The Harrier has surely been a large part of Marine aviation since 9/11, but its STOVL characteristics were rarely, if ever, critical to the conduct of operations. If anything, the capability was a liability when it came to the requirement for long on-station times, multiple ordnance options, and tedious scanning of compounds and cities with targeting pods in support of troops on the ground.
While Harriers have conducted some forward rearming and refueling at shorter strips, these were more driven by the Harrier's limitations and the desire to validate its expeditionary capability than a value added to the fight. That is, while a Harrier was rearming and refueling, a Hornet would be overhead, sensor still on target, refueling from a KC-130, more weapons still on the wing.
So, when the program hits a rough spot again, which I think it will, and when the budget adjusters come knocking, the Marine Corps needs to be honest about how much STOVL capability it really needs to maintain its close air support capability aboard amphibious shipping, how soon unmanned aerial systems can fill that gap, and what the best option is for the rest of our close air support needs.
H/T- Sky Talk
Here are some other thoughts I blogged last year about the limited value of STOVL jets at any price vs. how the U.S. fights air wars. And for the F-35B, consider 7 tons of gas per sortie from an "austere" base.
In every major conflict involving US ground troops since Operation DESERT STORM, the USMC Harriers have not been unique in their ability to “move forward” and operate “close to the fight”. For example, during DESERT STORM “Hornets based at Shaik Isa utilized the airfield at Jabayl as a FARP [Forward Arming Refueling Point], just as the Harriers did at Tanajib, thus reducing transit time to and from the target area”.
Furthermore, USAF “F16s…generated a tremendous number of sorties while operating from a forward operating location (FOL) at King Khalid Military City (KKMC) in Saudi Arabia, located just 60 miles from the Iraqi border”.
“F-16s operating there were able to exchange their drop-tanks for extra ordnance: KKMC-based missions carried four Mk-84 2,000-pound bombs (double the normal load of two). FOL operations allowed the wing to fly more sorties per day; KKMC missions launched from the…main base in Abu Dhabi to bomb the KTO [Kuwait theater of operations]; landed and rearmed at KKMC for a second sortie to the KTO (which did not require refueling); landed and rearmed at KKMC for a third mission and after attacking the KTO, air refueled to return to Abu Dhabi.”
Like the USMC Harrier, the USAF F-16’s took advantage of a FOL, but the “F-16 carried a larger payload than either the Harrier or the Hornet, and delivered tons of ordnance…with a very small transit and turnaround time”.
Again, nearly ten-years later, during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF), the USMC Harriers were not alone in their ability to move forward and operate “close to the fight”. In October 2002, a six-airplane detachment of Harriers from Marine Attack Squadron (VMA)-513 set up shop at Bagram, near Kabul, where A-10s had been operating since March of that year.
Later during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF), Harriers took advantage of a FARP “at An Numaniyah, 60 miles south of Baghdad” but USAF A-10’s also “deployed forward” and operated out of “Tallil Air Base in Iraq”. However, logistics hampered Harrier operations. According to a “Harrier squadron commander…it was a major task keeping such aircraft supplied with jet fuel at that site”. This squadron commander went on to say, “It takes a lot of support and logistics…so we chose to use other platforms”.
Like the Harrier, the F-35B will be a logistics challenge. A number of logistics risks exist with the STOVL variant that do not exist for the other JSF variants, the primary being the vertical lift fan. Although a revolutionary design concept, the reliability and maintainability of the lift fan is still unproven. The lift fan operates on a single shaft that connects to the main engine and spins at a high-rate of speed. According to one study, this lift fan design causes “ added complexity” due to “the need for the clutch to engage and disengage the lift fan”.
Repair of the vertical lift components would very likely call for removing the engine, a traditionally “high repair time task”. Further, the lift fan and swivel nozzle adds to the logistics footprint especially when forward deployed.
According to one study, “While the JSF designers strive to reduce the complexity of the aircraft systems, the fact remains that the STOVL…will by nature be more difficult to maintain than either corresponding CTOL or [Navy] version”. This conclusion centered on “Naval Post Graduate School [studies] which compare projected component designs for the STOVL JSF to current Harrier design and projected [F-35C] design”.
Of course that paper assumes a working F-35C.
On that day, after the fall of Kandahar, the Marines dispatched two Harriers to a partly destroyed airstrip there. Marine leaders touted this as evidence that the planes were operating where others could not.
But the two planes stayed only one night, flying four sorties and dropping no bombs, according to the Marines. Capt. Chris Raible, who piloted Harriers in Afghanistan, said the flights "were like photo ops."
When medals were awarded for Operation Anaconda, the major battle in eastern Afghanistan in March, the honors went to the Marine helicopter pilots who provided low-level fire for ground troops while the Harriers circled above.
Harriers have been operating alongside A-10s at a high-altitude air base at Bagram since October, where the Marines say they have provided "essential support to ground units." But the thin air and a torn-up runway have restricted vertical flight.