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#917003
Following on from John Farley's Farewell to the Harrier in the January 2011 issue of FLYER, here's a look back at Operation Herrick and the Harrier GR.9 by Lt Cdr James Blackmore




Harriers in Afghanistan



Lt Cdr James Blackmore RN looks back on the role of the Harrier GR.9 in Operation Herrick, the UK contribution to the NATO-led operations in Afghanistan. James is Officer Commanding ‘A’ Flight, No. 1(F) Squadron RAF

As we now know, the Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) resulted in a decision to retire the Harrier GR.9 from service at the end of 2010. I feel this article, drafted before that decision was made, is now a fitting tribute to the culmination of 41 years of VSTOL aviation, the numerous operations that Harriers have been part of and all the personnel involved with a remarkable aircraft. This is my account of Operation Herrick and the GR.9.
After five years, 8,500 sorties and more than 22,000 hours airborne, the Harrier finally returned from operations in Afghanistan in July 2009. During this busy time for the Harrier, I was privileged to serve on two separate occasions on Operation Herrick with No. 1(F) and No. IV(AC) Squadrons, under the umbrella of Joint Force Harrier (JFH).

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A Harrier GR.9 being flown by James departs Kandahar Airfield on 19 May 2009, carrying, from left to right, Paveway IV, CRV-7, BOL, Fuel/TERMA (self-defence pod), DJRP (Digital Joint Recce Pod), SNIPER ATP (Advanced Targeting Pod) / Fuel, BOL, CRV-7, Paveway IV (photo: Scott Kirkpatrick)


It is my intention to focus solely on the Harrier GR.9, as this is the capability we eventually finished the operations in Afghanistan with and this variant is a very different beast to the GR.7. Crucially, when compared with the Harrier GR.7, the GR.9 is essentially digitally-wired, meaning that the pilot can communicate directly with the weapons on the pylons; consequently this has seen the introduction of the Paveway IV (PWIV) 500lb laser-and-GPS-guided bomb, along with a number of other significant upgrades.

Weapons
Paveway IV has changed fundamentally the way the Harrier operates; not only can the bomb be guided to its target using a laser from either the aircraft, through the SNIPER Advanced Targeting Pod, or from the ground, it can also be delivered onto precise GPS coordinates. At 500lb, it's also a lighter weapon when compared to some of the more traditional 1,000lb variants; this gives the added benefit of reducing the overall launch and recovery weight of the aircraft - a crucial factor when you consider CVS operations. The next advance with this weapon is that the fuse is cockpit-programmable, allowing the pilot to tailor the effect of the weapon depending on the target and the requirement of the soldier on the ground. It can, for instance, penetrate through layers of concrete before exploding, thus allowing the pilot to accurately target the precise part of the building to be destroyed. Sometimes we carried two more PWIVs replacing the CRV7s, making the Harrier a true precision bomber. She’s a big old girl when fully laden!

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PWIV under the port wing of GR.9 ZG477/67 in its sun shed at KAF on 29 December 2008, while the aircraft is on GCAS alert. Note the pilot's kit hanging from the BOL rail

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A CRV-7 pod on its trolley with its 19 individual rockets behind the frangible olive drab cover


CRV7 is an (unguided) ground attack rocket. The pod contains 19 individual rockets; giving a total of 38 per aircraft. In many ways these mitigate against us having a gun (a subject which is open to a much bigger debate!) and with this standard of Harrier we can again make selections in the cockpit that allow us to fire one rocket, 38 rockets or any multiple in between. Once again, this is crucial when considering the effect required on the ground and proportionality. Why fire 38 rockets when one as a warning shot would have the desired effect?
When fully fuelled, the aircraft sits with 11,700lb of fuel in the above fit. Over Afghanistan, this would often give us in excess of two hours airborne without the need of air-to-air refuelling (AAR). With the AAR capability, our time on station could be dramatically increased, with some missions lasting well over six hours.

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Harrier GR.9 ZG511/82 in its hide on GCAS alert showing the port fuel tank, CRV-7, PWIV, an empty BOL rail - carrying the pilot's life support jacket and en extended IFR probe (centreline) and SNIPER pods are visible under the fuselage

TERMA: this pod was a new addition to the Harrier for Afghanistan and provides us with many more defensive flares than the usual internal load; it also provides a missile launch queue to the pilot.

Intelligence
Digital Joint Reconnaissance Pod (DJPR): while many would imagine that our time in Afghanistan was all about dropping bombs, this couldn’t be further from the truth. For the vast majority of the time we would be tasked with taking high-resolution imagery for the ground commanders and their soldiers. This could be anything from looking at changes to patterns of life, building construction and layout, or in the hunt for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Crucially, carrying this pod does not affect our weapon load-out, so we could swing from either a reconnaissance mission to Close Air Support at the drop of a hat, depending on the circumstances and the requirements of the soldiers on the ground. Although the imagery is in black-and-white, the resolution is exceptionally high – and with correct equipment, 3D images could be developed and intricate graphics produced, thus providing an excellent tool for intelligence gathering.
SNIPER Advance Targeting Pod (ATP): this replaced the TIALD 500 and offers a huge leap forward in capability. Essentially, SNIPER allows us to view the ground from altitude and stand-off with incredible resolution in both TV and infrared, which crucially allows us to operate to the same effect at night. With the ability to zoom, the pilot has the potential to observe persons on the ground and in some cases distinguish between adults and children. Other enhancements on the pod allow the pilot to generate GPS coordinates from what they are viewing or fire a laser to guide bombs to their point of impact. At night, an infrared pointer allows the aircraft to operate together and point out ground features to each other; rather like using a Star Wars light sabre when viewed through Night Vision Goggles! Finally, we are able to broadcast the image we see directly to the soldier on the ground or back to the operations centre; that's crucial when having to make quick decisions. All of this imagery is recorded for analysis after the mission and also affords us a second reconnaissance sensor, again increasing the ability of the aircraft to gather intelligence.

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SNIPER ATP imagery

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A SNIPER pod

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In the office… Daytime with the Jag monocle/reticule as used by the Jaguar and night-time (below) with the HMCS NVGs. The latter photo was taken on James' last operational flight on 21 June 2009

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In the cockpit
For the final six months, we operated with a Helmet Mounted Cueing System (HMCS). This allows the pilot to quickly identify coordinates on the ground using a red diamond that is projected over it on a reticule placed over the right eye. This is an excellent tool in increasing spatial awareness and takes away the need to spend vital minutes using binoculars to identify features from a map. Equally, in reverse, the pilot is able to look around the battle space and if he sees something of interest, he simply looks at it, designates it using controls on the throttle and immediately the SNIPER ATP will move to look at that same point on the ground.
At night, the pilot wears Night Vision Goggles (NVG) and these are fully-integrated with all the systems, meaning the way we do business by night is exactly the same as during the day, including flying at low level, something the Harrier force is well trained in and extremely proud of.
The cockpit itself continues to be busy with two TVs displaying anything from SNIPER imagery, through to weapon programming, engine performance data or a moving map. We simultaneously use two radios to keep in contact with the ground forces, our wingman or the various control agencies that help make the tactical decisions.

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The left TV screen

We also carry many maps to help us orientate ourselves with the forces on the ground or to find points of interest.
Put simply, while operating the Harrier we are the pilot, navigator, engineer, communicator, weapons officer and lawyer. This certainly is testament to the training each pilot is given.

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13 December 2008, KAF, and the author preparing GR.9 ZG511/82 in its sun shed for a day GCAS - Alert 30

Joint Force Harrier
Joint Force Harrier (JFH), a combined Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm unit, first deployed to Kandahar AF in 2004 in support of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Under this umbrella, Harriers have operated continuously day and night over five years and the aircraft's contribution of Close Air Support and Reconnaissance has been crucial to the ISAF mission.
During this operational period, JFH provided eight Harriers continuously available in theatre with 11 pilots and around 100 engineers and support staff. We always planned and flew missions in pairs, with two pairs being tasked during the day and a pair at night. Equally, during the day we kept two further Harriers at Alert 30, i.e. 30 minutes notice to get airborne, and at night this was extended to Alert 120 although the CAOC (Combined Air Operations Centre) could reduce those times depending on the tactical situation; quite often aircrew would be airborne in well under these times. This stance was maintained throughout the five-year period.
Harriers never once lost a mission due to an unserviceable aircraft; often there would be numerous spare aircraft if one unusually developed a problem on start. The only times that the Harrier failed to get airborne in the five years of operations was if the weather curtailed flying operations.
Unique to the Harrier is its short-field capability; this proved to be extremely worthy throughout. When Harriers first deployed in Afghanistan, the runway at Kandahar AF was a narrow 3,000ft strip only suitable to the VSTOL aircraft. Latterly, there were times when the runway became blocked and only a few thousand feet were available, not enough for the other fast aircraft to operate from. This occurred during one of my day missions when crucially, a US carrier, with its F-18s, was in port, thus unable to launch, and Bagram and Kabul airfields were iced in; the Harriers were the only aircraft helping to support the troops at this time, utilising their unique short-field capability to get airborne.
The main area of operations for the Harrier was over the Helmand Valley, supporting the UK Army and Royal Marines as well as all the other coalition troops. At 90nm from KAF, flying time was usually about 15-20 minutes. However, the Harrier was often tasked or re-tasked all over the country, with jets operating over places such as the Khyber Pass and alongside the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, showing the full potential and reach of the aircraft.

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Afghan landscapes - The Helmand Valley and the River Helmand

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About halfway between Kandahar and Kabul during a transit to work with the Americans in the north east of the country

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The 'Red Desert', approx 20nm south of KAF, the image is looking NE with the Red Desert stretching to the south and all the way to the Pakistan border

As for the role that Joint Force Harrier undertook, it could perhaps be summarised as Shape, Clear, Hold and Build and this was achieved through a graduated response. It must be stressed at this stage that this was through a mixture of Kinetic and Non-Kinetic effects; indeed, the latter was how the pilot often tried to resolve any situation.
Shaping can best be described as missions that undertook the role of Non-Traditional Information Surveillance and Reconnaissance (NTISR); in this respect we would use our sensors to provide an overview of the battle space. Equally, it may also have been appropriate to provide a ‘Show of Presence’ where the aircraft were positioned such that a visible or audible presence would be observed from the ground. Finally, if the situation dictated, a deliberate 'surgical' strike might be called for, in order to provide ground forces with a tactical advantage.
Clearing was where we brought the Harrier into the Close Air Support (CAS) role, providing Armed Overwatch. Utilising 'Shows of Force', the aim was to deter or disperse insurgents, or if that failed then a Kinetic response could be brought to bear. The important point to stress is that this effect had to be Precise, Discriminate and Proportional, something that the Harrier became known for; if an effect could be achieved through firing one rocket then that was what was delivered; equally, if soldiers lives were at risk, then a PWIV might be the most appropriate weapon.
Holding is in many ways similar to Shaping, seeing the pattern of life monitored as well as a continued presence being maintained both audibly and visually. Equally, the continued hunt for IEDs would be undertaken whenever the sensors could be spared, all ensuring that the key ground gained was subsequently held.
Building through support to the local populous could include providing presence on voting days, deterring the placement of IEDs, and a demonstration of a continued commitment by maintaining presence overhead both audibly and visually.
Looking back after nearly a year, I can honestly say that JFH made a huge difference on Operation Herrick; undoubtedly the lives of many Afghanistan civilians have been saved along with the lives of our own and other coalition troops.
In many ways, the JFH statistics for Operation Herrick speak for themselves. Missions flown: approx 4,500. Sorties: 8,557. Hours: 22,771. Average sortie time: 3 hours. Close Air Support missions: 2,000.
I was fortunate to fly the last mission for JFH over Afghanistan, a Night-into-Day sortie, and then fly one of the aircraft back to the UK – aircraft 13, ZD346, which I now have my name on. I feel extremely privileged to have served in and over Afghanistan on Operation Herrick and now look forward to a period of regeneration and a carrier deployment to the US on HMS Ark Royal.

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The author sitting in a GR.9 being pushed back into the sun shed to re-set GCAS after an alert launch. There was a short period where pilots couldn't taxi due to construction work

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Home at last. 1 July 2009, turning Harrier GR.9 ZD346/13 onto the flight line at RAF Cottesmore (photograph Glenn Sands)

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No1(F) Squadron returning from Afghanistan. The author is just right of the centreline with his wife Rachel on his left - RAF Cottesmore, 1 July 2009

The future for Joint Force Harrier
OVER THE PAST 12 months we have started a period of regeneration where the force focuses on regaining many of the skills that were put on the backburner. For example, Night Low Level Flying, consolidated periods on board the CVS and Operational Low Level Flying at 100ft to name but a few.
As all will be aware, recent announcements have led to a downsizing of the Harrier force to two front-line squadrons. In time, the two Cottesmore-based squadrons will all migrate south down the A1 to form up at RAF Wittering alongside the OCU.
What does this mean for those within JFH? Well, sadly, No. IV(AC) Squadron has already been disbanded as a front line unit and has reformed as No. IV(R) Squadron in place of No. 20(R) Squadron as the OCU. Consequently, No. 1(F) Squadron RAF and 800 Naval Air Squadron will form the two front-line Harrier squadrons under the umbrella of the Joint Strike Wing within JFH. Each front-line squadron will be equipped with 10-12 aircraft, approximately 14 pilots and in the region of 140 engineers. During this period we will see the last of the GR.7s upgraded and it will be an all-GR.9 fleet with, hopefully, enough of the large Mk107 Pegasus engines fitted.
While initially this can look quite disappointing, our focus is now on becoming a leaner but more capable force able to deliver effective day and night capabilities from afloat or ashore in all weathers with the ultimate goal still firmly being a transition to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in 2018.
For myself, I have just over a year ahead of me as Officer Commanding ‘A’ Flight in charge of ensuring No. 1(F) Squadron is tactically trained and ready to deploy wherever the unique capabilities of the Harrier GR.9 are required next.

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Harrier GR.9A ZD322/03A dropping flares 24 June 2009 on the KAF to United Arab Emirates leg of its homeward journey

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The Joint Force Harrier Squadron board at Kandahar AF
User avatar
By Hum
#918984
What a great Article!

The advances and improvements in capability in 10 years are impressive.... I wonder how long will it be before Typhoon even comes close from an operational capability point of view....

Not to mention the fact that we have given up the capability to operate from short strips or land on a boat...
User avatar
By kanga
#919054
it is also interesting that these capability upgrades (from GR7 to GR9) took place at a time when (according to the UK press) the Government was refusing to provide our forces in the field with essential equipment ..
By flighty tyke
#919615
Very informative. Thank you for all your hard work, and commiserations to all on JFH.

FT
User avatar
By Slider
#919735
An excellent article with great accompanying photo's.
Reading it has left me even more peeved at the Harrier's retirement.........in the next 48 hours :cry:

A big thankyou to everyone involved in the Harriers RAF career over the last 41 years, and more recently those involved with the RAF/RN JFH.......I hope everything works out ok for you and the best of luck with your future careers.
By GAFlyer4Fun
#920296
Having spent 10 years working on Sea Harrier and Harrier GR9 it is sad to see the end of an era in these circumstances. It has been a privilege and an honour to be involved with JFH.

I hope the government changes its mind sometime very soon.
User avatar
By Slider
#920829
GAFlyer4Fun wrote:Having spent 10 years working on Sea Harrier and Harrier GR9 it is sad to see the end of an era in these circumstances. It has been a privilege and an honour to be involved with JFH.

I hope the government changes its mind sometime very soon.


Lets hope so.

I saw James Blackmore taxying in the other day at Cottesmore after the final flight.
By alawrence
#1071635
After reading your article I was wondering if you might be able to provide some additional information. I would like to know exactly which aircraft was used for the final mission.

The article mentions ZD346, but it not clear if this was the actual aircraft.

"I was fortunate to fly the last mission for JFH over Afghanistan, a Night-into-Day sortie, and then fly one of the aircraft back to the UK – aircraft 13, ZD346, which I now have my name on."

The reason I ask is that I have been working on a painting titled "the Final Mission", depicting a JHF sortie over Afghanistan which I feel could be enhanced by this knowledge. I have attached a small image of the painting, which is roughly A2 in size. Currently the painting is without a registration and mission markings.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Best regards

Anthony S Lawrence MA AGAVA

http://www.flickr.com/photos/79450780@N ... otostream/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/79450780@N ... otostream/

The above links needed correcting. Hopefully now corrected