
8,000lbs of ordinance on external stores
In 1979, HMS Ark Royal (R09) was formally decommissioned bringing an end to conventional fixed wing flight in the Royal Navy. The newest ships coming in to service were designed to operate helicopters but it was found they could also operate Harrier V/STOL aircraft. Handed a lifeline, the Fleet Air Arm placed an order for 34 Sea Harriers; a modified version of the RAF’s Harrier GR.3 incorporating radar and air-to-air missiles for the air defence role. Thus one of the most iconic aircraft to have ever served in the Fleet Air Arm was born.
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 “May” and the Tu-95 “Bear” 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.
Power for the Sea Harrier came from a Rolls-Royce Pegasus thrust vectoring turbofan engine which was also what gave the aircraft its vertical take-off capability by directing thrust downwards around the aircraft’s centre 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 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. 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 this is disputed) 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.
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.
In the Falklands War the Sea Harrier dominated the skies over the South Atlantic. The Argentinian pilots in the 1960s-era Dassault Mirage III fighters were unable to match its sophisticated weapon system. After the war the aircraft returned to its original role of protecting the fleet against Soviet air power however towards the late 1980s the introduction of the Sukhoi Su-27K (Su-33) “Flanker” naval fighter demanded the aircraft be upgraded and this produced the Sea Harrier F/A-2.