A Freak of Procurement Infighting

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Gary Brecher (The War Nerd) calls the Harrier Jump Jet a freak of procurement infighting:

The V/STOL technology involved shaping airframes and aiming engine nozzles so that planes could take off on rough, unimproved airbases, or if necessary just take off vertically — though that’s always been more of a gimmick than a fact. The idea was that these V/STOL planes could use any German road for a runway (assuming they weren’t jammed with civilian cars fleeing) and be refueled by mobile tankers and maintenance crews. The 80s saw a lot of new defensive ideas for stopping a massed Warsaw Pact tank attack, most of them pretty silly but very profitable for contractors.

The simple way to stop that attack was too obvious and unprofitable to interest anybody: nuke’em. And that’s probably what would have happened if the Russians had sent the tanks through the Fulda Gap; we’d have used nukes, small battlefield nukes like Lance at first, then Pershings, then the Say-Goodbye-to-the-Northern-Hemisphere kind, until somebody in the Kremlin saw the light and called it off. They knew that, we knew that, and that’s why we never had to play it out for reals.

For its stated purpose, a Harrier would be better replaced by a “real” fighter, based further from the front lines, relying on in-flight refueling — but that doesn’t concern the Marines, who really took to the Harrier:

Think about the whole USMC/Navy relationship. It would drive any two services crazy. The Corps has its own air wing — and its own armor, own everything; that’s one war the Corps will never lose, the fight to keep its turf and expand it if possible. The Marine Corps saw the Harrier as a plane it could own from go to whoa. A plane like that could fly off modified assault ships, Corps territory, and slide out from under the Navy’s carriers.

And that’s why the AV8B is still in service after 30 years, still killing pilots, still doing its circus moves (to this day, no AV8B has used its vertical launch on a single combat mission) and flying off the USS Kearsage as part of the MEU in Libya. MEU, that’s “Marine Expeditionary Unit” and it tells you what you need to know about the Harrier: It’s Corps all the way, puts them on a longer leash from the Navy, and they’re keeping it, letting it drop a bomb or two on Qaddafi’s tanks. In fact this is the Harrier’s kind of war. The enemy can’t shoot, the desert makes pickup easy when the damn thing conks out on you, and there are plenty of glamor shots for the international press.

V/STOL tech did pay off well in another area, Brecher notes — transport:

The C-17 was designed with reinforced shocks, extra wheels, and the whole bunched-up airframe you need for short landings. And it’s worked, turned out useful, since a lot of the places you need to transport materiel to don’t have airports with first-class lounges.

A fighter has no reason to land on bad ground, Brecher emphasizes — if a fighter or fighter pilot touches the ground at all before it gets home, something has likely gone seriously wrong — but touching the ground in rough places is a big part of a transport plane’s job.


  1. Borepatch says:

    Makes me think of how the Air Force fought the A-10 tooth and nail.

  2. Isegoria says:

    And that re-raises the question of why we have an air force anyway.

  3. If your institutional rationale is ultimately based on the Italian experience of fighting the Turk during the conquest of Libya in 1911, you’ve built your institution on a foundation of sand. Douhet is poison.

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