Procurement: British Harriers Join The U.S. Marine Corps

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November 18, 2011: Britain is selling all its Harrier jet fighters, spare parts and ancillary gear to the U.S. Marine Corps. The American marines are the largest operator of Harrier aircraft, with 140 AV-8Bs in service.

A year ago, Britain retired its fleet of 74 Harrier vertical-takeoff jets as a cost-cutting measure. The aircraft were put into storage, but with enough maintenance services to keep them in shape for rapid reactivation. It was hoped that a buyer could be found. The American marines were not interested initially, because they were expecting the new F-35B to arrive in time to replace their aging Harriers. The F-35B has suffered numerous delays, and is now threatened with cancellation. This led to the purchase of Britain's Harrier aircraft and spare parts. This will keep the marine Harriers in service for at least another two decades. Without the infusion of British equipment, the American Harriers would have been retired in about fifteen years.

Most of the British Harriers will be cannibalized for spare parts. The British and American Harriers are largely identical. A lot of the electronics are different, but the airframes and engines are interchangeable. There is agreement on the price for the stock of spare parts ($50 million), but negotiations continue (in the form of dueling spreadsheets) over what the decommissioned British Harriers are worth. This issue is expected to be resolved before the end of the year. The 74 British Harriers could sell for half a billion dollars or more.

The Americans are not the only ones having problems keeping their Harrier forces going. Three years ago, Britain sold four surplus Harrier aircraft to India, to be cannibalized for spare parts. In the previous twenty years, India had lost half of its 30 Harrier vertical takeoff fighters to accidents, and the fifteen remaining aircraft often could not fly because of a shortage of spares. Britain also offered help with Harrier refurbishment.

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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