Aviation - DEFENCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, Issue 40
The great GR9 journey
The undulating ground in Musa Qal'eh shook on 5th December 2007 as a Royal Air Force Harrier GR9 combat aircraft dropped an Enhanced Paveway-IV 227kg (500lb) bomb onto an enemy position during an exchange of fire with coalition personnel in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The force of the explosion, according to the Central Command Air Force Air Power Summary for that day, was sufficient to stop the enemy fire.
The RAF's 'jump jet' has become a star performer in the global war on terror, particularly in the Afghan theatre, over the past few years. The Harrier's combat experience has coincided with a wholesale increase in the aircraft's capabilities thanks to the BAE Systems led GR9 upgrade programme.
Ironically, the latest strengthening of the GR9's capabilities came just one day after the engagement in Helmand when the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) announced that the GR9s in Afghanistan had a new weapon to use against the Taliban. The ordnance, which was the result of an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) issued by the MOD earlier in the year, is a hybrid design mixing the components of the Paveway-II bomb body with the Paveway-IV computer control system. The design was the result of a collaboration between the MOD, BAE Systems, Raytheon Missile Systems, Portsmouth Aviation Limited and EDO-MBM. This new hybrid weapon builds on the famous Paveway lineage and gives the RAF a weapon that can reach its target using either the Global Positioning System (GPS) or laser guidance. The use of GPS allows the GR9s to attack targets obscured by cloud cover or smoke. The UK is effectively getting a surrogate version of the United States' famed Joint Direct Attack Munition GPS guidance kit, which can be attached to conventional bombs.
The new hybrid Paveway derivative is just the latest modification in a long line of improvements to the UK's Harrier force implemented via the GR9 programme. The work to clear the GR9 for the carriage of the Paveway-IV 500lb bomb began in the summer of 2006 when a GR9 performed a test-drop of the weapon on 15th June at the MOD's range in Aberporth, Wales. As trials of the Harrier/Paveway combination continued, the first GR9 entered service on 11th October that year at the home of the Joint Force Harrier (JFH) unit at RAF Cottesmore, Rutland. The test of the Paveway system was part of the so-called 'Capability C' phase of the GR9 upgrade.
The aim of the GR9 programme is to keep the Harrier flying and its teeth sharp until it is replaced by the Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Combat Aircraft (known as the F-35 Lightning-II Joint Strike Fighter in US parlance) around 2018. By the summer of last year, BAE Systems had already delivered 32 Harriers that had been upgraded from their previous GR7/7A designation to GR9/9A status. Eventually, the GR9/9A fleet will include about 70 aircraft, which will also encompass the two-seat T-10 trainers, which will be upgraded to the T-12 configuration that mimics the systems found on the GR9/9A aircraft for instruction. The GR9 project is worth around £500m ($986m/€670m) to BAE Systems and is being performed at the Harrier's Cottesmore home base under the Joint Update and Maintenance Programme, which sees the aircraft upgraded as they are rotated through their maintenance cycles.
The GR9 programme has been implemented through a series of stages divided into Capabilities A, B, C and D. The first phase of the GR9 programme saw the installation of a new software standard, which improved the communications, ground proximity warning and navigation systems of the GR7/7A aircraft, along with adding the capability to fire the AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missile. The Capability C enhancements add the RAF's Rangeless Airborne Instrumentation Debriefing System and eventually the Raytheon Systems Limited Successor Identification Friend or Foe system. Capability D will follow, allowing the aircraft to fire the MBDA Brimstone anti-armour missile. Other initiatives forming part of the Capability D enhancements include the addition of the RAF's Digital Joint Reconnaissance Pod, along with the ability of the aircraft to simulate the use of precision bombs for training purposes. To this end, on 14th February 2007, a GR9 outfitted with 12 Brimstone missiles positioned on four launchers, along with a 1,136 litre (250 gallon) fuel tank, took its maiden flight from the BAE Systems factory at Warton, Lancashire, to test the Harrier's handling characteristics when equipped with the missiles and when refuelling from a VC-10 tanker. The programme will move ahead over the next couple of years to include the Capability E modifications, which will add a Link-16 communications system, possibly by 2010. In terms of the T-10 two-seat trainers, nine of these will be upgraded to T-12 configuration, although these aircraft will retain the Rolls-Royce Pegasus Mk.105, which is fitted to the GR7 fleet.
As the GR9 programme has moved forward, other improvements have been added as an adjunct to the upgrade project as a consequence of the war in Afghanistan. Along with the UOR for the Paveway hybrid, the RAF also issued a new UOR for an improved targeting pod. The Harrier had been using the Thermal Imaging Aircraft Laser Designator in Afghanistan, which allowed the aircraft to paint targets for laser guided bombs. Broadly speaking, TIALD has worked as advertised and has allowed the Harrier to mark large targets such as buildings. However, in Afghanistan, targets are often located in residential areas where the consequences of a laser guided bomb going astray could be catastrophic. A Harrier pilot may find themselves tasked with hitting a squad of enemy troops, perhaps in close contact with coalition forces, and require the commensurate fidelity in their laser targeting system to ensure that they can get a pinpoint lock on the enemy position and drop their weapon with great accuracy.
Therefore a decision was made by the MOD to acquire a new targeting pod in late 2006, which resulted in Lockheed Martin being selected to provide the Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod in February 2007. Deliveries began barely a month later and deployment of the system was cleared last summer. Crucially, Sniper does not just afford the Harrier's greater accuracy in using laser guided weapons; it also contributes to the Intelligence, Surveillance and Target Acquisition (ISTAR) efforts in Afghanistan. Given that the pods also have the means to plot the GPS co-ordinates of an item of interest, Sniper's manufacturers teamed with Selex and BAE Systems to demonstrate the speed with which the Harrier could be outfitted with the new kit as part of a Rapid Technology Insertion programme, which saw the jet fly with the Sniper a mere two months after the system was selected. However, the GR9 was already in Afghanistan by the time that Sniper was selected, having arrived in the country on 26th January that year with two GR9 aircraft accompanying a pair of their GR7A cousins. In fact, no sooner had the Harriers arrived than they were in combat against the Taliban.
The GR9 initiative has also included a re-manufactured engine for the Harrier. The modification, which redesignates the GR7/GR9s existing Mk.105 powerplant to Mk.107, was ordered from Rolls-Royce for £150m in 1999. A total of 30 GR7s received the new engine, which replaced the previous Mk.105 Pegasus powerplant. The installation of the new engine has resulted in these aircraft being redesignated 'GR7A' before they receive the GR9 upgrade (after which they are designated 'GR9A'). The powerplant improvements give the aircraft 23,800lb (106kN) of thrust, which took the aircraft's maximum take-off weight to 34,000lbs (15,422kg), and crucially improves the performance of the aircraft when operating from arid and high altitude areas – a key aspect of the operations in Afghanistan. This was a noticeable improvement on the previous powerplants, which gave the aircraft 21,599lb (96kN) of thrust. Not only does the new engine better equip the Harrier for 'hot and high' operations; it also allows the GR7A/GR9A to be flown from an aircraft carrier with the same quantity of stores as a Harrier operating from land, as well as affording a higher degree of manoeuvrability.
The entire Harrier community has been extremely busy over the past few years. The famous FA.2 Sea Harrier was retired from service in March 2006. This resulted in JFH, which combines both Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm (FAA) units and RAF units, migrating to an all-GR7/GR9 force. The JFH unit is located at Cottesmore under the auspices of the 122 Expeditionary Air Wing. It includes 1(F) Squadron, which performed its maiden deployment to Afghanistan with its Harriers in December 2004. This unit is joined in JFH by IV(AC) Squadron, which deployed to Afghanistan in August 2004 and has also been rotated through the theatre. FAA units in JFH include both 800 and 801 Naval Air Squadron, with each having operated in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2006 respectively. British Harriers have performed missions in Iraq, the Balkans and Sierra Leone.
The utility and adaptability of the Harrier in the post-Cold War world has been impressive, given that the design was originally intended to provide close air support from unprepared sites in the event of a confrontation with the Warsaw Pact in the fields of West Germany, along with fleet air defence for the Navy. However, it is the aircraft's abilities to operate from austere areas, carry an impressive weapons load and land vertically that have made it such a key part of coalition air power in ongoing operations in Afghanistan.