Royal Air Force
The first RAF squadron to be equipped with the Harrier GR.1, No. 1 Squadron, started to convert to the aircraft at RAF Wittering in April 1969. An early demonstration of the Harrier's capabilities was the participation of two aircraft in the Daily Mail Transatlantic Air Race in May 1969, flying between St Pancras railway station, London and downtown Manhattan with the use of aerial refuelling. The Harrier completed the journey in 6 hours 11 minutes. Two Harrier squadrons were established in 1970 at the RAF's air base in Wildenrath to be part of its air force in Germany; another squadron was formed there two years later. In 1977, these three squadrons were moved forward to the air base at Gütersloh, closer to the prospective front line in the event of an outbreak of a European war. One of the squadrons was disbanded and its aircraft distributed between the other two.
In RAF service, the Harrier was used in close air support (CAS), reconnaissance, and other ground-attack roles. The flexibility of the Harrier led to a long-term heavy deployment in West Germany as a conventional deterrent and potential strike weapon against Soviet aggression; from camouflaged rough bases the Harrier was expected to launch attacks on advancing armour columns from East Germany. Harriers were also deployed to bases in Norway and Belize, a former British colony. No. 1 Squadron was specifically earmarked for Norwegian operations in the event of war, operating as part of Allied Forces Northern Europe. The Harrier's capabilities were necessary in the Belize deployment, as it was the only RAF combat aircraft capable of safely operating from the airport's short runway; British forces had been stationed in Belize for several years due to tensions over a Guatemalan claim to Belizean territory; the forces were withdrawn in 1993, two years after Guatemala recognized the independence of Belize.
In the Falklands War in 1982, 10 Harrier GR.3s of No. 1 Squadron operated from the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes. As the RAF Harrier GR.3 had not been designed for naval service, the 10 aircraft had to be rapidly modified prior to the departure of the task force. Special sealants against corrosion were applied and a new deck-based inertial guidance aid was devised to allow the RAF Harrier to land on a carrier as easily as the Sea Harrier. Transponders to guide aircraft back to the carriers during night-time operations were also installed, along with flares and chaff dispensers.
As there was little space on the carriers, two requisitioned merchant container ships, Atlantic Conveyor and Atlantic Causeway, were modified with temporary flight decks and used to carry Harriers and helicopters to the South Atlantic. The Harrier GR.3s focused on providing close air support to the ground forces on the Falklands and attacking Argentine positions; suppressing enemy artillery was often a high priority. Sea Harriers were also used in the war, primarily conducting fleet air defence and combat air patrols against the threat of attacking Argentine fighters. However, both Sea Harriers and Harrier GR.3s were used in ground-attack missions against the main airfield and runway at Stanley.
If most of the Sea Harriers had been lost, the GR.3s would have replaced them in air patrol duties, even though the Harrier GR.3 was not designed for air defence operations; as such the GR.3s quickly had their outboard weapons pylons modified to take air-to-air Sidewinder missiles. From 10 to 24 May 1982, prior to British forces landing in the Falklands, a detachment of three GR.3s provided air defence for Ascension Island until three F-4 Phantom IIs arrived to take on this responsibility. During the Falklands War, the greatest threats to the Harriers were deemed to be surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and small arms fire from the ground. In total, four Harrier GR.3s and six Sea Harriers were lost to ground fire, accidents, or mechanical failure. More than 2,000 Harrier sorties were conducted during the conflict—equivalent to six sorties per day per aircraft.
Following the Falklands war, British Aerospace explored the Skyhook, a new technique to operate Harriers from smaller ships. Skyhook would have allowed the launching and landing of Harriers from smaller ships by holding the aircraft in midair by a crane; secondary cranes were to hold weapons for rapid re-arming. This would potentially have saved fuel and allowed for operations in rougher seas. The system was marketed to foreign customers, and it was speculated that Skyhook could be applied to large submarines such as the Russian Typhoon class, but the system attracted no interest.
The first generation of Harriers did not see further combat with the RAF after the Falklands War, although they continued to serve for years afterwards. As a deterrent against further Argentine invasion attempts, No. 1453 Flight RAF was deployed to the Falkland Islands from August 1983 to June 1985. However the second generation Harrier IIs saw action in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The first generation Hawker Siddeley airframes were replaced by the improved Harrier II, which had been developed jointly between McDonnell Douglas and British Aerospace.
United States Marine Corps
"In my mind the AV-8A Harrier was like the helicopter in Korea. had limited capability, but that's how the first-generation automobile, boat, or other major systems evolved... it brought us into the world of flexible basing and the Marine Corps into the concept of vertical development"
The United States Marine Corps began showing a significant interest in the aircraft around the time the first RAF Harrier squadron was established in 1969, and this motivated Hawker Siddeley to further develop the aircraft to encourage a purchase. Although there were concerns in Congress about multiple coinciding projects in the close air support role, the Marine Corps were enthusiastic about the Harrier and managed to overcome efforts to obstruct its procurement.
The AV-8A entered service with the Marine Corps in 1971, replacing other aircraft in the Marines' attack squadrons. The service became interested in performing ship-borne operations with the Harrier. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt promoted the concept of a Sea Control Ship, a 15,000-ton light carrier equipped with Harriers and helicopters, to supplement the larger aircraft carriers of the US Navy. An amphibious assault ship, the USS Guam, was converted into the Interim Sea Control Ship and operated as such between 1971 and 1973 with the purpose of studying the limits and possible obstacles for operating such a vessel. Since then the Sea Control Ship concept has been subject to periodic re-examinations and studies, often in the light of budget cuts and questions over the use of supercarriers.
Other exercises were performed to demonstrate the AV-8A's suitability for operating from various amphibious assault ships and aircraft carriers, including a deployment of 14 Harriers aboard USS Franklin D. Roosevelt for six months in 1976. The tests showed, amongst other things, that the Harrier was capable of performing in weather where conventional carrier aircraft could not. In support of naval operations, the USMC devised and studied several methods to further integrate the Harrier. One result was Arapaho, a stand-by system to rapidly convert civilian cargo ships into seagoing platforms for operating and maintaining a handful of Harriers, to be used to augment the number of available ships to deploy upon.
When the reactivation of the Iowa-class battleships was under consideration, a radical design for a battleship-carrier hybrid emerged that would have replaced the ship's rear turret with a flight deck, complete with a hangar and two ski jumps, for operating several Harriers. However, the USMC considered the need for naval gunfire support to be a greater priority than additional platforms for carrier operations, while the cost and delay associated with such elaborate conversions was significant, and the concept was dropped.
The Marines Corps' concept for deploying the Harriers in a land-based expeditionary role focused on aggressive speed. Harrier forward bases and light maintenance facilities were to be set up in under 24 hours on any prospective battle area. The forward bases, containing one to four aircraft, were to be located 20 miles (32 km) from the forward edge of battle (FEBA), while a more established permanent airbase would be located around 50 miles (80 km) from the FEBA. The close proximity of forward bases allowed for a far greater sortie rate and reduced fuel consumption.
The AV-8A's abilities in air-to-air combat were tested by the Marine Corps by conducting mock dogfights with McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs; these exercises trained pilots to use the vectoring-in-forward-flight (VIFF) capability to outmanoeuvre their opponents and showed that the Harriers could act as effective air-to-air fighters at close range. The success of Harrier operations countered scepticism of V/STOL aircraft, which had been judged to be expensive failures in the past. Marine Corps officers became convinced of the military advantages of the Harrier and pursued extensive development of the aircraft.
Starting in 1979 the USMC began upgrading their AV-8As to the AV-8C configuration—the work focused mainly on extending useful service lives and improving VTOL performance. The AV-8C and the remaining AV-8A Harriers were retired by 1987. These were replaced by the Harrier II, designated as the AV-8B, which was introduced into service in 1985. The performance of the Harrier in USMC service led to calls for the United States Air Force to procure Harrier IIs in addition to the USMC's own plans, but these never resulted in Air Force orders. Since the late 1990s, the AV-8B has been slated to be replaced by the F-35B variant of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, a more modern V/STOL jet aircraft.
Due to the Harrier's unique characteristics it attracted a large amount of interest from other nations, often as attempts to make their own V/STOL jets were unsuccessful, such as in the cases of the American XV-4 Hummingbird and the German VFW VAK 191B. Operations by the USMC aboard the USS Nassau in 1981 and by British Harriers and Sea Harriers in the Falklands War proved that the aircraft were highly effective in combat. These operations also demonstrated that "Harrier Carriers" provided a powerful presence at sea without the expense of big deck carriers.
Following the display of Harrier operations from small carriers, the navies of Spain and later Thailand bought the Harrier for use as their main carrier-based fixed-wing aircraft. Spain's purchase of Harriers was complicated by long-standing political friction between the British and Spanish governments of the era; even though the Harriers were manufactured in the UK they were sold to Spain with the US acting as an intermediary. Since 1976, the Spanish Navy operated the AV-8S Matador from their aircraft carrier Dédalo (formerly the USS Cabot); the aircraft provided both air defence and strike capabilities for the Spanish fleet. Spain later purchased five Harriers directly from the British government to replace losses.
Hawker Siddeley aggressively marketed the Harrier for export. At one point the company was holding talks with Australia, Brazil, Switzerland, India and Japan. Of these only India became a customer, purchasing the Sea Harrier. At one point China came very close to becoming an operator of the first generation Harrier. Following an overture by the UK in the early 1970s, when relations with the West were warming, China became interested in the aircraft as it sought to modernise its armed forces; British Prime Minister James Callaghan noted significant hostility from the USSR over the sales bid. The deal was later cancelled by the UK as part of a diplomatic backlash after China invaded Vietnam in 1979.
The Spanish Navy, Thai Navy, Royal Air Force, and United States Marine Corps have all retired their first-generation Harriers. Spain sold seven single-seat and two twin-seat Harriers to Thailand in 1998. The Royal Thai Navy's AV-8S Matadors were delivered as part of the air wing deployed on the new light aircraft carrier HTMS Chakri Naruebet. The Thai Navy had from the start significant logistical problems keeping the Harriers operational due to a shortage of funds for spare parts and equipment, leaving only a few Harriers serviceable at a time. In 1999, two years after being delivered, only one airframe was in airworthy condition. Around 2003, Thailand considered acquiring former Royal Navy Sea Harriers, which were more suitable for maritime operations and better equipped for air defence, to replace their AV-8S Harriers; this investigation did not progress to a purchase. The last first-generation Harriers were retired by Thailand in 2006.