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Meet the Harrier: America’s Worst Combat Jet?

Unmanned Military
An AV-8B Harrier from Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 214 performs a vertical take off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4). Boxer is underway conducting training off the coast of Southern California.

Meet the Harrier: It may not seem possible to determine which fighter jet or proposed fighter jet might be considered the worst of all time, as the history of aircraft development across the world is unquestionably full of failed programs.

In some cases, promising or successful programs may have been canceled, and there are likely many others when proposed fighter jet projects were correctly avoided or stopped. History is certainly filled with troubled or ultimately unsuccessful efforts to engineer future fighter jets, and somewhat paradoxically, the most damaged or lost aircraft in combat may in fact be the best-performing fighters. 

Looking at the US fleet of fighter jets, the casualty numbers may not reflect the effectiveness of the aircraft. For instance, available specs indicate that the famous A-10 Warthog is the aircraft which suffered a higher amount of combat losses compared with other aircraft, yet the aircraft is cherished for its successful combat performance and of course has spent most its life in extremely contested, high risk environments. Therefore, although the A-10 has been destroyed or lost in combat seven times, it is by no means the worst US fighter jet.

By contrast, the aircraft with the greatest casualty numbers may be among the best to fight, as they were consistently chosen to perform the highest risk missions.

This would certainly be the case with the A-10, as the aircraft has faced incoming enemy fire from low altitudes for decades and is nonetheless revered as among the most survivable aircraft ever to exist. 

The AV-8B Harrier II and the F-16C Fighting Falcon have each been lost in combat five times, yet another indication that the aircraft perform extremely high risk missions. In the case of the Harrier jet, combat losses may in part be due to its slower speed and its role as a vertical take off “jump jet” driver between combat areas and aircraft carriers.

Essentially, the Harrier Jet may have suffered losses by virtue of its high-risk mission, similar to the A-10. Yet unlike the A-10, the Harrier Jet is not built with the redundancy or titanium hull sufficient to withstand incoming enemy fire. Also, the Harrier jet is a large attack plane, explained by the Navy as operating with a mission to “attack and destroy surface and air targets and escort helicopters.”  

Specifically, the Navy’s description of the Harrier jet states it is tasked with extremely high-risk missions, such as conducting “offensive and defensive anti-air warfare,” combat patrol and armed escort missions. Clearly this mission set might help explain why more Harriers have been lost in combat compared with other aircraft. In fact, the Navy write up on Harrier jets says the aircraft was the first to arrive in theater during Desert Storm in 1991. 

“Operation Desert Storm in 1991 was highlighted by expeditionary air operations performed by the AV-8B. During the ground war, AV-8Bs were based as close as 35 nautical miles (40.22 miles) from the Kuwait border, making them the most forward deployed tactical strike aircraft in theater.

U.S. Navy

BALTIC SEA (Aug. 24, 2022) A U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier attached to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) flies past U.S. Navy Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handler) 1st Class Tu N. Chau during flight operations aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), Aug. 24, 2022. The Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group and embarked 22nd MEU, under the command and control of Task Force 61/2, is on a scheduled deployment in the U.S. Naval Forces Europe area of operations, employed by U.S. 6th Fleet to defend U.S., allied and partner interests.

the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier was the U.S. Marine Corps’ premier jump jet.

An AV-8B Harrier hovers over the flight line during the Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS) sponsored annual Air Show on Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar, San Diego, Calif., Oct. 13, 2012. The MCAS Miramar Air Show showcases not only the aerial prowess of the Armed Forces but their appreciation of the community’s support and dedication to the troops. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jamean Berry/Released)

The AV-8B flew 3,380 sorties for a total of 4,083 flight hours while maintaining a mission capable rate in excess of 90 percent. Average turnaround time during the ground war surge rate flight operations was 23 minutes,” the Navy.mil writeup states. 

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Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Written By

Kris Osborn is the Military Editor of 19 FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.