The Navy and Marine Corps have agreed to buy Britain's entire decommissioned fleet of 74 Harrier jump jets, along with engines and spare parts — a move expected to help the Corps operate Harriers into the mid-2020s and provide extra planes to replace aging two-seat F-18D Hornet strike fighters.
Rear Adm. Mark Heinrich, chief of the Navy's Supply Corps, confirmed the two-part deal last week during a conference in New York sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in association with Defense News.
Heinrich negotiated the $50 million purchase of all Harrier spare parts, while Rear Adm. Donald Gaddis, the Navy's program executive officer for tactical aircraft, is overseeing discussions to buy the Harrier aircraft and their Rolls-Royce engines, Heinrich said.
A spokesman for the British Ministry of Defence confirmed the Disposal Services Agency was in talks with the Navy for the sale of the Harriers. The deal had yet to be concluded, he said Friday.
Britain retired its joint force of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Harrier aircraft late last year in one of the most controversial moves of the defense reductions, which also cut the aircraft carriers that operated the jets, other warships, maritime patrol planes and personnel.
Most of the retired Harriers are stored at Royal Air Force Base Cottesmore, England. They have been undergoing minimum fleet maintenance, including anti-deterioration measures, in order to keep them airworthy, Heinrich said.
A spokesman for the Navy's Naval Air Systems Command declined on Friday to comment on the deal, deferring to the British military.
A British MoD source said Friday that he thought both deals could be signed in the next week or two. The MoD source confirmed that the entire fleet of 74 Harrier aircraft was involved in the sale.
Heinrich noted that payment details were the only outstanding issue on the parts deal discussions, and he said the purchase will give the Corps a relatively economical way to get their hands on key components to keep the Harrier fleet running.
While it is unusual for the U.S. to buy used foreign military aircraft for operation, integration of the British planes into Corps squadrons shouldn't be a major problem, one expert said.
"I don't think it will be costly to rip out the Brit systems" and replace them with Marine gear, said Lon Nordeen, author of several books on the Harrier.
Nordeen noted that the British GR 9 and 9As are similar in configuration to the Marines' AV-8B night attack version, which makes up about a third of U.S. Harriers. The British planes also are night planes dedicated to air-ground attack, he said, and while both types carry Forward Looking Infrared sensors, neither is fitted with a multimode radar such as the APG-65 carried by U.S. AV-8B+ models.
The absence of the big radar, Nordeen said, makes the GR 9A and AV-8Bs "a better-performing plane. Weighing less, it's more of a hot rod."
British GR 9s, although upgraded with improved avionics and weapons, are powered by the Rolls-Royce Mark 105 Pegasus engine. GR 9As have the more powerful Mark 107, similar to the Rolls-Royce F402-RR-408s that power Marine AV-8Bs.
British and U.S. Harrier II aircraft had a high degree of commonality from their origin. The planes were developed and built in a joint arrangement between British Aerospace — now BAE Systems — and McDonnell Douglas, now a division of Boeing. While each company built its own wings, all forward sections of the British and American Harrier IIs were built by McDonnell in St. Louis, while British Aerospace built the fuselage sections aft of the cockpit.
"All the planes have to fit together," Nordeen said.
The Harrier IIs, built between 1980 and 1995, "are still quite serviceable," he said. "The aircraft are not that far apart. We're taking advantage of all the money the Brits have spent on them. It's like we're buying a car with maybe 15,000 miles on it."
Operationally, Nordeen said, "these are very good platforms. They need upgrades, but on bombing missions they have the ability to incorporate the Litening II targeting pod [used by U.S. aircraft]. They're good platforms. And we've already got trained pilots."
The Corps is planning on phasing out its Harriers by 2025, when replacement by F-35B Joint Strike Fighters should be complete.
Nordeen, however, said he expects the British Harriers to be used initially to replace two-seat Marine F-18D Hornet fighters now operated in the night attack role.
"The F-18Ds are more worn out than the Harriers," Nordeen said. "Most of the conversions [of ex-British aircraft] early on will be to replace 18Ds and not Harriers." He noted the first Marine F-35B squadron already is slated to replace an F-18D unit.