The AV-8B Harrier is the world’s first fixed-wing VSTOL strike aircraft. Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Samuel Ruiz.
The GR9 is the latest version of the Harrier. Credit: US Department of Defense Current Photos/Wikimedia Commons.
The Harrier GR9 made its first flight in May 2003 and was accepted into service in September 2006. Credit: Bama 211/Wikimedia Commons.
The Harrier GR9 performs roles including close air support, air interdiction and strike coordination and reconnaissance. Credit: Bama 211/Wikimedia Commons.
The Harrier GR9 standard includes improved weapon-aiming systems, improved navigation, and the ability to fire advanced, precision-guided weapons. Credit: Babiesan/Wikimedia Commons.

The Harrier, which first entered service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1969, is famous as the world’s first fixed-wing VSTOL (vertical or short take-off and landing) strike aircraft. It is capable of operating from short landing surfaces, aircraft carriers, unprepared strips, including grass strips, and take off and land vertically.

The Harrier II (AV-8B), manufactured by British Aerospace and McDonnell Douglas (now BAE Systems and Boeing), replaced the HS Harrier in the UK Royal Air Force and in the US Marine Corps in 1985.

The GR9 is an upgrade of the GR7. The GR7 has been in service since 1995 with the UK RAF and has been operationally deployed in the Gulf, the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. All 69 of the RAF GR7 fleet were upgraded by BAE Systems to the GR9 standard, which included improved weapon-aiming systems and navigation and the addition of new weapons to its arsenal.

The current versions of the Harrier are the single-seat GR9 and the T-12 two-seat trainer aircraft, which can also be used in combat.

The Harrier GR9 made its first flight in May 2003 and was accepted into service in September 2006. The in-service date was defined as 24 operationally capable GR9s and one T-12. The remaining 45 aircraft were delivered through to 2009. Two GR9s were deployed to Afghanistan in January 2007, as part of the Nato International Security Force.

The UK Royal Navy Sea Harriers were retired in March 2006. The RAF/Royal Navy Joint Force Harrier, based at RAF Cottesmore, is now operated with RAF Harrier GR7/9 aircraft.

In November 2014, the US Marine Corps revealed plans to retire the AV-8B Harrier II. The service plans to prolong the lifespan of its older Boeing F/A-18 Hornet strike fighters, as outlined in its 2015 aviation plan.

The US Marine Corps further announced plans to replace the Harrier with the F-35B Lightning II aircraft, capable of short take-off and vertical landing, by 2028. The F-35 is equipped with advanced sensors and communication systems, boosting the capabilities of connected airborne, maritime, space, surface, and ground-based platforms.

Harrier GR9 design and roles

The GR9 is a single-seat, multirole combat aircraft that can operate at night and at low-light levels in extreme environments, from a wide selection of locations including aircraft carriers and forward air bases.

One of the main roles of the Harrier is close air support that involves launching air attacks against hostile targets in close proximity to friendly forces. Harriers are usually employed in direct support of ground troops operating against enemy troop positions, tanks and artillery.

Harriers are also used for the air interdiction role, in which the aircraft carry out low or medium-level attacks using precision-guided, freefall or unguided bombs. Harrier GR9 is also deployed on strike coordination and reconnaissance operations.

The BAE Military Air Solutions business group carried out the upgrade of the GR7 aircraft to the GR9 standard. The upgrade activities and Harrier GR7 maintenance activities were moved together in a ten-day ‘pulse’ through a joint upgrade and maintenance programme at RAF Cottesmore.

GR9 avionics

The aircraft is equipped with forward-looking infrared and night-vision goggles. The new navigation system on the GR9 provides high-accuracy navigation and includes a ring laser gyroscope inertial navigation system coupled with a GPS.

Tactical information exchange capability (TIEC) capability was installed on the aircraft. A team led by BAE with Rockwell Collins and General Dynamics developed the TIEC capability, to network the RAF Tornado GR4 and Harrier GR9 jets, by installing and integrating link 16 and improved data modem (IDM) in the aircraft. The capability integrates link 16 and IDM messages with the aircraft systems to provide the pilot and crews with enhanced situation awareness.


The GR9 is fitted with the Lockheed Martin Sniper or the Selex TIALD 500 targeting pod. The improved pod enables pilots to find and identify groups or individual hostile soldiers in difficult terrain, for example, small groups of insurgents in mountainous countryside.

The TIALD 500 is an upgraded version of the TIALD 300/400 series and incorporates a Denel medium wave (three to five micron) infrared camera, with a Selex 384×288 staring array.

The new TIALD provides enhanced performance in terms of improved ranges for detection and identification. TIALD 500 is also equipped with transfer alignment capability, which allows the pod sight to be aligned with the aircraft’s weapon boresight.

An urgent operational requirement for third-generation targeting pods for the GR9 was raised by the UK Royal Air Force and the Ministry of Defence invitations to tender were issued in late 2006. Lockheed Martin UK was awarded the contract in February 2007 to supply the sniper advanced targeting pod.

Sniper is a third-generation advanced targeting pod and is equipped with a full-motion video downlink, which enables the ground troops to see the same Sniper display as that displayed in the Harrier cockpit.

Deliveries began in March 2007 and full capability deployment started in June 2007.

Both TIALD 500 and the Sniper provide SCAR capability. The improved optics and infrared pointers on the Sniper provide improved capability in terms of locating, identifying and handing off targets to other assets.

Harrier weapons

The Harrier is armed with general-purpose bombs and cluster munitions, Paveway laser and GPS-guided bombs against buildings, Raytheon AGM-65 Maverick infrared-guided anti-tank missiles and AIM-9 Sidewinder infrared-guided air-to-air missiles.

The Raytheon Paveway IV precision-guided bomb is the latest generation of the Paveway family and entered service on Harrier GR9 aircraft deployed in Afghanistan in December 2008.

Paveway IV uses dual-mode guidance with laser guidance and GPS-aided inertial navigation that incorporates anti-spoofing and anti-jamming technology. The weapon has good manoeuvrability and following launch, it can turn and attack a target behind the delivery aircraft.

The GPS/IN system is supplied by Raytheon Systems at Glenrothes, Scotland. In order to attack relocatable and moving targets or fixed targets, the pilot can switch between guidance modes as necessary before or after weapon release.

Paveway IV is fitted with enhanced Mk82 500lb warheads designed by Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson. EDO MBM Technology based in Brighton is responsible for the supply of the Paveway IV aircraft umbilical interconnect system and quad containers.

The Raytheon AGM-65 Maverick is a man-in-the-loop, low collateral damage, anti-tank and anti-ship, close air support missile.

The Brimstone anti-armour system was deployed on the GR9 in 2008. The MBDA UK Brimstone fire-and-forget missile has a millimetre wave seeker operating at 94GHz which provides all-weather day-and-night capability. The missile is armed with a tandem high-explosive warhead. The Harrier GR9 is not fitted with a gun but can be armed with rockets.

Rolls-Royce Pegasus vectored thrust turbofan engine

The aircraft is equipped with the Rolls-Royce Pegasus vectored thrust turbofan engine. The GR9 Harriers are fitted with the Pegasus Mk105 engine and the GR9A Harriers are fitted with the higher-rated Pegasus Mk107 engine providing 23,400lb thrust.

The aircraft with the higher rated engine were modified to incorporate a new metal, high-fatigue rated, rear fuselage section. The T-12 combat trainers retained the Pegasus Mk105 engines.

Contractors involved

In February 2009, GE Aviation was awarded a development contract worth more than $16m by the US Navy for radar display computers to manage all control and display functions for the crew station on the AV-8B aircraft.

BAE Systems was awarded a $19.7m contract in February 2011 by the US Navy for a 27-month programme to extend the application of the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System from rotary-wing aircraft to the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the AV-8B Harrier fixed-wing aircraft.

In May 2017, Boeing contracted ViaSat, a company specialising in broadband services and technology, to provide KOR-24A Small Tactical Terminals for integration onto the AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft.

Vertex Aerospace secured a $123m contract from the US Department of the Navy for offering aircraft maintenance and contractor logistics support services for the US Marine Corps’ AV-8B Harrier fleet in July 2020.

Vertex Aerospace chose BAE Systems as the subcontractor for the logistics support contract.