Published on 1 Nov 2010 Sections

For sale: Harrier fleet. One careful owner.

Britain’s decommissioned fleet of Harrier jump jets could be sold abroad, but how much money is it likely to raise? And a former Harrier pilot tells Channel 4 News what makes it so special.

After being scrapped in favour of the Tornado sytem and new Joint Strike Fighter in October’s defence spending review, the fate of Britain’s fleet of Harrier jump jets could lie abroad a government minister has said.

In a newspaper interview, defence equipment minister Peter Luff is quoted as saying the aircraft could potentially be sold to India or the US.

The obvious markets are countries which already have a Harrier capability. Prof Ron Smith

Harriers have been part of the UK’s defence capability since 1969 although the current fleet has only been in service for a short time and so could potentially serve for around another decade.

The iconic aeroplanes, famous for their vertical take off and landing capability, are also used by other nations such as Italy and Spain though it is uncertain if there is an appetite in the current international market for the aircraft.

A Harrier jump jet at rest (Reuters)

What the sale could raise

How much money could be generated by the sale is fundamentally dependent on how much the international market is prepared to pay. Given the current moribund global economic climate, selling the Harriers could prove tricky.

Defence economist, Professor Ron Smith of Birkbeck, University of London told Channel 4 News it would be hard to put a figure on what the Harrier sale could raise: “What they’re worth is what someone’s willing to pay for them.

“The obvious markets are countries which already have a Harrier capability such as the US, Italy, Spain and India though at present the market’s very tight with only China and India not cutting their defence budget. It would be quite a big jump for a state to take on an entirely new aircraft.”

Former pilot, Commander 'Sharkey' Ward writes for the Phoenix think tank and flew Sea Harriers during the Falklands Conflict. He is campaigning to save the Harrier fleet. He told Channel 4 News what makes the Harrier special.

"In the old days they used to say the cream of the airforce was put into the Harrier force. It can operate from carriers without catapult and arrestor equipment but it can really land anywhere. For example in Afghanistan I've known it able to land in only 200 feet of runway when there was an IED (improvised explosive device) preventing it using the rest of the landing strip.

Flying it was an absolute joy. I used to fly Phantom fighters from carriers and I went from them to a Sea Harrier. My first flight in one was as a passenger. That first approach to a ship, stopping in mid-air rather than landing at 150mph and manoeuvring sideways onto HMS Hermes was amazing.
When I was flying, we got so good at landing them that we were eventually able to land four Harriers in one spot in 17 seconds. It's an extremely versatile aircraft and that versatility is in danger of being lost if the Harrier goes.

As for what might happen to the fleet, if it does go, I don't know who we could sell it to. The US Harrier is a totally different standard to ours and configured totally differently as are those used by Italy and Spain. There's a strong groundswell of opinion that to withdraw the Harrier is a huge mistake."

Other options

Should the government be unable to sell the aircraft to another state, the fate of the remaining Harriers could be more mundane.

Several years ago, a Harrier which was believed to be a veteran of the Falklands Conflict appeared on the auction site eBay with bids reaching £200,000. But experts say that the sale of such military hardware on the open market is unlikely to happen, due to strict export controls on fighter aircraft and the relatively small pool of potential private buyers.

What is more likely is that they will be stripped of sensitive avionic equipment and sold to museums or aviation enthusiasts, though clearly this is unlikely to generate a huge amount of money. Earlier this year, the artist Fiona Banner used real-life Harrier and Jaguar aircraft in an installation at Tate Britain, something which may be copied by other galleries.


Harrier pilots are some of the best qualified in the world and their training is lengthy and costly. The training bill for one pilot who would need at least five years’ ordinary flying experience coupled with more specialist training in vertical take off and landing as well as the particular skills required to fly a Harrier, could cost between £2m – £5m, depending on up-front costs. It is thought that those huge training costs may not be entirely wasted as it should be possible for Harrier pilots to fly the new Joint Strike Fighter.

Graphic showing the scale of the cuts facing the Royal Navy.

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