Murphy's Law: Kill The Harrier And F-35B


February 2, 2012: The U.S. Marine Corps is rethinking its need for vertical-takeoff jets like the Harrier and F-35B. There are several reasons for this. First there is cost. The replacement for the Harrier and the F-35B will be expensive, costing over $100 million each. Worse, these vertical takeoff aircraft tend to have more accidents, which increases the cost of keeping them in service. Operating these aircraft from forward airbases is not used that much anymore because getting fuel and other supplies is much more difficult and expensive and smart bombs eliminate the need to have jet fighter-bombers based so close to the front lines. In effect, the smart bomb, especially the GPS guided ones, have eliminated most of the advantages of the vertical takeoff jet. What combat aircraft need now is endurance (which vertical takeoff jets lack) to stay over the battlefield until a smart bomb is needed down there. Cheaper aircraft, like the F-18E, can do this more cheaply and effectively.

The big consideration here is cost and the major cuts announced for the U.S. defense budget. As a result, the marines can't afford to buy new F-35Bs while also upgrading their aging helicopter fleet. Moreover, the F-35Bs have been delayed several times and the marines have taken some extreme measures to keep their Harrier fleet operational. For example, three months ago the marines bought all of Britain's Harrier jet fighters, spare parts, and ancillary gear. The American marines are currently the largest operator of Harrier aircraft, with 140 AV-8Bs in service and there is even talk of retiring these aircraft sooner rather than later.

The Harrier has the highest accident rate of any current jet fighter. This is largely because of its vertical flight capabilities, which give it an accident rate similar to that of helicopters. The U.S. Marine Corps has lost a third of its 397 Harriers to such accidents in 32 years. That's about three times the rate of the F-18C. However, accident loss rates for combat aircraft have been declining over the last century. Current Harrier rates are similar to those for many fixed-wing aircraft operating in the 1970s. Harrier pilots simply accept the fact that since they operate an aircraft that can fly like a helicopter they have to expect the higher loss rates that go with it.


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