Harriers make history once again
A detachment with a Yuma-based AV-8B Harrier squadron wrote another chapter of the aircraft's history when they launched, for the first time, an air-to-air missile operationally.
Approximately 40 Marines with Marine Attack Squadron 214 worked to have the Harriers launch three AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (or AMRAAM, to the maintainers and pilots) during a live-fire exercise at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., in August.
“There are three variants (of the AIM-120), the alpha, bravo and charlie,” said Maj. Jeremy Osborne, the VMA-214 operations officer. “The variant they shot were alphas, which are the oldest version of the AIM-120.”
Then-Capt. Michael McKenney, a Harrier pilot with local squadron VMA-211, first launched the missile during a test run in Okinawa, Japan, back in June 2009.
At 12 feet long and weighing approximately 350 pounds, the AIM-120 is a fire-and-forget weapon, able to lock on to targets out of range.
“This is the first BVR (beyond visual range) air-to-air missile the Harrier's ever had,” said Osborne.
During the live-fire exercise, mediated mainly through the U.S. Air Force's 83rd Fighter Weapons Squadron, the Harrier pilots aggressed remote-controlled F-4 Phantoms and BQM-167 Skeeters over the Gulf of Mexico. No machinery was harmed during the occasion; the controls would avoid the missiles before impact.
The significance of the AIM-120's first successful operational launch is twofold.
One, this expands the capabilities of the Harrier while deployed with Marine Expeditionary Units at a time when the Corps is getting back to its amphibious beginnings.
“The main reason the AV-8B was able to gain this capability was to provide the escort role for (MV-22 Ospreys) for the MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force),” said Osborne.
The Harriers' escort service provide Ospreys safer transportation for Corps assets, the most important being Marines themselves.
Secondly, the capability bridges the gap between the Harrier and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. The JSF will have long-range armament, too. However, with the Harriers newly acquired weaponry, attack squadrons will be able to offer more versatility until the JSF truly takes off.
“It's another step forward increasing the AV-8B's capability of long-range warfare,” said Capt. Mark Maholchic, the Marine Attack Squadron 214 adjutant. “This is the step where we prove and we know, through a live-fire exercise, we are capable of defending the fleet at a greater range than we previously were able.”
Cpl. Sean Dennison writes for Desert Warrior, the newspaper at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.