Field Report: British GR7 Harrier IIs in Afghanistan
In March 2005, DID covered the evolution of the USMC’s AV-8B Harrier II aircraft, and their growing success in the Iraqi theater of war as a close air support platform for urban warfighting. Now the UK’s Ministry of Defence has issued a release concerning the performance of No 3 (Fighter) Squadron’s six GR7A Harrier IIs (AV-8B counterparts) in Kandahar, Afghanistan, which makes for interesting reading.
While US forces are slowly rebuilding the runway at Kandahar, the Harrier’s V/STOL (Vertical/ Short Take-Off and Landing) capability makes it the only fast jet fighter able to operate from the south of the country, and the sole local jet asset readily available to support allied troops on the ground.
In the Falklands War, earlier Harrier versions faced challenges due to forward air controller equipment shortages on the battlefield and the inherent difficulty of using fast-moving jets as scouting aircraft for hidden or camouflaged enemy troops. Maj. David Wheen, Royal Marines, elaborates in this 1986 lecture.
Meanwhile, the MoD release notes that:
“The insurgent and anti-government forces operate in the towns and remote mountainous regions in the southern provinces and along the Pakistani border. The area is barren, hostile and riddled with caves. Enemy fighters easily blend in with the local population, making identification particularly difficult.”
While sensor improvements have made the AV-8B an especially effective weapon on the urban battlefields of Iraq, the British Harriers have adapted to this issue by frequently supporting pre-planned missions against the insurgents, and using infantry contact plus good radio communications with ground forces to solve the location problem. The commander of a US Army task force operating on the ground recently remarked on the effect of this approach. As the MoD releaser notes:
“I have never had a mission where ground manoeuvre and air assets were so well linked,” he said. “When we kicked in the door, less than a second later the Harriers were over the target building. All the insurgents were so shocked, there were no engagements and we secured the objective in less than a minute.”
The release quotes Wing Commander Hedley as saying: “Having first identified precisely the location of the enemy, they will then fly low and fast over the enemy positions as a show of force and their sheer presence often coerces the enemy to stop what they are doing.” It also notes that the squadron’s Harrier IIs have only deployed munitions on 13 operations.
Challenges faced by the Harrier deployment in Kandahar include aircraft performance effects from being 3,300 feet above sea level, 45C/113F heat, high winds, dust, and plummeting temperatures plus flooding in the winter time that have predictable effects in Kandahar’s dust bowl. The release notes of the base’s maintenance personnel that “it is testament to their skill and determination that they have always been able to keep the aircraft ready for operations.”
The initial deployment to Kandahar was established by No 3 (Fighter) Squadron, who recently returned to Kandahar for a further tour of duty. No 1 (Fighter) Squadron and No. IV (Army Cooperation) Squadron, all from RAF Cottesmore, have also contributed during the past ten months.
- DID (Sept 26/06) – The Major’s Email: British Harrier Support in Afghanistan, Revisited A British Major complains about the level of support coming from the Harriers in Afghanistan, and makes unfavourable comparisons with the USAF’s performance. The UK MoD responds, and DID discusses the issues.
- DID (Jan 18/06) – BAE’s Upcoming GBP 400M Deal to Support UK’s Harrier fleet. Per British preference, it will be an through-life support maintenance contract until the aircraft are withdrawn from service around 2018.
- DID (Oct 20/05) – Harriers Hit in Kandahar. One was destroyed and another damaged in a rocket attack on the Kandahar airfield.