After the fall of Kabul in Afghanistan in November 2001, the number of British forces in the country increased dramatically, to support the international security Assistance Force (ISAF). Since 2004 Harriers of the Joint Force Harrier (JFH), which comprises the RAF’s 1(F) and IV(AC) squadrons and the Royal Navy’s 800 Naval Air squadron (NAS), were deployed to the country to support the troops on the ground, fighting a resurgent Taliban and other militant forces.
Early operations involved scaring away the enemy with jet noise, but the tempo rose when British troops went into Helmand province in early 2006. Over 500 bombs were dropped by IV(AC) squadron between May and October 2006 during its second four-and-a-half month deployment in the country.
Up to August 2006, mainly day time missions had been flown, but 24-hour availability became necessary as the fighting intensified, resulting in an increase in squadron personnel deployed to Kandahar. the number of Harriers at Kandahar was increased to seven as flying hours doubled to around 480 a month.
As well as 16 pilots, around 125 engineers and technicians and all the squadron’s Ops personnel were in Afghanistan. Maintenance crews worked hard, undertaking 12-hour shifts day and night for ten days at a time.
In order to self-designate targets, the Harriers initially used the BAE systems (GEC Marconi) TIALD (Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designator) pod. TIALD is a second-generation designator pod equipped with a high resolution FLIR (forward-looking infra-red) and a laser designator that automatically tracks the target once it has locked on. Operation Herrick highlighted the shortfalls of the TIALD pod, especially in the urban close air support role. its resolution is low, making it difficult to distinguish between coalition troops and the enemy.
An Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) was issued in late 2006 for a new pod, resulting in the first AN/AAQ-33 sniper Advanced Targeting Pod being test-flown on a Harrier GR.9 on December 1, 2006. A contract was given to Lockheed Martin to deliver the pod on 26 February 2007, and deliveries were completed by June 2007. Sniper allows the Harrier pilot to detect and identify weapons caches – and even individuals carrying arms – while the aircraft is far enough away for it not to be heard. In early May 2007 IV(AC) squadron became the first RAF unit to train with it, taking it with them when they deployed to Afghanistan again in mid-June.
Harriers used Paveway IIs and Enhanced Paveway (EPW) II and II plus guided munitions, ‘dumb bombs’, AGM-65G-2 Maverick day/night air-to-surface missiles, CRV-7 unguided rockets and AIM-9L sidewinders, for self-defence. The Harrier GR.9 the lead airframe for the Global Positioning System Aided inertial Navigation System (GAINS)/Laserguided Paveway IV, before being cleared for use by the Tornado GR.4 and Typhoon FGR.4.
For anti-armour and high-value battlefield targets, the RAF has the Brimstone Missile, with a millimetre-wave radar seeker for fire-and-forget release. Based on the AGM-114F Hellfire, Brimstone is carried on a three round pylon by the Tornado GR.4, though it is also destined to be adopted by the Harrier GR.9 and Typhoon FGR.4. In addition to close air support, the Harriers undertake non-traditional intelligence surveillance reconnaissance (ISR) in Afghanistan to determine enemy activity and provide that information to troops on the ground. Around eleven Harriers were deployed at Kandahar, the force having begun transition from GR.7As to GR.9As in 2007.
In early 2008, the Harrier fleet underwent an upgrade. The GR.7s modified as GR.7As, GR.9s or GR.9As, while the two seat t.10s becoming T.12s. the GR.7A has a Rolls-Royce Pegasus Mk.107 power plant in place of the GR.7’s Mk.105, adding 3,000lb (13.4kN) of thrust. A total of 40 such modifications made. in addition, around 70 GR.7s, GR.7As and T.10s benefiting from an avionics and weapons upgrade to become GR.9s and T.12s, the new baseline standard for the Harrier fleet. GR.7As which have gone through both the avionics and engine upgrades are known as GR.9As.
JFH was also responsible for providing aircraft for the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers. Along with the Herrick commitment, that meant that JFH was amongst the RAF’s most frequently deployed assets.
In December 2010 the Harrier aircraft was retired from service.