Following the retirement of the Sea Harrier, the Fleet Air Arm commenced operations with the Harrier GR7 and GR9 aircraft, within the framework of Joint Force Harrier (JFH) based at RAF Cottesmore in Rutland. JFH is a robust organisation that provides the necessary support and expertise for the Harrier, and acts as a parent for the UK’s three front line Harrier Squadrons: Naval Strike Wing, No1 (F) Sqn RAF and NoIV (AC) Sqn RAF.
The GR7 is considerably more advanced in terms of construction, powerplant and avionics. Its cockpit ergonomics are also a vast improvement on the old Sea Harrier. The GR9 builds on the GR7’s strengths, introducing further avionics upgrades that aid the aircrafts overall capability.
Of note, the GR7 and GR9 are not fighters! Although more than capable of looking after themselves, the aircraft are optimised for the close air support and strike roles and do not possess either a radar, or an integrated long-range air-to-air capability, they do however retain a high degree of flexibility that lends itself well to the current threat environment within which the Royal Navy is required to operate.
The unique performance characteristics of the Harrier allows continued operation from both ashore and afloat utilising existing platforms and infrastructure, and providing a bridge in capability pending the entry into service of the Joint Strike Fighter during the next decade.
The tasking undertaken by NSW (Naval Strike Wing) is varied and is usually generated by the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC), which oversees the overall air picture within Theatre. In general, NSW are tasked with the provision of aircraft to meet a designated number of sorties per day. Standard tasking consists of mostly Close Air Support, or Tactical Reconnaissance, with a number of aircraft kept at high readiness to respond to events as required – this latter role is simply termed Ground Close Air Support or GCAS.
It is intended that the Harrier force be completely replaced by the Future Joint Combat Aircraft (FJCA) also referred to as the Joint Strike Fighter which is due to enter service in 2012 and be operated from the Royal Navy's Future Aircraft Carriers (CVF).