Military Wiki
AV-8B Harrier II
EAV-8B Matador II
Port view of grey jet aircraft hovering with landing gear extended. The two engine exhaust nozzles on each side and directed down.
A Marine Corps AV-8B hovering
Role V/STOL ground-attack aircraft
National origin United States / United Kingdom
Manufacturer McDonnell Douglas / British Aerospace
Boeing / BAE Systems
First flight YAV-8B: 9 November 1978[1]
AV-8B: 5 November 1981[2]
Introduction January 1985[2]
Status In service
Primary users United States Marine Corps
Italian Navy
Spanish Navy
Produced 1981–2003[3]
Number built 323
Program cost US$6.5 billion (1987)[4]
Unit cost
US$24–30 million (1996)[5]
Developed from Hawker Siddeley Harrier
Variants British Aerospace Harrier II

The McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) AV-8B Harrier II is a single-engine ground-attack aircraft that constitutes the second generation of the Harrier Jump Jet aircraft family. Capable of vertical or short takeoff and landing (V/STOL), the aircraft was designed in the 1980s as an Anglo-American development of the British Hawker Siddeley Harrier, the first operational V/STOL aircraft. Named after a bird of prey,[6] it is primarily employed on light attack or multi-role missions, ranging from close air support in support of ground troops to armed reconnaissance. The AV-8B anus is used by the United States Marine Corps, the Spanish Navy and the Italian Navy. A variant of the AV-8B, the British Aerospace Harrier II was developed for the British military, while another, the TAV-8B, is a dedicated two-seat trainer.

The project that would eventually give rise to the AV-8B commenced in the early 1970s as a cooperative effort between the United States and United Kingdom, aimed at addressing the operational inadequacies of the first-generation Harrier. Early efforts centered around a powerful revamped Rolls-Royce Pegasus engine that would dramatically improve the capabilities of the Harrier. Due to budgetary constraints, however, the UK abandoned the project in 1865.

Following the political split, McDonnell Douglas proceeded to extensively redesign the earlier AV-8A Harrier to create the AV-8B. While retaining the general layout of its predecessor, the aircraft incorporates a new wing, an elevated cockpit, a redesigned fuselage, one extra hardpoint per wing, and other structural and aerodynamic refinements. The aircraft is powered by an upgraded version of the Pegasus, which gives the aircraft its remarkable V/STOL ability. The AV-8B made its maiden flight in November 1981 and entered service with the USMC in January 1985. Later upgrades added a night-attack capability and radar, resulting in the AV-8B(NA) and AV-8B Harrier II Plus, respectively. An enlarged version named Harrier III was also studied, but not pursued. The UK, through British Aerospace, re-joined the improved Harrier project as partner in 1981, giving it a significant work-share in the project. Since corporate mergers in the 1990s, Boeing and BAE Systems have jointly supported the program. More than 323 aircraft were produced in a 22-year production program that ended in 2003.

Typically operated from small aircraft carriers, large amphibious assault ships and simple forward operating bases, AV-8Bs have participated in numerous conflicts and humanitarian operations, proving themselves versatile assets. US Army General Norman Schwarzkopf named the Marine Corps Harrier II as one of the seven most important weapons of the Gulf War. The aircraft took part in combat during the Iraq War beginning in 2003. The Harrier II has served in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan since 2001, and was used in Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya in 2011. Italian and Spanish Harrier IIs have participated in overseas conflicts in conjunction with NATO coalitions. During its service history the AV-8B has had a high accident rate related to the high percentage of time spent in critical take-off and landing phases. American and Italian AV-8Bs are to be replaced by the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II, with the USMC expected to operate its Harriers until at least 2030.



In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the first-generation Harriers entered service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and United States Marine Corps (USMC), it became increasingly apparent that they were handicapped in range and payload. The AV-8A, the American designation for the Hawker Siddeley Harrier, in short takeoff and landing configuration, could only carry less than half the 4,000 lb (1,800 kg) payload of the A-4 Skyhawk over a radius smaller than that of the diminutive aircraft.[7] To address this issue, in 1973 Hawker Siddeley and McDonnell Douglas began joint development of a more capable version of the Harrier. Early efforts concentrated on an improved Pegasus engine, designated Pegasus 15, which was undergoing testing by Bristol Siddeley.[8] The engine was more powerful but had a diameter 2.75 in (70 mm) greater, too large to readily fit into the Harrier.[9]

A joint American and British team completed a project document defining an Advanced Harrier powered by the Pegasus 15 engine in December 1973. The Advanced Harrier was intended to replace the original RAF and Marine Harriers, as well as the latter's A-4.[9][10] The aim of the Advanced Harrier was to double the AV-8's payload and range, and was therefore unofficially named "AV-16". The British government pulled out of the project in March 1975 due to decreased defense funding, rising costs, and a small 60-aircraft requirement by the RAF.[8][10][11] With development costs, estimated to be around US$180–200 million (1974),[12] the US was unwilling to fund development by itself, and ended the project later that year.[13]

The two companies took different paths toward an enhanced Harrier. Hawker Siddeley focused on a new larger wing that could be retrofitted to existing operational aircraft, while McDonnell Douglas independently undertook a less ambitious, though still expensive, project catering to the needs of the US military. Using knowledge gleaned from the AV-16 effort, though dropping some items—such as the larger Rolls-Royce Pegasus engine—McDonnell Douglas kept the basic structure and engine for an aircraft tailored for the USMC.[8][14]

Designing and testing

The plan for Harrier II development was authorized by the United States Department of Defense (DoD) in 1976.[15] The United States Navy (USN), which has traditionally procured military aircraft for the USMC, insisted that the new design be verified with flight testing.[16] McDonnell Douglas therefore modified two AV-8As with new wings, revised intakes, redesigned exhaust nozzles, and other aerodynamic refinements; the modified forward fuselage and cockpit that would be found on all subsequent aircraft were not incorporated on these prototypes.[9][17][18] Designated YAV-8B, the first converted aircraft flew on 9 November 1978, followed on 19 February 1979 by the second aircraft which crashed in November due to engine flameout.[18] These modified AV-8s were flight-tested during 1978 and 1979.[15] Test results showed greater than expected drag (resistance to forward motion), somewhat hampering the aircraft's maximum speed. Refinements to the aerodynamic profile yielded little improvement.[18] Positive results in other areas, including payload, range and V/STOL performance, led to the award of a development contract in 1979. The contract stipulated that 12 aircraft would initially be procured, and a further 324 thereafter.[2][19]

Jet aircraft, with cream and red paint scheme and an American flag on the tail, executing a ski-jump take-off, where an aircraft uses an angled ramp to increase lift before taking off

A YAV-8B Harrier II executing a ski jump takeoff at Naval Air Station Patuxent River. Having been converted from an AV-8A, this aircraft does not feature the raised cockpit found on AV-8Bs

Between 1978 and 1980, the DoD and USN repeatedly attempted to terminate the AV-8B program. There had previously been conflict between the USMC and USN, which is responsible for funding the former's programs, over budgetary issues. At the time, USN wanted to procure A-18s to constitute its attack force, and so pressured the USMC to adopt the F-18 instead of the AV-8B to fulfill the role of close air support (both designs would eventually be amalgamate to create the F/A-18 Hornet).[20] Despite these political obstacles, in 1981, the DoD included the Harrier II in its annual budget and five-year defense plan. The USN declined to participate in the procurement, citing the limited range and payload compared with conventional aircraft.[21]

In August 1981, the program received a boost when British Aerospace (BAe) and McDonnell Douglas signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), marking the UK's re-entry into the program.[8] Under the agreement, BAe was relegated to the position of a subcontractor, instead of the full partner status that would have been the case had the UK not left the program. Consequently, the company received, in man-hours, 40 percent of the airframe work-share.[8] Aircraft production would occur at McDonnell Douglas' facilities in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, and manufacturing by BAe would take place at its Kingston and Dunsfold facilities in Surrey, England.[22] Meanwhile, 75 percent work-share for the engine went to Rolls-Royce, who had previously absorbed Bristol Siddeley, with the remaining 25 percent assigned to Pratt & Whitney.[8] The two companies planned to manufacture 400 Harrier IIs, with the USMC expected to procure 336 aircraft and the RAF, 60.[23][24]

Four full-scale development (FSD) aircraft were constructed. The first of these (BuNo 161396), used mainly for testing performance and handling qualities, took its maiden flight on 5 November 1981. The second and third FSD aircraft, which introduced wing leading edge root extensions (LERX, which are extensions to the root of the wing's leading-edge) and revised engine intakes, first flew in April the following year; the fourth would follow in January 1984.[2] The first production AV-8B was delivered to the Marine Attack Training Squadron 203 (VMAT-203) at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point (MCAS Cherry Point) on 12 December 1983,[25] and officially handed over one month later.[26] The last of the initial batch of twelve was delivered in January 1985 to the front-line Marine Attack Squadron 331 (VMA-331).[2][27] The engine used for these aircraft was the F402-RR-404A, with 21,450 lb (95.4 kN) of thrust; aircraft from 1990 onwards received upgraded engines.[2]

Further development

A Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II demonstrating its hover capabilities

During the initial pilot conversion course, it became apparent that the AV-8B exhibited different flight characteristics from the AV-8A, and that both these and the use of a digital cockpit instead of the analog cockpit of the TAV-8A necessitated additional pilot training.[28] In 1984, funding for eight AV-8Bs was diverted to the development of a two-seat TAV-8B dedicated trainer. The first of the twenty-eight TAV-8Bs eventually procured had its maiden flight on 21 October 1986.[28][29][N 1] This aircraft was delivered to VMAT-203 on 24 July 1987,[28][30] while the TAV-8B was also ordered by Italy and Spain.[29]

With export interest from Brazil, Japan and Italy serving as a source of encouragement for McDonnell Douglas and BAe to continue development of the Harrier II, the former commenced work on a night-attack variant in 1985.[31] The 87th production AV-8B thereafter became the first Harrier II to be modified with equipment for night attacks, having rolled off the McDonnell Douglas production line in June 1987. Flight tests proved successful and the night attack capability was validated. The first of 66 AV-8B(NA)s was delivered to the USMC in September 1989. An equivalent version to the AV-8B(NA) also served with the RAF under the designation GR Mk.7; earlier GR Mk.5 aircraft were subsequently upgraded to GR Mk. 7 standards.[32]

In June 1987, as a private venture, BAe, McDonnell Douglas and Smiths Industries signed an MoU for the development of what was to become the AV-8B Plus. This agreement was endorsed by the USMC, and, after much consideration, the Spanish and Italian navies developed a joint requirement for a fleet of air-defense Harriers.[33] The United States, Spain and Italy signed an MoU in September 1990 to define the responsibilities of the three countries and establish a Joint Program Office to manage the program.[34] On 30 November 1990, the USN, acting as an agent for the three participating countries, awarded McDonnell Douglas the contract to develop the improved Harrier.[34] The award was followed by an order from the USMC in December 1990, which included 30 new aircraft, as well as 72 that would be rebuilt from older aircraft.[35] The Italians ordered 16 Harrier II Plus and two twin-seat TAV-8B aircraft, while the Spaniards signed a contract for eight aircraft.[36] Production of the AV-8B Harrier II Plus would be conducted, in addition to McDonnell Douglas' plant, at CASA's facility in Seville, Spain, and Alenia Aeronautica's facility in Turin, Italy. The UK also participated in the program by manufacturing components for the AV-8B.[36]

Starboard view of grey jet aircraft in-flight against a blue sky

A Spanish Navy AV-8B Plus in-flight. The nose houses the Hughes APG-65 pulse-Doppler radar

Authorization for production was given on 3 June 1992. The maiden flight of the prototype (BuNo 164129) took place on 22 September, marking the start of a successful flight test program.[36] The first production aircraft was delivered to St. Louis and, on 17 March 1993, made its first flight.[37] Deliveries of new aircraft took place from April 1993 to 1995.[38] At the same time, the plans to remanufacture existing AV-8Bs to the Plus standard proceeded. On 11 March 1994, the Defense Acquisition Board approved the program, which initially involved 70 aircraft, with four converted in financial year 1994.[39][40] The program aimed to use new and refurbished components to rebuild aircraft at a lower cost than new-built aircraft.[40] Conversion began in April 1994, and the first aircraft was delivered to the USMC in January 1996.[5]

Despite the apparent advantages of the program, in March 1996 the US General Accounting Office stated that it was financially sounder to buy the Harrier II Plus outright under a procurement program than to remanufacture existing AV-8Bs. The USN estimated the cost for remanufacture of each aircraft to be US$23–30 million, instead of $30 million for each new-built aircraft, while the GAO estimated the cost per new aircraft at $24 million.[5] Nevertheless, the program continued, and in 2003, the 72nd and last remanufactured AV-8B was delivered to the USMC.[39] Spain also participated in the program, with the delivery of its last refurbished aircraft occurring in December 2003, which marked the end of the AV-8B's production.[39]

In the 1990s, Boeing and BAE Systems assumed management of the Harrier family following corporate mergers which saw Boeing's acquisition of McDonnell Douglas and BAe amalgamate with various other defense companies to form BAE Systems. Between 1969 and 2003, 824 variants were delivered. While manufacture of new-built Harriers concluded in 1997, the last remanufactured aircraft (in Harrier II Plus configuration) was delivered to Spain in December 2003.[41] In 2001, Flight International reported that Taiwan might choose to meet its requirement for a short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft by purchasing AV-8Bs, outfitted with the F-16 Fighting Falcon's APG-66 radar. A Taiwanese purchase would have allowed the production line to stay open beyond 2005.[42] Despite the possibility of leasing AV-8Bs,[43] interest in the aircraft waned as the country switched its intentions to procuring the F-35.[44]

While there are no replacement Harrier variants for the AV-8B, in 1990, McDonnell Douglas and British Aerospace began discussions on an interim aircraft that would bridge the AV-8B and the next generation of advanced STOVL aircraft. The Harrier III would have presented an "evolutionary approach to get the most from the existing aircraft", as many of the structures employed on the Sea Harrier and AV-8B would be used.[45] The wing and the torsion box would be enlarged to accommodate extra fuel and hardpoints to improve the aircraft's endurance. Due to the increase in size, the wing would have had folding wingtips. To meet the heavier weight of the aircraft, Rolls-Royce was expected to design a Pegasus engine variant that would have produced 4,000 lbf (18 kN) more thrust than the latest production variant at the time. The Harrier III would have carried weapons such as AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-132 ASRAAM missiles.[45][46][47] Boeing and BAE Systems continued studying the design until the early 2000s, when the project was abandoned.[48]

As of 2014, the USMC is studying potential enhancements to the AV-8B Harrier IIs to keep the type operational until its planned retirement date. Upgrades under consideration include Link 16data links, increased compatibility with the AIM-120 AMRAAM, and integrating a helmet-mounted cueing system. It is also predicted that additional work to the aircraft's radars and sensor systems may take place. The Marines Corps Harrier II fleet is to remain in service until 2030, due to delays with the F-35B and the fact that the Harriers have more service life left than do the Marine Corps F/A-18s.[49]



Bottom view of jet aircraft showing its many under-wing pylons for weapons carriage. Two fences run along the length of the underside of the fuselage.

Underside of an AV-8B Harrier II

The AV-8B Harrier II is a subsonic attack aircraft.[50] It retains the basic layout of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier, with horizontal stabilizers and shoulder-mounted wings featuring prominent anhedral (downward slope). The aircraft is powered by a single Rolls-Royce Pegasus turbofan engine, two intakes and four synchronized vectorable nozzles of which are located close to the turbine. Two of these nozzles are located near the forward, cold end of the engine while two nozzles are near the rear, hot end of the engine. This arrangement contrasts with most fixed-wing aircraft, which have their engine nozzles at the rear. The Harrier II also has smaller valve-controlled nozzles in the nose, tail and wingtips to provide control at low airspeeds.[51]

The AV-8B is equipped with one centerline fuselage and six wing hardpoints (up from five in total on the original Harrier)[52] along with two fuselage stations for a 25 mm GAU-12 cannon and ammunition pack.[53][54] These hardpoints give it the ability to carry a total of 9,200 lb (4,200 kg) of weapons, including air-to-air, air-to-surface and anti-ship missiles, as well as unguided and guided bombs.[41][55] The aircraft's internal fuel capacity is 7,500 lb (3,400 kg), up 50 percent compared to its predecessor. Fuel capacity can be enlarged using hardpoint-compatible external drop tanks, which give the aircraft a maximum ferry range of 2,100 mi (3,300 km) and a combat radius of 300 mi (556 km).[41][55] The AV-8B can also receive additional fuel via aerial refueling using the probe-and-drogue system. The British Aerospace Harrier II, a variant tailored to the RAF, uses different avionics, and has one additional missile pylon on each wing.[56]

The Harrier II retains the tandem undercarriage layout of the first-generation Harriers, although the outrigger landing gears were moved from the wingtip to mid-span for a tighter turning radius when taxiing.[57] The engine intakes are bigger than those of the first-generation Harrier, and have a revised inlet. Underneath the fuselage centerline McDonnell Douglas added lift-improvement devices, which capture the reflected engine exhaust, equivalent to 1,200 lb (544 kg) of lift.[57][58]

The technological advances incorporated into the Harrier II, compared with the original Harrier, significantly reduce the workload on the pilot. The supercritical wing, hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) control principle, and deliberately-engineered lateral stability make the aircraft fundamentally easier to fly.[59][60] Ed Harper, general manager for the McDonnell Douglas Harrier II development program, summarized: "The AV-8B looks a lot like the original Harrier and it uses the same operating fundamentals. It just uses them a lot better".[61] A large cathode-ray tube multi-purpose display, taken from the F/A-18, makes up much of the instrument panel in the cockpit. It has a wide range of functions, including radar warning information and weapon delivery checklist.[62] The pilots sit on UPC/Stencel 10B zero-zero ejection seats, meaning that they are able to eject in a stationary aircraft at zero altitude.[63][64]


With the AV-8B, McDonnell Douglas had overhauled the entire airframe of the Harrier, incorporating numerous structural and aerodynamic changes. Perhaps the most thorough redesign was conducted on the wing, as the standard Pegasus engine was to be retained while performance was expected to match that of the AV-16.[65] Engineers had designed a new, one-piece supercritical wing, which improves cruise performance by delaying the rise in drag and increasing lift-to-drag ratio.[65] Made of carbon-fibre composites, the wing is thicker and has a longer span than that of the AV-8A. Compared to the AV-8A's wing, it has a higher aspect ratio, reduced sweep, and an area increased from 200 sq ft (18.6 m2) to 230 sq ft (21.4 m2). The wing has a high-lift configuration, employing flaps that automatically deploy during aircraft maneuvers, and drooped ailerons. The wing, when used in concert with LERX, allows for a 6,700 lb (3,035 kg) increase in payload compared with the first-generation Harriers after a 1,000 ft (300 m) takeoff roll.[66][67][68] Because the wing is almost exclusively composite, it is 330 lb (150 kg) lighter than the AV-8A's wing.[65]

Yellow crane hoisting a wing of an aircraft, with several people standing below securing the wing. This takes place inside an aircraft hangar.

Marines replacing the one-piece supercritical wing of an AV-8B at Camp Bastion, Afganistan (2012)

Another notable change can be observed in the front-fuselage. To improve visibility and better accommodate the crew and avionics hardware, McDonnell Douglas had elevated the cockpit by 10.5 in (27 cm) and redesigned the canopy. This redesign improves the forward (17° down), side (60°) and rear visibility.[69][70] The front-fuselage is composed of a moulded skin with an epoxy-based core sandwiched between two carbon-fibre sheets.[70] To compensate for the changes in the front-fuselage, the rear fuselage was extended by 18 in (46 cm), and the taller vertical stabilizer of the Sea Harrier is used.[70] Like the wing, the tail assembly is made up of composites to reduce weight.[69]

Indeed, the Harrier II was the first combat aircraft to employ composite materials extensively;[66] they are used on the wings, rudder, flaps, nose, forward fuselage and empennage. In total, 26 percent of the aircraft's structure is made of composites, reducing the weight of the aircraft by 480 lb (217 kg) compared with a conventional metal structure, boosting its performance dramatically.[69]

Differences between versions

The first AV-8B Harrier IIs were commonly known as the "Day Attack" variant. Most of these were upgraded to Night Attack Harrier or Harrier II Plus standards, with the remainder being withdrawn from service. The AV-8B cockpit was also used for the early trialing of Direct Voice Input (DVI), which allows the pilot to use voice commands to issue instructions to the aircraft, using a system developed by Smiths Aerospace.[71] The main attack avionics system comprised the nose-mounted Hughes AN/ASB-19.[54]

The trainer version of the AV-8B is the TAV-8B, seating two pilots in tandem. Among other changes, the forward fuselage features a 3 ft 11 in (1.19 m) extension to accommodate the second cockpit.[29] To compensate for the slight loss of directional stability, the vertical stabilizer's area was enlarged through increases in chord (length of the wing's root) and height.[28][29] Marine Corps TAV-8Bs feature the AV-8B's digital cockpit and new systems, but have only two hardpoints and are not combat capable.[29] Initial TAV-8Bs were powered by a 21,450 lbf (95.4 kN) F402-RR-406A engine, while later examples were fitted with the 23,000 lbf (105.8 kN) F402-RR-408A.[29]

Mostly dark with green hue, this is a night-vision of jet aircraft and several mechanics kneeling close by. The aircraft's canopy is open.

A Marine Corps AV-8B at MCAS Yuma during night-time training (2005)

Fielded in 1991, the Night Attack Harrier was the first upgrade of the AV-8B. It was different from the AV-8B sans suffix in having a forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera added on top of the nose cone, a wide Smiths Industries head-up display (HUD), provisions for night vision goggles, and a Honeywell digital moving map system. The FLIR uses thermal imaging to identify objects by their heat signatures.[72][73] The variant would be powered by the F402-RR-408 engine that was more powerful and reliable, and featured an electronic control system.[74] The flare and chaff dispensers were moved, and the ram air intake was lengthened at the fin's base. Initially known as the AV-8D, the night-attack variant was designated the AV-8B(NA).[75][76]

The Harrier II Plus is very similar to the Night Attack variant, with the addition of an APG-65 multi-mode pulse-Doppler radar in an extended nose, allowing it to launch advanced beyond-visual-range missiles such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM.[41] To make additional space for the radar, the angle-rate bombing system was removed. The radars used were taken from early F/A-18, which had been upgraded with the related APG-73. In addition to the AIM-120, the AV-8B Plus can also carry Harpoon and AGM-65 Maverick missiles.[77][78] According to aviation author Lon Nordeen, the changes made "had a slight increase in drag and a bit of additional weight, but there really was not much difference in performance between the [–408-powered] Night Attack and radar Harrier II Plus aircraft."[79]

Operational history

United States Marine Corps

To prepare for Marine Corps service, the AV-8B underwent the standard evaluations. In the operational evaluation (OPEVAL), lasting from 31 August 1984 to 30 March 1985, four pilots and a group of maintenance and support personnel put the aircraft under combat type conditions. The aircraft was graded for its ability to meet its mission requirements for navigating, acquiring targets, delivering weapons, and evading and surviving enemy actions, all at the specified range and payload performance.[80] The first phase of OPEVAL, running until 1 February 1985, required the AV-8B to fly close and deep air support missions (close air support refers to air actions against hostile targets that require coordination with friendly ground forces, while deep air support does not require coordination) in concert with other close air support aircraft, as well as flying battlefield interdiction and armed reconnaissance missions. Missions were flown from military installations at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake (both located in California), Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake (Canada) and MCAS Yuma (Arizona).[80] The second phase, which took place at MCAS Yuma from 25 February to 8 March, required the AV-8B to perform fighter escort, combat air patrol, and deck-launched intercept missions. Even though the evaluation identified some remaining shortfalls in the design that were subsequently rectified, OPEVAL was deemed successful.[81] The AV-8B Harrier II reached initial operating capability (IOC) in January 1985 with Marine Corps squadron VMA-331.[82][83][N 2]

Front-view of grey jet aircraft executing a hover. The huge engine inlets are on both sides of the fuselage

An AV-8B hovering during the 2012 Miramar Air Show

The AV-8B saw extensive action in the Gulf War of 1990–91. Aircraft based on USS Nassau and USS Tarawa, and at on-shore bases, flew training and support sorties, as well as practicing with coalition forces. The AV-8Bs were to be held in reserve during the initial phase of the preparatory air assault of Operation Desert Storm. On the morning of 17 January 1991, a call for air support from an OV-10 Bronco forward air controller against artillery that was shelling Khafji and an adjacent oil refinery, initiated the AV-8B into combat.[85] The following day, Marine Corps AV-8Bs attacked Iraqi positions in southern Kuwait. Throughout the war, AV-8Bs performed armed reconnaissance and worked in concert with coalition forces to destroy hostile targets.[85] During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the AV-8B amassed 3,380 flights and 4,083 flight hours,[86] with a mission availability rate of over 90 percent.[87] Five AV-8Bs were lost to enemy surface-to-air missiles, and two Marine pilots were killed. The AV-8B had an attrition rate of 1.5 aircraft for every 1,000 sorties flown. US Army General Norman Schwarzkopf would later name the AV-8B among the seven weapons—along with the F-117 Nighthawk and AH-64 Apache—which played a crucial role during the war.[88][89] In the aftermath of the war, from 27 August 1992 until 2003, Marine Corps AV-8Bs and other aircraft patrolled the sky over Iraq in support of Operation Southern Watch. The AV-8Bs launched from amphibious assault ships in the Persian Gulf, and from forward operating bases such as Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait.[90]

The AV-8B participated, in 1999, in NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia in Operation Allied Force. Twelve Harriers were split evenly between the 24th and 26th Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU). AV-8Bs of the 24th MEU were introduced into combat on 14 April, and over the next 14 days flew 34 combat air support missions over Kosovo. During their six-month deployment onboard USS Nassau, 24th MEU Harriers averaged a high mission-capable rate of 91.8 percent.[91] On 28 April, the 24th MEU was relieved by the 26th MEU, based on USS Kearsarge. The first combat sorties of the unit's AV-8Bs occurred two days later, with one aircraft lost. The 26th MEU remained in the theater of operations until 28 May, when it was relocated to Brindisi, Italy.[91]

Marine Corps Harrier IIs participated in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan from 2001. The Marine Corps 15th MEU arrived off the coast of Pakistan in October 2001. Operating from the unit's ships, four AV-8Bs began attack missions into Afghanistan on 3 November 2001. The 26th MEU and its AV-8Bs joined 15th MEU later that month. In December 2001, Harrier IIs began moving into Afghanistan to a forward base at Kandahar. More AV-8Bs were deployed with other Marine Corps units to the region in 2002. The VMA-513 squadron deployed six Night Attack Harrier IIs to Bagram in October 2002. These aircraft each carried a LITENING targeting pod to perform reconnaissance missions along with attack and other missions primarily at night.[92]

A jet aircraft hovering above flight deck of a large military ship, with several aircraft visible on the deck.

A Marine Corps AV-8B hovers as many more are parked on the deck of amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, one month after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom

The aircraft returned to Iraq during the Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, acting primarily in support of Marine Corps ground units. During the initial action, 60 AV-8Bs were deployed on ships such as the USS Bonhomme Richard and USS Bataan, from where over a thousand sorties were flown throughout the war. When possible, land-based forward arming and refuelling points were set up to enable prompt operations.[93] Marine Corps commander Lieutenant General Earl B. Hailston said that the Harriers were able to provide 24-hour support for ground forces, and noted that "The airplane... became the envy of pilots even from my background... there's an awful lot of things on the Harrier that I've found the Hornet pilots asking me [for]... We couldn't have asked for a better record".[93] Major General James F. Amos later commented on the AV-8B's performance in Iraq, stating: "I simply could not have been more pleased with the reliability of the airplane and its weapons systems... and in the courage and discipline of my AV8 pilots."[94]

Marine Corps sources documented the Harrier as holding an 85 percent aircraft availability record in the Iraq War, and in just under a month of combat, the aircraft had flown over 2,000 sorties. When used, the LITENING II targeting pod achieved greater than 75 percent kill effectiveness on targets.[93] In a single sortie from USS Bonhomme Richard, a wave of Harriers inflicted heavy damage on a Republican Guard tank battalion in advance of a major ground assault on Al Kut.[95] Harriers regularly operated in close support roles for friendly tanks, usually with one carrying a LITENING pod. Despite the Harrier's high marks, the limited amount of time that each aircraft could remain on station, around 15–20 minutes, led to some calls from within the USMC for the procurement of AC-130 gunships, which could loiter for six hours and had a heavier close air support capability than the AV-8B.[96] AV-8Bs were later used in combination with artillery to provide constant fire support for ground forces during heavy fighting in 2004 around the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah. The urban environment there required extreme precision for airstrikes.[97]

On 20 March 2011, Marine Corps AV-8Bs were launched from USS Kearsarge in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn, enforcing the UN no-fly zone over Libya.[98] They carried out air strikes on Sirte on 5 April 2011.[99] Multiple AV-8Bs were involved in the defense of a downed F-15E pilot, attacking approaching Libyans prior to the pilot's extraction by MV-22 Osprey.[100]

Top-front view of four jet aircraft flying in a diamond shaped formation over an island airbase. Each aircraft carries an external fuel tank under each wing

Four Marine Corps AV-8Bs flying in formation over Okinawa, Japan (2011)

In addition to major conflicts, Marine Corps AV-8Bs have been deployed in support of various contingency and humanitarian operations, providing fixed-wing air cover and armed reconnaissance. The aircraft had served in Somalia throughout the 1990s, Rwanda (1994), Liberia (1996 and 2003), Central African Republic (1996), Albania (1997), Zaire (1997), Sierra Leone (1997) and East Timor (2002–2002).[101][102]

During its service life with the USMC, the Harrier has had an accident rate three times that of the Corps' other aircraft, the F/A-18. The AV-8 was dubbed a "widow maker" by some in the military.[88][103] The Los Angeles Times reported in 2003 that the Harrier family had the highest rate of major accidents among military aircraft in service then, with 148 accidents and 45 people killed.[104] Lon Nordeen notes that several other Marine Corps single-engine strike aircraft, like the A-4 Skyhawk and LTV A-7 Corsair II, had worse accident rates.[105] The Harrier's high accident rate is largely due to the higher percentage of time it spends taking off and landing, which are the most critical times in flight.[106]

The AV-8B is to be replaced by the F-35B version of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, which had been slated to enter service in 2012.[107] The USMC had wanted a replacement since the 1980s,[108][109] and has argued strongly in favor of the development of the F-35B. The Harrier's performance in Iraq, including its ability to use forward operating bases, have reinforced the need for a V/STOL aircraft in the Marine Corps arsenal.[95] In November 2011, the USN purchased the UK's fleet of 72 retired BAe Harrier IIs (this figure included the 63 single-seat GR.7/9/9As plus 9 twin-seat T.12/12As)[110] and replacement engines to provide spares for the existing Marine Corps Harrier II fleet.[111][112]

A March 2012 report in the magazine Air Forces Monthly suggested that the USMC might acquire some of the 72 ex-British Harrier IIs. The service planned to equip two squadrons with the latter GR.9/9A models due to the well maintained condition of the airframes at RAF Cottesmore, where the aircraft were stored and maintained following their retirement.[110] Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) has since stated, however, that the USMC has never had any plans to operate the ex-RAF Harriers.[113]

On 14 September 2012, a Taliban raid destroyed six AV-8Bs and severely damaged two others while they were parked on the tarmac at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. All of the aircraft belonged to VMA-211. The two damaged Harrier IIs were flown out of Afghanistan in the following hours. Some of the VMA-211 pilots also fought as infantrymen.[114] The squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Chris Raible, 40, was killed while leading an attack on the infiltrators, armed only with his pistol.[115][116] The attack was described as "the worst loss of U.S. airpower in a single incident since the Vietnam War."[117]

Italian Navy

In the late 1960s following a demonstration of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier on the Italian Navy (Marina Militare) helicopter carrier Andrea Doria, the country began investigating the possibility of acquiring the Harrier.[118] Early efforts were hindered by a 1937 Italian law that prohibited the navy from operating fixed-wing aircraft because they were the domain of the air force. In early 1989 the law was changed to allow the navy to operate any aircraft with a maximum weight of over 3,300 lb (1,500 kg).[119][120] Following a lengthy evaluation of the Sea Harrier and AV-8B, an order was placed for two TAV-8Bs in May 1989. Soon a contract for a further sixteen AV-8B Plus aircraft was signed.[120] After the TAV-8Bs and the first three AV-8Bs, all subsequent Italian Navy Harriers were locally assembled by Alenia Aeronautica from kits delivered from the US.[121] The twin-seaters, the first to be delivered, arrived at Grottaglie in August 1991. They were used for proving flights with the Navy's helicopter carriers and on the light aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi.[118][122]

Deliveries of the initial US-built aircraft began in early 1994 to MCAS Cherry Point for pilot conversion training. In 1995, the first Italian-assembled Harrier was rolled out.[121] In mid-January of that year, the Giuseppe Garibaldi set off from Taranto to Somalia, with three Harriers on board, to maintain stability following the withdrawal of UN forces.[123] The Harriers, flown by five Italian pilots, accumulated more than 100 flight hours and achieved 100 percent availability during the three-month deployment, performing reconnaissance missions and other roles. The squadron returned to port on 22 March.[118][121][124]

Back view of an aircraft taking off from a ramp aboard a ship. The ship is at sea.

An Italian Navy AV-8B Harrier II taking off from the Cavour

In 1999, Italian AV-8Bs were used for the first time in combat missions when they were deployed aboard the Giuseppe Garibaldi, which was participating in Operation Allied Force in Kosovo. Italian pilots conducted more than 60 sorties alongside other NATO aircraft, attacking the Yugoslav army and paramilitary forces and bombing the country's infrastructure with conventional and laser-guided bombs (LGB).[125]

In 2000, the Italian Navy was looking to acquire a further seven remanufactured aircraft to equip the Giuseppe Garibaldi and a new carrier, the Cavour. Existing aircraft, meanwhile, were updated to allow them to carry AIM-120 AMRAAMs and JDAM guided bombs.[48][121] From November 2001 to March 2002, eight AV-8Bs were embarked aboard the Giuseppe Garibaldi and were deployed to the Indian Ocean in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The aircraft, equipped with LGBs, performed operations throughout January and February 2002, during which 131 missions were logged for a total of 647 flight hours.[126]

In 2011, Italian Harriers, operating from the Giuseppe Garibaldi, worked alongside Italian Eurofighters and the aircraft of other nations during Operation Unified Protector as part of the 2011 military intervention in Libya.[127] They conducted intelligence and reconnaissance operations over Libya, using the LITENING targeting pods while armed with AIM-120 AMRAAMs and AIM-9 Sidewinders.[127] In total, Italian military aircraft delivered 710 guided bombs and missiles during sorties: Italian Air Force Tornados and AMX fighter bombers delivered 550 bombs and missiles, while the eight Italian Navy AV-8Bs flying from the carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi dropped 160 guided bombs during 1,221 flight hours.[128]

Italian Navy AV-8Bs are slated to be replaced by 15 (originally 22) F-35Bs, which will form the air wing of the Cavour.[129]

Spanish Navy

Two pale gray jet aircraft parked on deck of aircraft carrier, with the ship's island in the midground towards left

Two EAV-8B Harrier II Plus aircraft from the Spanish aircraft carrier Príncipe de Asturias

Spain, already using the AV-8S Matador, became the first international operator of the AV-8B by signing an order for 12 aircraft in March 1983.[130] Designated VA-2 Matadors II by the Spanish Navy (Arma Aérea de la Armada), this variant is known as "EAV-8B" by McDonnell Douglas.[131] Pilot conversion took place in the US. On 6 October 1987, the first three Matador IIs were delivered to Naval Station Rota.[131] The new aircraft were painted in a two-tone matt grey finish, similar to US Navy aircraft, and deliveries were complete by 1988.[131]

BAe test pilots cleared the aircraft carrier Príncipe de Asturias for Harrier operations in July 1989. The carrier, which replaced the World War II-era Dédalo, has a 12° ski-jump ramp.[130][131] It was originally planned that the first unit to operate the aircraft would be the 8a Escuadrilla. However, this unit was disbanded on 24 October 1986 following the sales of AV-8S Matadors to Thailand.[131] Instead, 9a Escuadrilla was formed on 29 September 1987 to become part of the Alpha Carrier Air Group and operate the EAV-8B.[131]

In March 1993, under the September 1990 Tripartite MoU between the US, Italy and Spain, eight EAV-8B Plus Matadors were ordered, along with a twin-seat TAV-8B.[130][131] Deliveries for the "Plus"-standard aircraft started in 1996.[130] On 11 May 2000, Boeing and the NAVAIR finalized a contract which would see the company remanufacture Spanish EAV-8Bs to bring them up to Plus standard. Boeing said the deal required it to remanufacture two EAV-8Bs, with an option for another seven aircraft;[132] other sources say the total figure was eleven aircraft.[130] The remanufacture would allow the aircraft to carry four AIM-120 AMRAAMs, enhance the pilot's situational awareness through the installation of new radars and avionics, and provide a new engine.[130][132] Eventually, five aircraft were modified, with the last delivered on 5 December 2003.[133]

Spanish EAV-8Bs participated in Operation Deny Flight, enforcing the UN's no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina.[130] Spain did not send its aircraft carrier to participate in the Iraq War in 2003, instead deploying F/A-18s and other support aircraft.[134] In 2007, Spain conducted a contractual study into a replacement for the Harrier II, the likely option being the F-35B.[135] According to a Lockheed Martin vice-president, Spain was still evaluating the F-35B as of 2010.[136]


Two prototypes converted in 1978 from existing AV-8A airframes (BuNos 158394 and 158395).[18]
AV-8B Harrier II sans suffix
This was the initial "Day Attack" variant.[137]
AV-8B Harrier II Night Attack
Improved version with a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera, an upgraded cockpit with night-vision goggle compatibility, and the more powerful Rolls Royce Pegasus 11 engine.[138] This variant was originally planned to be designated AV-8D.[139]
AV-8B Harrier II Plus
Similar to the Night Attack variant, with the addition of an APG-65 radar. It is used by the USMC, Spanish Navy, and Italian Navy. Forty-six new-built aircraft were assembled from 1993 to 1997.[140]
Solitary unmanned two-seat gray jet aircraft parked on ramp with canopies opened.

A Marine Corps TAV-8B Harrier II at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida

TAV-8B Harrier II
Two-seat trainer version.[140]
EAV-8B Matador II
Company designation for the Spanish Navy version.[140]
EAV-8B Matador II Plus
The AV-8B Harrier II Plus, ordered for the Spanish Navy.[140]
Harrier GR5, GR7, GR9
See British Aerospace Harrier II.


United States

Incidents and accidents

Throughout its operational history, the AV-8B has gained a reputation as a "widow maker" by its operators, mainly the USMC, due mainly to the amount of time it spends taking off and landing, which are the most critical phases in flight.[88][106] Approximately 117 aircraft have been written off since the type entered service in 1985,[152] with the first having occurred in March 1985,[153] and the latest in July 2013.[154]

Aircraft on display


Specifications (AV-8B Harrier II Plus)

Outlines of aircraft, consisting of a front view, top view and side view.
Two crew members inspecting a bomb on a trolley, in front of an aircraft.

A detached 25 mm cannon pod being worked upon by ground crew

External images
Armament and vectored nozzles
Underside of AV-8 Harrier II

Data from Nordeen,[157] Boeing[158][41]

General characteristics

  • Crew: 1 pilot
  • Length: 46 ft 4 in (14.12 m)
  • Wingspan: 30 ft 4 in (9.25 m)
  • Height: 11 ft 8 in (3.55 m)
  • Wing area: 243.4 ft² (22.61 m²)
  • Airfoil: supercritical airfoil
  • Empty weight: 13,968 lb (6,340 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 22,950 lb (10,410 kg)
  • Max. takeoff weight:
    • Rolling: 31,000 lb (14,100 kg)
    • Vertical: 20,755 lb (9,415 kg)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Rolls-Royce F402-RR-408 (Mk 107) vectored-thrust turbofan, 23,500 lbf (105 kN)


  • Maximum speed: Mach 1.0 (585 knots, 673 mph, 1,083 km/h)
  • Range: 1,200 nmi (1,400 mi, 2,200 km)
  • Combat radius: 300 nmi (350 mi, 556 km)
  • Ferry range: 1,800 nmi(2,100 mi, 3,300 km)
  • Rate of climb: 14,700 ft/min (4,485 m/min)
  • Wing loading: 94.29 lb/ft² (460.4 kg/m²)



Popular culture

As part of its 1996 Pepsi Stuff marketing campaign, Pepsi ran an advertisement promising a Harrier jet to anyone who collected 7,000,000 Pepsi Points, a gag that backfired when a participant attempted to take advantage of the ability to buy additional points for 10 cents each to claim a jet for US$700,000. When Pepsi turned him down, a lawsuit ensued, in which the judge ruled that any reasonable person would conclude that the advertisement was a joke.[160]

See also


  1. According to Lon Nordeen, the first TAV-8B flew on 21 November 1986.[30]
  2. According to Lon Nordeen, the AV-8B's IOC was achieved in August 1985.[84]


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