The Corps Goes Vertical with The Harrier

By Ben Kristy.

An AV-8B Harrier II with the VMA-513 Nightmares lands aboard USS Essex (LHD 2). The Harrier celebrates 40 years of service in 2011. The Nightmares were the first squadron to receive the aircraft in 1971. (Photo by MC3 Gabriel S. Weber)

January 2011 marked the 40th anniversary of vertical/short take-off and landing (V/STOL) tactical aviation in the United States—four decades since the Marine Corps received its first AV-8A Harriers and inaugurated a new age of U.S. Naval Aviation. Today, the AV-8B Harrier II remains one of Marine Corps aviation’s primary weapons and the only V/STOL attack aircraft ever fielded by the U.S. military. As the Corps awaits the arrival of its third generation V/STOL aircraft—the F-35B Lighting II—the story of how this technology came to be such a crucial part of Marine aviation is all the more remarkable.

Between 1946 and 1956, the Marine Corps reorganized to meet the challenges of amphibious warfare in the atomic age. World War II-style amphibious operations, which were supported by numerous ships anchored closely off shore, appeared to be no longer possible against a foe possessing atomic weapons. Amphibious landings would now depend on the Corps’ ability to disembark troops from ships dispersed over the horizon from the targeted beachhead. The Marine Corps altered its divisional table of organization, making the force lighter and more easily transportable by sea, air, and land by stripping away most of its heavy weapons. The helicopter, itself a new technology at the time, provided the means of delivering and resupplying the initial wave of troops.

The integrated use of Marine close air support would make up for the loss of organic firepower. Thus, the Marines needed a tactical attack aircraft that could be based as close to the front lines as possible. It was against this background that in 1957 Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Randolph McCall Pate committed the service to fielding a fleet of V/STOL aircraft. Unfortunately, there were no such aircraft available at that time. American aircraft manufacturers spent millions of dollars attempting to develop functioning V/STOL aircraft between 1946 and the early 1960s, but no projects progressed beyond the technology demonstration stage.

In the United Kingdom, however, Hawker Siddeley was working on a revolutionary aircraft that showed promise—the XV-6A Kestrel. The Kestrel was much closer to being an operational tactical aircraft than anything produced by the American aviation industry. The Army, Air Force, and Navy all expressed some initial interest in the Kestrel, which was extensively tested in the early 1960s in the United States. Interest in the XV-6A waned, however, following the flight tests primarily because the aircraft was limited to subsonic speeds.

In 1966, Gen. Keith McCutcheon, the Corps’ leading expert on close air support, served as the Deputy Chief of Staff, Air. McCutcheon had developed the close air support tactics and procedures that allowed Marine aviation to support Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s forces in the Philippines during World War II. He later became an early helicopter advocate, helping to craft the vertical assault doctrine while commanding both HMX-1, the Corps’ first helicopter squadron, and HMR-161 during the Korean War. Working for McCutcheon was Col. Thomas Miller Jr., who had his own formidable list of credentials including combat missions in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Miller headed the Air Weapons Requirement Branch and was responsible for finding aircraft suitable for Marine Corps operations.

Miller was not impressed with the Royal Air Force’s new GR MK-1 Harrier—the operational aircraft developed from the Kestrel—because its 19,500-lb.-thrust Pegasus MK- 101 engine did not offer the Marine Corps enough of a performance advantage over the Douglas A-4 Skyhawks already in service. Miller’s interest in the aircraft increased, however, after learning that the next generation Pegasus engine offered 2,000 additional pounds of thrust—all of which could be converted directly into carrying more ordnance.

Miller worked with Hawker Siddeley to arrange for a series of flight tests in England, but did so carefully to avoid upsetting Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) and Congress, and used his attendance at the 1968 Farnborough Air Show as a cover story. Miller, Lt. Col. Clarence ‘Bud’ Baker, and Brig. Gen. W.G. Johnson visited Farnborough in civilian clothes so as not to arouse suspicion from the ever-present trade press. After the close of the air show, Miller and Baker completed 20 flights in the Harrier.

They were delighted with the aircraft, and told McCutcheon that the Harrier was the V/STOL aircraft the Marines had long desired. After Miller and McCutcheon briefed and received approval from Chapman, McCutcheon created a small team comprised of himself, Miller, Baker, and Ed Harper (the program manager for the A-4) to begin the process of formulating a change to the Corps’ FY1970 budget request for the purchase of an initial batch of 12 Harriers. The challenge was to convince NAVAIR, the Pentagon, and Congress to purchase an unproven first-generation revolutionary aircraft, of foreign design, that was undesired by the Navy.

McCutcheon and Miller’s team initiated a period of public and private briefings to justify the Corps’ purchase of the Harrier. Miller gained the support of the aircraft procurement sub-section of the President’s advisory committee. Other committee members helped to deflect opposition to the Harrier in various quarters of the Defense Department. The Navy agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to support the purchase on the condition that the Marine Corps would not ask for additional funding to pay for the aircraft. The Corps canceled the purchase of 17 McDonnell Douglas F-4Js to free up the required $57.6 million for the first production batch of Harriers.

Miller and Baker gained the support of the major American aircraft manufacturers with the promise that after the initial batch of British-produced aircraft the rest of the Marine Harriers would be produced under license in the United States. Miller used his relationship with the head of McDonnell Douglas, Sandy McDonnell, and the founder of the company, James McDonnell, to convince the aviation industry giant that the Harrier was good for both the Marine Corps and the American aviation industry. Congressional hearings on the Corps’ acquisition of the Harrier began in March 1969, leading to the purchase of the initial batch of 12 AV-8A Harriers. The remaining aircraft would be manufactured in the United States.

In the winter of 1976-1977, 14 VMA-231 AV-8As deployed aboard USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV 42) to test the ability of a V/STOL aircraft to operate as part of a full carrier air wing. The tests showed the Harrier was fully capable of operating alongside non-V/STOL aircraft. (Photo from National Marine Corps Museum)

Hawker Siddeley selected McDonnell Douglas, which was completing production on the similarly sized A-4 Skyhawk, as its future production partner. The estimated costs of establishing a Harrier assembly line in America were prohibitive, however, and would have added at least an additional year to the procurement schedule. Congress dropped the requirement for the Harrier to be produced domestically; the entire production run of 110 AV-8As and their engines were produced in the United Kingdom. After hearings in fall 1971 on the relative merits of the Army, Air Force, and Marine methodology of conducting close air support, the Senate Armed Services Committee threatened to cut off funding for the Harrier program at 60 aircraft. Once again, Marine political prowess paid off and full funding for the entire AV-8A fleet was secured in the FY1973 budget.

The first AV-8As were officially accepted by the Marine Corps in January 1971, with VMA-513 beginning flight operations that April. Operational tests at Camp Lejeune and aboard USS Guam (LPH 9) demonstrated the AV-8A performed as expected. By the late 1970s, three attack squadrons and a training squadron were operating the AV-8A and TAV-8A. Efforts to develop a follow-on supersonic V/STOL aircraft, the AV-16, were stopped in the face of massive costs associated with development of the required engine. In 1975, however, the Chief of Naval Operations executive board approved a plan to use existing funds to explore future improvements to the AV-8A airframe proposed by McDonnell Douglas, thus beginning the development of the AV-8B Harrier II. Miller, now a general and the Marine Corps’ Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation, spearheaded the effort to acquire funding for the new aircraft. Through his exertions, the more advanced American-produced Boeing AV-8B entered service in 1985.

The first Marine Corps V/STOL combat air strike occurred on 17 January 1991 when a flight of VMA-311 AV-8Bs destroyed an Iraqi artillery battery near the Saudi Arabian town of Khafji. Subsequent operations flown by the enhanced AV-8B Plus and Night Attack variants in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan further demonstrated the combat capabilities of the Harrier II. In March 2011, AV-8Bs with the 26th MEU were among the first aircraft to attack ground targets in Libya at the beginning of Operation Odyssey Dawn. Writing after his retirement from the Marine Corps in 1979, Miller, the first Marine to fly the Harrier, described the value of V/STOL aviation for the Marine Corps: “This improvement would be the saving of many Marines’ lives while in combat and would add significantly to the probability of their success in battle.” As the Marine Corps marks four decades of V/STOL operations, the Harrier continues to live up to Miller’s expectations.

An AV-8A with VMA-542 taxis from onto Lyman Road, Camp Lejeune, during exercises in 1978. The ability to operate from such austere locations was the main reason why the Marine Corps acquired the Harrier. (Photo from National Marine Corps Museum)

Ben Kristy is the aviation curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va.