A photo-report on the Sea Harrier F/A.2 by Neil Mercer.
ANOTHER CHAPTER of aviation history closed at the end of February, when 800 Naval Air Sauadron (NAS) returned with HMS Invincible, after six months in the Adriatic. During its time there it had been carrying out reconnaissance and Combat Air Patrol (CAP) missions in support of the United Nations Operation Deny Flight. Its return marked the last operational deployment of the Falklands War victor, the Sea Harrier FRS.l. However, at the same time, a new and infinitely more capable type is about to replace it on the front line.
Staff studies after the Falklands War highlighted areas of FRS.l performance that could be improved upon, particularly the lock of look-down shoot down’ capability — this resulted in a staff target for a mid-life airframe update in late 1982. The airframe rebuild has produced the superior Sea Harrier F/A.2, the first airframe and radar in history to be designed around the Hughes AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM). This missile alone completely redefines the concept of air combat with its exceptional range and advanced avionics, giving Royal Navy pilots new tactical advantages and true area denial capabilities at sea.
The aircraft can simultaneously control four missiles to separate targets, with the missile utilising target information from the Blue Vixen pulse-Doppler multi-mode radar end route as mid-course guidance and switching to active homing in the terminal guidance phase.
Having first flown on September 19, 1988, the upgrade is coming into service late due to development delays and uncertainty over finance. The RN Operational Evaluation Unit (OEU) was firmly established, initially at Boscombe Down but latterly with 899 NAS at RNAS Yeovilton, and it was tasked with system validation trials assessing the air-to-air capability of the type compared with the FRS. 1. The last step for the F/A.2 before full frontline service was taken when the 899 NAS OEU deployed to HMS Invincible in the Adriatic, flying identical sorties over Bosnia as the FRS.1 and receiving a baptism of fire when engaged by a hand-held missile over the Bihoc enclave in September 1994.
The F/A.2 now completely equips the Headquarters Squadron at Yeovilton, having been introduced to 801 Naval Air Squadron upon its return from the Adriatic in September 1994. It has presented no major problems to aircrew converting and early indications are that the Sea Harrier F/A.2 is a quantum leap ahead, particularly in terms of its radar field.
FRS. 1 conversions continue to be delivered to Yeovilton at a rate of around one every six weeks, and a new-build order of 18 aircraft is currently being manufactured at BAe Dunsfold, ensuring attrition replacements well into the 21st century.
New tactics and software in the F/A.2 promise on enhancement of the aircraft’s traditional strengths, and is reflected in the changed designation Fighter Attack instead of the previous Fighter Reconnaissance and Strike.
The earlier Extra Dark Sea Grey colour scheme has been replaced by a lighter grey scheme, reported to make visual detection more difficult at height, with pale pink and light blue roundels replacing the more traditional colours. In the Sea Harrier F/A.2, the Royal Navy has procured one of the finest single-seat fighters in the UK defence armoury, and we may be sure that it and the Fleet Air Arm will continue to protect British interests worldwide when required to do so.