Harrier jets Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Single-engine, vertical and short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) aircraft designed in Britain and manufactured in Britain and the United States.


In 1957, the British manufacturer Hawker-Siddley Aviation built the first Kestrel, the design of which would later be used for the Harrier jets. The construction of a prototype of the Harrier proceeded without government funding until after the development of an engine capable of vertical lift. In 1960, the British Royal Air Force expressed interest in the aircraft providing funds for continued research and development. Four additional planes were ordered after the potential for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies became apparent. The Harrier, a small ground-attack aircraft capable of vertical takeoffs achieved by the use of four swiveling nozzles on a Pegasus engine, flew for the first time on August 1, 1966. After the successful completion of the flight tests in Great Britain, six planes arrived in the United States for evaluation, with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) examining two of them. Manufactured by British Aerospace, the Harrier I included two models, the Sea Harrier FA2 and the AV-8A. Both the Royal Air Force and the United States Marine Corps deployed the Harriers for defense and attack missions. The Sea Harrier, used primarily by the British Royal Navy as a defense fighter, utilized the Blue Vixen Radar that offered beyond visual range (BVR) capability and was able to shoot airborne and seaborne targets with its four AIM-120 BVR missiles. Capable of achieving speeds as high as Mach 1.3, the Harrier I had a wing span of 25 feet, 3 inches, a length of 46 feet, 5 inches, and a height of 11 feet, 10 inches. The British Royal Navy deployed the Sea Harrier during the Falkland Islands War in 1982. In the year 2000, the Harrier I was still being used by the Indian Navy and the Royal Thai Navy.

Second-Generation Harriers

By 1973, Hawker-Siddley and McDonnell Douglas Aircraft, an American contractor, initiated improvements on the original Harrier that resulted in the development of a composite wing structure. The original Pegasus motor, manufactured by Rolls Royce, continued to power the aircraft even though the maximum payload increased. The Harrier AV-8B flew for seven minutes at an altitude of 130 feet on November 9, 1978, at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, Missouri. Before the production of the Harrier AV-8B commenced in 1981, the aircraft underwent extensive testing during a three-year period. The plane, measuring 46 feet 4 inches in length, with a wingspan of 30 feet 4 inches, is equipped with forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensors, and the pilot can utilize night vision goggles, making the Harrier effective during both day and night missions. The aircraft is outfitted with free fall, retarded, cluster, and laser-guided bombs, air-to-air Sidewinder missiles, air-to-surface Maverick, HARM, and ALARM missiles, and a 1-by-25-millimeter Aden Cannon for the Royal Air Force or a 1-by-25 millimeter GAU-12 cannon for the United States Marine Corps. In addition to low-level missions at subsonic speeds, the Harrier II is also deployed for some medium-level operations where its accurate angle rate bombing system (ARBS) can be effectively utilized. British and NATO forces utilized the Harrier II in Bosnia and Serbia. The United States Marine Corps and the British Royal Navy deployed the Harrier II during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, where the eighty-six aircraft flew 3,380 combat missions during forty-two days, dropping more than 6 million pounds of ordnance.

Harrier II Plus

Although the Harrier II proved effective, the United States and two of its NATO allies, Italy and Spain, cooperated on the development of the Harrier II Plus, which first flew on September 22, 1992. Manufactured by McDonnell Douglas and British Aerospace, the new aircraft relied on a more powerful engine, the Rolls-Royce Pegasus F402-RR-408, and included the advanced APG-65 radar system and avionics that allow the plane to fly a variety of missions during night or adverse weather conditions. Initially, the United States purchased twenty-seven, Italy sixteen, and Spain eight Harrier II Plus aircraft. Capable of engaging multiple targets simultaneously, the Harrier II Plus operates with free fall, retarded, cluster, and laser guided missiles, medium range air-to-air missiles (MRAAM) and short range air-to-air missiles (SRAAM), antishipping missiles, air-to-surface missiles, electronic counter measure (ECM) pods, and a 25-millimeter GAU-12 cannon. Since 1992, the United States Marine Corps has initiated a program to remanufacture all of its Harrier II planes, upgrading the systems to comply with the specifications of the Harrier II Plus. Boeing delivered the first Harrier II Plus in July, 1993, with the first updated Harrier II arriving in 1996.

  • Chant, Christopher. Fighters and Bombers. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999. A general reference source that provides drawings, photographs, and descriptions of all military fighters and bombers, including the Harrier jets.
  • Davies, Peter E., and Anthony M. Thornborough. The Harrier Story. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1996. Excellent reference source for the design, development, and operational history of the Harrier jet. Interviews with engineers involved in the development of the aircraft provide firsthand accounts of the difficulties associated with VTOL technology.
  • Jenkins, Dennis R. Boeing/BAe Harrier. North Branch, Minn.: Speciality Press, 1998. Jenkins’s work provides a look at the technical and engineering details involved with the production of the Harrier jet.

Aircraft carriers


Fighter pilots

Gulf War

Marine pilots, U.S.

Royal Air Force

McDonnell Douglas

Vertical takeoff and landing

A Harrier jet, a vertical and short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) aircraft, rises straight into the air.

Categories: History