Past Talks : May 2023

“The RAF Germany Harrier Force” by Group Captain Tim Brandt RAF Ret’d

Tim joined the RAF in 1978 as a University Cadet, and his first real job was as a Junior Engineering Officer on Harriers with 4 Sqn at RAF Gutersloh in Germanyin 1983. RAF Germany in the Cold War was a demanding environment, and the Harrier’s concept of off-base operations was unique.

The Harrier was a typical British aircraft of the 1950s and 60s, with innovative capability and design balanced by horrendous cockpit ergonomics and poor maintainability. The Hawker P1127 first flew in 1960 and proved the concept of a single engines Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing (VSTOL) aircraft. The P1127 was developed into the Kestrel for operational trials. When the supersonic P1154 was cancelled in 1966, Hawkers fitted an uprated Pegasus into the Kestrel and shoe-horned in some of the P1154’s weapons and avionics. The resulting Harrier was small, but complex. It was equipped with the Ferranti Inertial Nav and Attack System (INAS) and Smiths Head Up Display. It had two 30mm Aden guns mounted in pods on the underside, and five weapons pylons. A recce pod could be carried under the fuselage. In the hover, and below 120 kts, it required constant undivided attention.

The Harrier force was primarily tasked with Close Air Support, Battlefield Air Interdiction and Recce, reflecting its planned role of finding and delaying initial Soviet attacks. Unusually, it was normally tasked direct by the Army Corps HQ rather than by the NATO Air Operations Centre. For CAS and BAI, the Harrier’s weapon of choice for most of the Cold War was the BL755 cluster bomb. This was tested successfully against the Soviet T72 tank and was effective against personnel and soft-skinned targets. Its great advantage to the pilot was that it scattered 147 bomblets over an area about the size of a football field, so aiming was not too onerous. In recce, line and area searches were the order of the day, with pilots expected to use the Mark 1 eyeball to acquire and assess targets as well as using the cameras. At 250 metres per second, at low level, that meant a very high workload. Pilots had to learn to recognise most of the vehicles and equipment used by the Warsaw Pact and NATO, and recognition tests were as highly competitive as bombing scores on range sorties.

RAF Germany initially had three Harrier squadrons, at RAF Wildenrath in the Clutch of bases near the Dutch border, but this was 200km from the 1(Br) Corps area where the Harrier Force would have operated in wartime. The RAF’s early experience with the Harrier was mixed. The fast-jet force was used to operating from the concrete of a Main Operating Base, and field operations came as a shock. Equipment did not work well in muddy fields, and off-base communications were poor to non-existent in an age before mobile phones. Accidents were frequent but the Harrier Force learned and became skilled at operating both on and off base. In 1977, the RAFG Harrier Force moved to RAF Gutersloh, within the 1(Br) Corps area, and was reorganised as two large squadrons. Gutersloh would be its home for the next 15 years. On base the Harriers operated from two Hardened Aircraft Shelter sites. The operational hub of the squadron was the Pilot Briefing Facility, with filtered air and massive air locks, built to enable operations to continue under chemical warfare conditions. 3(F) and IC(AC) Sqns each had three flights of aircrew, and eighteen aircraft. About 120 engineers provided first line support.

On-base operations were like any other light attack aircraft, but the Harrier became unique when it deployed to the field. Three or four major field exercises were held each year, of two weeks duration each. Deploying the 36 aircraft of the Harrier Force required a ground force of over 750 vehicles to move groundcrew, ops staff, comms, spares, ground support equipment, tents, catering equipment, and all the other paraphernalia, but the real logistics challenges were fuel and bombs, especially given the very high sortie rates that the Harrier Force could achieve. Fuel could be obtained from Gutersloh or NATO pipelines, but even this short-range shuttle needed a fleet of tankers. Bombs were stored in the Clutch at Bracht, next-door to Bruggen, and were moved forward by rail or road. At war rates, each of the six flying sites needed seven tanker loads of fuel daily, and 70 bombs, not to mention 30mm and (later) Sidewinders, chaff and flares.

It is interesting to compare the Harrier Force with the Hawker Typhoon, the RAF’s mainstay for close air support. The RAF fielded four Wings of Typhoons, each of about 40 aircraft. The Wings were mobile and largely self-contained. The Typhoon was robust and very effective. It was removed from service as soon as possible after the War ended due to its support costs and its high accident rate: almost all due to its engine. There are some similarities.

The Harrier’s unique capabilities came at the cost of a high accident rate and over half the first-generation GR1, GR3 and T4 aircraft were lost in accidents, with 25 aircrew killed. The first-generation Harriers were replaced by the GR5 and GR7 in 1990/1991 as the Cold War ended. These were much more capable – if the first-generation Harrier was essentially a Hawker Hunter with VSTOL, the later Harriers were mini-Tornados.
The Harrier Force was essentially light cavalry for 1(Br) Corps. Lack of dependence on airfields allowed it to operate close to the battle, and it would have been less vulnerable to Soviet counter air. However, given the increasingly powerful SAM and AAA capabilities of the Soviets by the mid-1980s, the Harrier Force would probably have had a short operational life. At the final analysis, it was part of an overall NATO strategy of deterrence that was successful.

Many thanks to Tim Brandt for a fascinating and well-illustrated talk.

Summarised by Malcolm Smith