Air University Review, November-December 1977

The Impact of V/STOL on Tactical Air Warfare

Wing Commander Peter P. W. Taylor, RAF

Let us honour if we can 
The vertical man, 
Though we value none 
But the horizontal one.

-W. H. Auden

THE VERTICAL and short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) concept is not new, having fascinated air theorists with its possibilities for many years. French, American, German, Russian, and British designers are a few among many who have experimented either theoretically or practically over the last twenty or so years. And now, V/STOL is really with us. This article proposes that V/STOL is the future of tactical fighter aviation. Unfortunately, as Auden indicates in his pithy poem, complete agreement on the issue has so far eluded us. It will, therefore, be the purpose here to examine the impact that V/STOL technology has and might have in tactical air warfare; to present facts, interpretations, and views; and logical argument to convince a wide audience that V/STOL has much to offer--and that time is getting short for the West to exploit the advantage it currently enjoys in this field of technology.

The Hawker Siddeley Harrier has been in service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the United States Marine Corps (USMC) for eight years; and the Royal Navy and the Spanish Navy have either acquired or are acquiring seagoing Harriers. As for the Russians, their first experimental design, the Freehand, has developed into the Yak-36 Forger, currently embarked on the carrier Kiev. In the near future, we shall see an updated version of the USMC Harrier (the AV-8A), now designated the AV-8B. It is also inconceivable, as John W. R. Taylor asserts in Jane’s Aerospace Review 1976-1977 that "if the Soviet Navy was prepared to show off the Yak-36 so blatantly, we must assume that it is regarded as merely a first step towards something better." l

Some, then, are clearly convinced by the possibilities, and they are those who usually argue V/STOL with the most persuasive enthusiasm. But why, if the case is so good, has V/STOL not found greater acceptance in military aviation circles? If a V/STOL aircraft can show significant advantages over its conventional counterpart, why have we been so hesitant and tardy in developing both technology and concepts?

History provides many examples of new technology, both in industry and in the military, that have either been ignored, discarded too soon, or have been developed much later than they should have been. With the benefit of hindsight, we look back and marvel that anyone could have been so blind as not to have seen the advantages of, say, the bow, the machine gun, or the torpedo. Yet, they were only to have been proved wrong time and again. It will be proposed here that V/STOL is a technological advancement similar in significance to those just cited. We must hope, therefore, that we are not ignoring an innovation of such fundamental importance that we shall be similarly accused by our successors.

Functions, and Principles of
Tactical Air Forces Employment

How would V/STOL adapt to the current concepts of tactical air operations? To answer this question, we shall look first at the doctrine prescribed by AFM 2-1, Tactical Air Operations--Counter Air, Close Air Support, and Air Interdiction, which states that flexibility is the most significant operational characteristic of tactical air forces. It continues that tactical air forces have the inherent capability to react rapidly and selectively to a wide range of missions under varying operational conditions throughout the entire spectrum of conflict. 2 And how is this flexibility to be derived? By capitalizing on the inherent range, mobility; responsiveness, and versatility of tactical aircraft. None of these characteristics is adversely affected by V/STOL aircraft; on the contrary, as we shall see later, they can replace, enhance, and even revolutionize their application.

AFM 2-1 has further pertinent advice to offer concerning the security of tactical aircraft on the ground. Under the headings "Dispersal" and "Security," the manual states:

Since tactical air forces can operate at high speeds and over long distances, they should be dispersed for security.

Technological advances should be exploited to minimize the force required and to reduce operational losses.

Measures to maintain and strengthen the security of available forces against all actions which could reduce, neutralize or destroy capabilities are of paramount importance. 3

Could there be a more effective way to provide dispersal and security than the V/STOL option? V/STOL allows dispersal and concealment, freedom from fixed bases and rigid concepts, and therefore contributes to a reduction of operational losses. And finally, could there be a more effective way to maintain and strengthen the security of available forces than the theoretical freedoms to hide and operate from almost any surface?

Sufficient evidence exists to propose that V/STOL could replace, enhance, and revolutionize the doctrine dictated by AFM 2-1 for tactical aircraft. For the first time, the oft-repeated ideal requirements that are espoused in the doctrinal manuals could be translated into an actual capability.

Deterrence Value of NATO's
Conventional Air Forces

The present doctrine for deterring Soviet aggression in Western Europe is based on a defense triad consisting of strategic and tactical nuclear forces and conventional forces. Since tactical nuclear and conventional aircraft are often the same in NATO (possibly until the introduction of the cruise missile), no specific effort will be made to draw clear lines of distinction between tactical operations involving the two. The discussion will focus on the broad category "tactical aircraft" and encompass all the generally accepted roles in tactical operations.

It is axiomatic that the tactical air contribution to the deterrence equation must be credible or it may assume a negative value. That is to say: if NATO's tactical air forces are so structured and employed that they are either vulnerable to surprise attack or have a doubtful capacity to operate in war, then these forces invite rather than deter aggression. A closer look at the relative deterrence values of both the Warsaw Pact and NATO air forces is taken later in the article. For the moment, however, the deterrence value of tactical aircraft will be discussed more in the abstract than the subjective.

If we begin by proposing that the tactical part of the triad must be as invulnerable as we can make it, we must examine how this is currently achieved. Air Force doctrine stresses that the vulnerability of tactical aircraft can be reduced by applying the following principles:

Flexibility. Aircraft must be given as many operating options as possible.

Readiness. The highest state of readiness commensurate with peacetime and training requirements ensures some degree of security from surprise attack.

Training. A high state of training coupled with realistic exercises contributes to successful operations and reduces losses both on the ground and in the air.

Defenses. A combination of hardening and toning down key equipment and installations, plus improved antiaircraft artillery (AAA) and surface-to-air missiles (SAM), will reduce vulnerability.

Dispersal. Dispersal and concealment are ancient military principles whose validity has been proved in many campaigns.

In light of these principles, we pose the question: How applicable will the principles be in the face of advancing technology? To answer, we will assess the vulnerability of today's airfields against precision-guided munitions (PGM); and we begin with a few published statements on the subject:

Nor are all the tactical implications of even the current generation of PGM yet apparent. Thus far only two have been clearly identified. The first is that fixed installations seem to be particularly vulnerable to PGM. . . . This means that depots, airfields . . . are less secure than they have been in the past. . . . This tends to put a premium upon hiding, blending with the background, . . . 4

James Digby of the Rand Corporation wrote on the same subject.

It will become much less desirable to concentrate a great deal of military value in one place . . . . If the attacker has a finite number of PGM, anyone of which has a high probability of destroying its target, then it is better to force him to spread them over many targets which are individually of small value. . . . Smallness and mobility will make hiding easier. . . . However, one must also consider the degree to which concentrations can still be sheltered, or protected by active defenses. . . (but) there is no question of PGM not being used if fighting takes place, and no tactical planner can any longer afford to ignore their effect on his vulnerabilities.

Even small units can be very powerful when equipped with PGM or with designators that can call in and guide remotely-launched PGM. . . . . 5

The significance of these extracts is clear: PGM among other weapons can probably defeat airfield defenses. Furthermore, the principles from which a degree of vulnerability had previously been derived now look less valid. How flexible can one be if either individual targets or the main runway are successfully attacked? All the readiness in the world cannot help if runways are destroyed in the first salvo. And finally, the security of the base can be overcome not only by air attack but also by ground attacks, if the threat from sabotage groups, for instance, is enhanced as much as Digby's last statement would lead us to believe.

Although the extracts about PGM predict a rather gloomy future for the fixed installation, they were chosen because they not only described the potency of the PGM but also how PGM effectiveness might be reduced if certain other principles were reapplied to the argument. The extracts all hinted that dispersal of forces into a number of smaller targets and mobility and concealment could still allow the flexibility, readiness, and security required for effective tactical operations.

Warsaw Pact and NATO
Tactical Air Forces Compared

the Warsaw Pact

The threat from the Warsaw Pact tactical aircraft is today both quantitative and qualitative. Until quite recently this was not the case since although the pact enjoyed a considerable numerical superiority over NATO, their aircraft possessed little sophisticated equipment and a relatively poor offensive capability. The aircraft were, however, very rugged and designed to operate from a variety of natural and prepared surfaces. The apparent qualitative deficiency in Soviet designs has now been considerably reduced by the advent of a new generation of tactical combat aircraft. By almost any estimate, the Fencer, Flogger, and later series of Fitter and Fishbed are formidable aircraft giving the Warsaw Pact air forces an immensely improved offensive capability. Nor, seemingly, has this achievement been accomplished at the sacrifice of numerical strength. According to Flight International magazine, the Russian aircraft industries supply about 1000 new combat aircraft every year, not counting about 700 helicopters. In addition, improvement to some earlier models has meant that they are often being replaced roughly one-for-one, over and above being reinforced by new types.6

Soviet operations have traditionally stressed the need for surprise and security,7 and nowhere has this been more clearly demonstrated than in their doctrine for the use of tactical air power. The Soviets have always clearly understood the need to safeguard their air assets either from a surprise attack or during operations, through a combination of strong static defenses and dispersal. Contemporary developments have not changed this perception. Descriptions of the formidable Soviet air defenses can be found in almost any aviation magazine today, stressing the numbers, complexity, and efficiency of the various systems.8 Furthermore, the emphasis on dispersal, combined with hardened shelters, remains of fundamental importance to the Warsaw Pact:

The operational readiness status of Soviet Frontal Aviation units is on a permanently high level, and is continually improved and checked on by practice alerts. As part of these practice alerts, units are redeployed from their bases to small auxiliary airfields, of which there are several hundred in frontal areas. 9

It would, therefore, be fair to conclude that the Warsaw Pact is well equipped, well trained, enjoys the benefits of standard equipment, and maintains a high state of readiness. The continued emphasis on dispersal capability bestows the dual advantages of reducing aircraft vulnerability in the event of a pre-emptive attack by NATO, while at the same time allowing an unrivaled offensive capability to either pre-empt or conduct operations in war. Warsaw Pact tactical air power is thus credible in terms of deterrence and capable in terms of performance.

the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization

NATO's approach is somewhat different, stemming in part from military, economic, and political perceptions. Colin Gray summarized the basic NATO approach:

The NATO countries are essentially status quo powers, and so have generally adopted a mix of strategic and arms control policies that give the initiative to the other side. . . . 10

This quotation suggests many of the policies and doctrines that NATO has adopted in the equipping and use of its forces. To deal with the specific case of tactical aircraft, we see that NATO intends to undertake all the traditional roles, such as interdiction, counterair, reconnaissance, and close air support It is intended to pursue these roles irrespective of the Soviet air defense threat and the imbalance in numbers of aircraft between the Warsaw Pact and NATO. The current Military Balance estimates the imbalance in Central and Northern Europe to be 2085 for NATO and 3975 for the Pact. 11 Recent re-equipment programs have seen or will soon see a significant qualitative improvement in aircraft, provided by the F-16, F-15, the Tornado, and the A-10.

Unfortunately, NATO's aircraft are concentrated on a few, easily identified airfields whose position is precisely known. This presents NATO planners with three main problems: how to reduce the effectiveness of a pre-emptive attack; how to continue operations during war; and how to receive the planned reinforcements from the U.S. to offset the present numerical inferiority. In other words, apart from the Harrier, NATO does not have a dispersal capability and pays the price in the lack of flexibility inherent in its tactical air doctrine. Nor does the future look bright, for the main effort to reduce the vulnerability of NATO's airfields is being directed to such static measures as hardening, toning down, and improved air defenses. Worthy and necessary though these measures may be, they retain the essential weakness of being static, a point aptly summed up by Bill Bedford, a former Hawker Siddeley chief test pilot:

In war certain basic principles apply of which flexibility, mobility and surprise with quick reaction are of the utmost importance. Is there not a tendency for these fundamentals to have been overlooked in latter years where air power is concerned? Have certain NATO and other countries not partially burled their heads in large, vulnerable concrete runways, protective shelters, SAM and Anti Aircraft defences? History points time and time again, to the danger of STATIC inflexible defence whether it be a stone age cave, a castle, Maginot line, or an airfield. The Achilles Heel is that of being static--no matter how well protected and defended such bases may be. l2

This, in essence, is what NATO has done. As a result, options are few, a high state of readiness is difficult to achieve, and fixed installations can be accurately targetted. The new-generation NATO aircraft are highly sophisticated and aggravate the problem further since their very sophistication argues against operations from anywhere other than a fixed installation with the necessary support.

Thus we see a NATO air force that although well equipped and trained possesses the fundamental operating weakness of being highly concentrated. Furthermore, there appears to be little enthusiasm for developing any kind of comprehensive dispersal capability, relying instead on improving static defenses. The deterrence posture gives little comfort or credibility, and the imbalance created mainly by the dispersal issue is or should be worrying. NATO has pursued an unequivocably defensive strategy that should have placed great stress on survivability of its forces. A parallel strategy can be found in the most expensive efforts which both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have undertaken to ensure the survival of their respective strategic weapons. Yet whereas NATO's tactical forces are grouped closely, the Warsaw Pact's, already enjoying the luxuries of superior numbers of aircraft and airfields, have a further marked superiority in dispersal capability.

What can be done to correct this imbalance? We have already found arguments which stress that technology is the West's strong point, but it seems that on the subject of dispersal, a proper course is not being pursued, despite such exhortations as

The side which can maximize the effects of the new technology first is likely to be the better prepared for the next conflict.13

Current V/STOL aircraft and associated concepts of operations have shown how effectively they could free NATO's tactical aircraft from the dangerous constraint of operating from a handful of airfields. Unfortunately, only a few have seized the opportunities now offered.

The V/STOL Argument

The human race has seldom distinguished itself by the rapidity with which it has embraced new ideas, and military innovations fit only too neatly into this hypothesis. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan expressed this aptly in his classic study The Influence of Sea Power on History, 1660-1783:

Changes in tactics have not only taken place after changes in weapons, which is necessarily the case, but the interval between such changes has been unduly long. This doubtless arises from the fact that an improvement in weapons is due to the energy of one or two men, while the changes in tactics have to overcome the inertia of a conservative class; but it is a great evil. It can be remedied only by a careful recognition of each change, by careful study of the powers and limitations of the new ship or weapon, and by a consequent adaptation of the method of using it to the qualities it possesses, which constitutes its tactics. History shows that it is a vain hope that military men generally will be at the pains to do this, but that the one who does will go into battle with a great advantage--a lesson in itself of no mean value. 14

These are brave and prophetic words that apply to many technological advances, of which V/STOL is one of the latest. So let us examine "the powers and limitations" of this new technology and provide perhaps one example to history of military men who have adapted it, made capital from its properties, and produced new, even revolutionary tactics for jet fighter aircraft.

advantages of V/STOL

The advantages of V/STOL technology will be developed under three headings: operational flexibility, survivability, and combat agility.

Operational flexibility. V/STOL technology allows aircraft to disperse from fixed bases whenever a threat seems imminent, providing both a survival and a return strike capacity. Any attempt by the enemy to locate and destroy these dispersed forces (either close to or far from the main base) will compel him to dissipate a large proportion of his air power. This fact is emphasized when we consider the type of operating surface that may be available to V/STOL aircraft. The Harrier, for example, has already operated from meadows, parts of active or disused airfields, roads, playing fields, light aircraft strips, railway stations, woods, and has flown from 18 different types of ships; 15 there may be a future application for the security of oil rigs.

If the V/STOL aircraft is brought close to the area of operations, either on land or sea, there are possibilities for providing exceptionally rapid response to calls for ground support. There are other advantages to be gained from this. For example, rapid response can be provided whenever required without having to adopt an expensive airborne alert, and pilots can become very familiar with the operating area, thus reducing briefing times and navigation problems. Furthermore, in relative terms, more ordnance can be dropped per flying hour since so little time needs to be spent in transit. This factor also ameliorates the impact of being forced to jettison weapons in an air-to-air combat encounter. Finally, V/STOL aircraft can operate and recover in very low cloud base/visibility conditions and generally without regard to crosswinds. V/STOL allows the recovering aircraft to slow down, maneuver, and land if it is not aligned with a strip, or even to maneuver to undamaged areas of a main runway that has been attacked during its absence. V/STOL, therefore, offers unparalleled operating flexibility for a modern jet aircraft.

Survivability. As already mentioned, survivability is one of the aspects of operating flexibility that is derived from V/STOL, but it is of such fundamental importance that it should be amplified further. The ability to survive a pre-emptive attack and to operate during war are two essential prerequisites for any air force. V/STOL aircraft fulfill both these requirements; in the first instance dispersal greatly improves the chances of survival and, in the second, if they survive the initial attack on an airfield either by dispersal or by protection, it is unlikely that sufficient space could not be found for subsequent operations. Even in the worst case, where airfield logistics and runways were destroyed, whereas the conventional aircraft would be forced to wait for runway repairs, the V/STOL aircraft could depart in one of its various modes, fly to another source of fuel and weapons, and recommence operations. The flexibility that allows an aircraft not only to maneuver and fly to another airfield when its own is damaged but also to maneuver within its airfield perimeter to reach fuel and weapons is, without question, a unique capability.

Combat agility. Combat agility in V/STOL aircraft like the Harrier is an unusual capability derived from the design concept of vectored thrust. Startling maneuvers can be generated in flight during air combat through a combination of aerodynamic and jet reaction controls. Extremely rapid decelerations and instantaneous turns can be achieved in the vertical or horizontal planes that cause almost unmanageable overshoot problems for an attacker with guns. As an example of what can be achieved, it was stated recently in Jane’s Aerospace Review 1976-1977 that whereas the F-14 Tomcat had fought successful engagements against the Mirage F-l and F-5Es, results against the Harrier flown by United States Marine Corps pilots were quite different:

Using the full V/STOL aircraft's low-speed maneuver ability, and rapid acceleration and deceleration, the Marine pilots outfought F-14s in six of the sixteen engagements, losing only three, with the others indecisive. There could be no better incentive for ensuring the successful development of the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B advanced version of the Harrier; and the U.S. Navy must be relieved to know that the Kiev's Yak-36s do not share the Harrier's VIFF (thrust vectoring in forward flight) and STOL capability. 16

It should be stressed that this capability is derived from the vectored thrust design for producing V/STOL aircraft.

In addition to advantages during combat maneuvering, there are other distinct operating gains that follow from the vectored thrust idea. For example, steep dive bombing or evasive descents are possible without speed fluctuations. Fuel consumption, a most important aspect of air combat, can also be kept to a surprisingly low level. In aircraft like the Harrier, vectored thrust allows the use of all the installed engine power when in conventional flight. The high thrust-to-weight ratio allows outstanding climb, accelerations and decelerations, and maneuver. Moreover, the Harrier engine has many of the characteristics of the reheated supersonic fighter without the accompanying complexity and massive fuel consumption of the latter. For example, at full power the Harrier burns only 220 lbs/min. 17 The Harrier thus has a clear edge in staying power over the F-4 and many of her likely Soviet opponents. Even when the Harrier or any V/STOl aircraft if finally forced to retire from the flight, whereas the conventional aircraft must reach a base before running out of fuel, the V/STOL aircraft has virtually unlimited flexibility in finding somewhere to land.

disadvantages of V/STOL

When the relative merits of V/STOL and conventional aircraft are discussed (while the merits of V/STOL are generally conceded), opponents seize tenaciously on certain of the alleged disadvantages and, after a brief session of bloodletting, the victim is usually pronounced dead. Such judgments are often premature and do not stand up to dispassionate examination. Unfortunately, discussions of V/STOL are usually undertaken by people who are already convinced one way or the other, and a balance of views is seldom reached. We, therefore, shall look at the four most commonly cited disadvantages of V/STOL in an attempt to reach a balanced assessment of its contribution to tactical air warfare: logistics, security, command and control, and cost. While payload and range are also put forward as serious disadvantages, in general this accusation has been leveled specifically at the Harrier. Nevertheless, this change will be discussed under future developments.

Logistics. The problem of servicing and resupplying a dispersed force is the one most often raised as being the Achilles' heel of V/STOL concepts. It, therefore, deserves a close analysis. We shall consider two resupply problems: the first for V/STOL aircraft operating from a main base and the second for fully deployed operations.

  1. V/STOL at the main base. V/STOL aircraft operating from main bases suffer no more logistics problems than conventional aircraft operating from the same base. In fact, the V/STOL aircraft may be slightly better off wherever an airfield is a attacked and so badly damaged that aircraft and vehicle movement are severely curtailed. Under these circumstances the conventional aircraft has no option but to wait for repairs, wheras the V/STOL can either maneuver within the airfield perimeter or fly to another bases for fuel and weapons.
  2. V/STOL in tactical deployment. Although the problems of resupplying deployed aircraft are unusual today, they are not unique. World Wars I and II, helicopter operations, etc., offer many examples of resupplying deployed air forces. Moreever, it is self-evident that any military unit requires logistics support when deployed forward, and, of course, V/STOL aircraft are no different. However, whereas previous arguments about logistics were based mainly on theory, we now have eight years of practical experience to draw on from operating the Harrier. The Harrier logistics concept in Germany is based on a royal Air Force resupply system from the Harrier main base to tactically deployed logistics parks. Each logistics park contains a comprehensive amount of fuel, weapons, and spares and serves its associated operational site. If the operations site moves, the logistics park continues to serve it, although the system has sufficient flexibility that almost any site could be served by almost any logistics park. In the near future, logistics parks will also have a greater degree of mobility. Operational sites are restocked at night with 24 hours of supplies so that these sites also constitute a limited source of logistics. If either the logistics park or the operational site were destroyed or damages, aircraft already airborne may be recovered to another site or return to the main base, or, with greater weapon standardization, go to any base where fuel and weapons are available. These are real solutions to the logistics problem that have been put to the test during Harrier exercises. In fact, so successful has the logistics plan been that the Harrier force in Germany has been awarded the highest NATO ratings during realistic evaluations for the past two years. 18 Despite the success of the Harrier, however, we must recognize that the resupply problem for the Harrier wing in Germany is on a relatively small scale. A bigger problem would require a different approach with perhaps a renewed emphasis on standardization of common user items with the army, thus allowing greater operating flexibility. There is great scope for standardizing such items as trucks, wheels, fuels and oils, some weapons, and especially small arms for site security. In other words, given the requisite motivation, the army supply system could be adapted to provide a measure of support for tactically deployed aircraft. Therefore, while not minimizing the logistics problems, we can see that they are not insuperable for deployed operations.

Security. As with logistics, ensuring the security of any military installation or piece of equipment is not unique to V/STOL aircraft, although special problems do exist, as seen in on-base and off-base operations.

1. Security on the main base. Provided that V/STOL aircraft remain within the airfield perimeter, there are no special security problems. On the other hand, V/STOL offers such flexibility that concepts have been developed which envisage the dispersal of individual or small groups of aircraft either just within or just outside the airfield boundary to take advantage of natural cover and suitable roads or strips. For defense from air attacks, these aircraft must rely on a combination of dispersal and concealment and the normal AAA and SAM airfield defenses. For ground defense, an outer defensive ring of ground troops and mobile patrols is supplemented by an inner ring of and rained aircraft technicians. Once more the problems of security do not seem to be insuperable, while the gains are in presenting the enemy with an unusual and difficult targeting problem.

2. Security when deployed. The security of V/STOL aircraft when deployed is undoubtedly one of the biggest headaches. For example, Harrier sites deployed behind forward army elements, say 50 kms from the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA), are extremely hard to find. No attempt has yet been made to provide the sites with active air defenses, but mobile SAM technology is advancing at such a pace that this may soon be feasible. It is generally argued that the greatest threat to Harrier sites will come from a ground or airborne assault. Under these circumstances, the first recourse would be to divert aircraft and move the site. Failing that, the outer and inner defense concept would attempt to stabilize the situation to allow evacuation or call for help. All Harrier site training includes operating in a nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare (NBC) environment. In summary, placing sites near army units, dispersal and concealment, active air defenses in the future, and a higher state of training provide the sites with viable security.

Command and control. The problems of command and control hinge on the ability of the tasking agencies to communicate with deployed units. On-base dispersal presents no difficulties since the tasking facilities already exist. Individually dispersed aircraft are reached by telebrief, mains radio, vehicle radio, or hand-held VHF radio. Off base, the use of secure army communications has allowed tasking to any or all sites. Sites may task each other and speak to logistics parks. In addition, the use of aircraft telebrief either on or off base allows cockpit tasking and associated high sortie rates and reduces the hazards of operating in NBC conditions.

Cost. To begin a discussion about cost by proposing that it is difficult to be definitive usually provokes a flood of skeptical comment. Nevertheless, although the statement is true since cost measured against effectiveness is bound to be inexact, we must grasp this nettle. As a rough estimate, it costs 10 to 15 percent more to operate a fully deployed Harrier squadron than its conventional counterpart at an airfield. This extra cost follows from the need to provide logistics support, communications facilities, protection of sites, etc., according to the distance of the sites from the main base and according to what is already available.19 The return for this extra cost is, however, a highly flexible, invulnerable, and responsive force. We can also say that operations from a main base involve no extra cost at all; in fact, unless the individual aircraft are destroyed, operational capability can be practically guaranteed. And we are talking about a formidable capability here. It has been said that the Harrier devours six to seven times the fuel and weapons of a modern tank, yet she can deliver up to 20 times the weight of ordnance over 30 times the distance and can assume many more roles.20 We can, therefore, sum up by saying that there are no extra costs for operating V/STOL aircraft from a main base, but an increase in the order of 10 to 15 percent can be expected for deployed operations. Cost effectiveness on the other hand is practically immeasurable since operations by a V/STOL aircraft can be guaranteed to a higher level than its conventional counterpart.

Battle damage. A final disadvantage that is sometimes raised concerns the problem of battle damage; e.g., a bullet in the wrong place may preclude the V/STOL option. While this is undoubtedly true, a similar argument could be applied to carrier operations, and this has not yet caused the carrier option to be abandoned. Battle damage will occasionally prevent a V/STOL aircraft from operating in all its modes, in which case it becomes a conventional aircraft facing similar problems of conventional recovery.

Dramatic improvements in both aircraft and concept have been achieved in eight years, and the signposts for future improvements no less dramatic are clear. Most important, however, is that having overcome the real or imagined disadvantages of V/STOL operations, V/STOL design allows tactical aircraft to take advantage to the maximum extent of the characteristics, functions, and principles of employment.

V/STOL Concepts

The Royal Air Force has devised two basic V/STOL concepts with the Harrier, and the United States Marine Corps has developed one. Meanwhile, outline concepts for naval use are emerging, also.

concept for RAF Germany Harriers

The main concept of operations that has been developed for the three RAF Harrier squadrons in Germany envisages full tactical deployment. Aircraft are dispersed to a number of preselected sites where maximum use can be made of concealment and existing facilities, such as buildings, barns, woods, and where some sort of operating surface is available; logistics parks provide fuel, weapons, spares, etc. Secure communications allow tasking and link each site with a forward wing operations center (FWOC). Sites may also communicate with each other. The essence of the concept is its mobility, since each site is virtually self-contained and retains most of its equipment on wheels to facilitate rapid site moves. Such moves could be generated by a deteriorating ground situation, air or ground attack, or contamination from nuclear or chemical sources. While every site maintains a rudimentary decontamination capability and all field exercises include contamination training, the first recourse is to effect a site move. Security of the sites is achieved by the outer ring/inner ring principle. The outer ring is provided by specially trained RAF regiment squadrons and the inner ring by the site personnel themselves. Every technician receives extensive tactical training and can fight as a soldier if he must. This capability is also regularly exercised in a nuclear, biological, and chemical environment. Sites contain enough fuel and weapons for 24 hours' operations and are restocked at night. Sufficient flexibility also exists to accept aircraft from other sites either during site moves or for emergency reasons. 

Operations are normally conducted from dawn to dusk and in visual meteorological conditions, although the unique characteristics of the Harrier allow operations in very poor weather. Tasking is originated through the usual channels, normally through the FWOC, although sites may be tasked directly if necessary. Within the sites, each aircraft is connected to the site headquarters by telebrief, thus allowing cockpit tasking. This scheme permits great responsiveness to tasking, high sortie rates, and a degree of immunity to the aircrew during contamination. 

The concept has proved to be very successful. It is not unusual for the Harrier wing to fly about 240 sorties per day for extended periods, achieve a response time of 10 to 15 minutes, and avoid detection. The daily number of sorties could be exceeded but for peacetime constraints of safety and consumption of weapons. Most pilots fly six consecutive sorties before relief, and this schedule has been found perfectly sustainable over a period of many days.

concept for United Kingdom Harriers

The concept for the one Harrier squadron in the United Kingdom has been developed to cope with its specific commitment. The squadron is assigned to NATO, mainly to the flanks, but it also has a worldwide role outside Europe in support of national interests. A concept has therefore been developed that envisages an air mobile deployment of the entire squadron, including manpower and logistics support, to an airhead. The individual aircraft are then dispersed, sometimes singly and sometimes in small groups, either just within or just outside the airfield perimeters. Aircraft are concealed, and operations are the same as for the RAF Germany concept except that any part of the airfield or its environs are used for dispatch and recovery. 

This concept has also proved to be very effective during operational deployments overseas and exercises at home. As an example, a recent exercise in the United Kingdom simulated a Harrier squadron of 12 aircraft in direct support of a brigade under heavy attack from the ground. In response to requests for air support, 12 aircraft generated 364 sorties in three days. One aircraft flew 45 consecutive sorties without major servicing, and serviceability in general was outstanding, demonstrating that flying this type of aircraft in a tactical setting presented no insuperable engineering problems. Although critics of the Harrier have denigrated her weapon load, the potential amount of ordnance that could have been dropped in the brigade area is worth noting:

72,000 30-mm high-explosive shells
1500 cluster dispensers

or 900 X 1000-lb bombs + 600 SNEB rocket canisters
or 300 X 1000-lb bombs + 1800 SNEB rocket canisters. 21

A formidable load by any standard.

The concept for the U.K. Harriers, while not the best of the two RAF concepts, nevertheless has been successful and is clearly applicable in principle to operations by other V/STOL aircraft operating from airfields in Europe. Experience has shown that while an attacker may know the precise location of an airfield, individual targets that are dispersed and concealed are hard to find and engage. Furthermore, if these aircraft possess V/STOL characteristics, it is virtually impossible to stop operations completely, and the use of several strips simultaneously allows extremely rapid takeoff and landing, and exposure time is accordingly small.

United States
Marine Corps concept

The United States Marine Corps has been most enthusiastic about the possibilities of V/STOL aircraft and is currently carrying the banner for future development with vigor. The marines are operating about 100 Harriers (designated AV-SA), mainly in support of amphibious assault but also in a limited air defense role. The USMC concept envisages three phases: (1) operations from ships, (2) operations from a temporary site on or near the beach, and (3) operations from a main base or shore. In the initial stages of a landing, fully loaded AV-8As operate either in the air defense or close support roles. When the beach is secure, the ground commander can call for the AV-8As to fly to the beach site on ground alert (cab rank) and return to the ship for refuel and rearm. The temporary beach site can provide basic turnaround servicing, but the aircraft still depends on its sea base for major support until the main base is established on shore. 22

Convinced of the possibilities of V/STOL, the USMC has been most active in the development of the AV-8A. The marines have proposed an improved version of the AV-8A, designated AV-8B, which includes specific modifications to make it more suitable for USMC duties. If the development programmed is successful, the marines envisage a force of 342 AV-8Bs by the 1980s. 23 Lieutenant General T. Miller, USMC, has stated:

The advantages of V/STOL are so important that we have stated a requirement for an all-V /Stol light-attack force to begin to phase in during the 1980s . . . 24

Navy concepts

To introduce the subject of the uses of V/STOL for naval purposes, it is appropriate to quote John Fozard, the Harrier's chief designer: "The Harrier is the only aircraft that Nelson could have used at Trafalgar!" Not surprisingly, then, many navies of the world have seized on the possibilities that V/STOL offers. Already we see both Western and Soviet navies beginning to develop V/STOL aircraft, and various applications are emerging.

As carriers become ever more costly with their complex arrester gears and catapults, the validity of the carrier concept as a future weapon system is in the melting pot. Yet, there is an increasing need for long-range maritime patrol aircraft to be complemented by high-performance combat aircraft integrated and based with the fleet. These aircraft must combine the virtues of fleet protection and quick reaction. It is well known that ships are highly vulnerable without air cover, even with good antiaircraft (AA) defense, and this problem has become more acute with improvements in antishipping weapons. The sinking of the Eilat by Styx missiles provides Ii striking example. However, if the carrier concept becomes too expensive to support in the future, the requirements for responsive high-performance aircraft can still be met by using V/STOL aircraft. Seaborne V/STOL aircraft can undertake any of the traditional fixed-wing roles, including antisubmarine warfare, from a variety of deck surfaces without the complexity of the carrier. In fact, V/STOL aircraft once more open up the possibilities of pursuing the classic naval roles of projecting power and control of the sea quite inexpensively.

The Future

No study of this kind would be complete without a brief look to the future, since it seems evident that V/STOL indeed has a future in tactical aviation. What are the signs and portents? Unfortunately, some are pot good. Until the arrival of the Harrier and now the Forger, discussion of the merits of V/STOL aircraft was mainly theoretical. Events have changed this, and we now have much practical experience about operations, logistics, costs, and so on, and concepts have been developed, modified, and proved to be effective. Skepticism, however, remains very strong despite 18 years of V/STOL flying, eight of which have been operational. Brigadier General Atkeson made some pertinent points when he wrote that:

. . . conventional defense of Europe is not only possible, but that its feasibility and facility are improving steadily. Inasmuch as the new technology very definitely favors the defense, and is only beginning to have its weight felt in the tactical balance, we can look forward to an era of positive improvement and increased confidence in Western security. Technology is the strong suit among the Allies (particularly the United States) and the rapid expansion of known and shortly-to-become known physical and engineering principles is a task for which Western society and industry is naturally geared. . . . weapons revolutions have become routine and are really held in check only by the imagination limitations of those who contemplate their meaning. 25

The invention and development of V/STOL aircraft relate directly and significantly to these statements. It has been argued here that the development of a tactical air force with a viable V/STOL element could enhance the deterrence value of the conventional leg of the NATO triad of forces. V/STOL would enable NATO to develop a dispersal strategy that is clearly lacking today. Moreover, despite the length of time that V/STOL has been on the scene and the achievements of the Harrier forces, development of the idea seems to be being hindered, even blocked by ". . . imagination limitations of some of those who contemplate their meaning." While one can perhaps understand from the practical aspect that there is a limit to the number of systems that can be developed simultaneously, it is more difficult to understand downright" skepticism. Nevertheless, we must take heart from present achievements and continue sanguine regarding developments on the horizon.

On the Soviet side, as we have seen, the Forger is in service now with every expectation of seeing a more sophisticated V/STOL aircraft in the near future. The USMC plans to develop the AV-8A into the AV-8B and buy them in considerable numbers. The U.S. Navy is showing interest in V/STOL aircraft using a different design to the vectored thrust idea,26 while the Royal Navy has ordered a naval derivative of the RAF Harrier, to be named Sea Harrier. Other navies of the world are watching the development of these aircraft very carefully, and already the Spanish Navy has purchased a version of the Harrier, now named the Matador. But so far the development of the V/STOL idea is being developed more strongly by naval than land-based air power, although the application for the latter seems clear.

One of the few possibilities that presently exist is to be found in the RAF's plan to build a single replacement for the roles currently filled by the Harrier and Jaguars. The requirement has been designated Air Staff Target (AST) No. 403. This could be one of the most significant aircraft of the future and is worth a short digression. The RAF plans to identify and build the Harrier/Jaguar replacement by about the end of the 1980s. At present it has not been decided whether this aircraft will be V/STOL or not, or whether it will develop into an aircraft similar to the F-16. A further factor in the development of AST 403 is that other European countries (France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany) have identified a need for a versatile follow on battlefield support aircraft. These four nations, plus Britain, have formed a five-nation working group to discuss their possible mutual requirements for a future tactical combat aircraft (FTCA).

While there are obvious political and economic overtones to discussions surrounding this aircraft, combining these with the military advantages produces a strong case for its development. An aircraft with the inherent flexibility derived from V/STOL technology that was also equipped for all-weather operations, was supersonic, and could carry a wide range of stores over a long distance would be a potent weapon. And, as John W. R. Taylor adds in Jane’s Aerospace Review 1976-1977:

Add thrust vectoring in forward flight, and the resulting aircraft begins to sound expensive but is anything else practical to preserve balanced forces in a period when the Soviet Union is producing 1000 tactical aircraft ever year? 27 

It is not yet clear whether the differing requirements of the AST 403 and the FTCA can be reconciled, but in the light of NATO's clear requirement to develop a dispersal strategy and enhance the credibility of it conventional deterrence, a golden opportunity appears to be open. The first step, there fore, ought to be to include V/STOL technology in the AST 403.

Before leaving future aspects of V/STOL, we should perhaps glance briefly at the prospects for the development of payload and range, since this has been an area where the critics have been most active, and we refer here specifically to engine development. Hopefully, the story of the development of the Harrier's engine, the Rolls-Royce Pegasus, might allay the fears.

The present payload and range of the Harrier are largely functions of engine power, so that an increase in engine power would allow the V/STOL idea to be applied to many other roles than the present close support. For example, air defense, reconnaissance, and interdiction are roles that would be highly compatible with a V/STOL aircraft. In fact, a V/STOL aircraft with tactical nuclear weapons would provide a most potent deterrent and war-fighting force. Although V/STOL technology can be provided by means other than vectored thrust, the simplicity of the idea and its proven reliability remain an attractive proposition. Can vectored-thrust engines meet future requirements? History answers yes. The Rolls-Royce Pegasus entered RAF service in 1969 at 8680 kg thrust. In three years this had grown by 12 percent for an increase of only 2 percent in the weight of the complete weapon system. The net gain in thrust minus weight represents a 44 percent increase in the payload carried from vertical takeoff (VTO) and a somewhat smaller proportional increase in the (larger) STO payload. 28 It could be argued that thrust growth benefits the V/STOL aircraft more than it does its conventional counterpart.

Any future thrust increases should therefore enhance the already highly competitive capabilities of today's V/STOL aircraft.

The future is clouded by uncertainties V/STOL aircraft exist: today and have demonstrated their possibilities for both land and sea warfare. Further developments are clearly possible, and some avenues of approach for the future have been identified. We must not enable history to point to us and say that even with the examples of the machine gun and the torpedo less than 50 years old, another technological advance took years to be fulfilled.

Hq Tactical Air Command


1. John W. R. Taylor, Jane’s Aerospace Review 1976-1977, p. 32.

2. AFM 2-1, Tactical Air Operations--Counter Air, Close Air Support and Air Interdiction, Department of the Air Force, 2 May 1969, Chapter 3, pp. 31-33.

3. Ibid.

4. Brigadier General Edward B. Atkeson, Precision-Guided Munitions: Implications for Dètente, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, 16 September 1975, p. 6. Author's emphasis.

5. James Digby, Precision-Guided Weapons, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, Adelphi Paper No. 118, Summer 1975, p. 4.

6. Charles Gibson and Bill Sweetman, "Air Power for the Pact," Flight International, 5 June 1976, p. 1507.

7. The Soviet Nuclear Theater Offensive, Studies in Communist Affairs, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976, pp. 1-14.

8. R. Meller, "Expensive Luxury or Painful Necessity? Europe's New Generation of Combat Aircraft Part I, The Increasing Threat," International Defense Review (Copyright 1976 by Interavia SA, Geneva, Switzerland, April 1975), pp. 175-86.

9. Peter Borgart, "The Air Attack Potential of the Warsaw Pact," International Defense Review (Copyright 1976 by Interavia SA, Geneva, Switzerland, April 1976), p. 193. Emphasis added.

10. Colin Gray, "War and Peace--The Soviet View, "Air Force Magazine, October 1976, p. 29.

11. The Military Balance 1976-1977, The International Institute for Strategic Studies (1976), p. 102.

12. A.W. (Bill) Bedford, "A Case for Survival or the Defence Significance of the V/STOL Combat Aircraft, NATO’s Fifteen Nations (August-September 1974), vol. 19, no. 4, p. 18.

13. Atkeson, p. 10.

14. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power on History, 1660-1783.

15. Bedford, p. 22.

16. Taylor.

17. Bedford, p. 22.

18. Air Clues: The Royal Air Force Magazine, December 1976, p. 442.

19. Bedford, p. 22.

20. Ibid.

21. Derived from author's experience.

22. J. M. Ramsden, "America's Harriers," Flight International (London), 4 September 1976, p. 749.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Atkeson, p. 15. Author's emphasis.

26. Aviation Week & Space Technology, September 6, 1976, p. 81.

27. Taylor.

28. "The Harrier--Some Military Misconceptions," Aviation Limited (Hawker Siddenly), LTSK 97, Issue, 1 (February 1972), p. 31.

Our age of anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today's job with yesterday's tools--with yesterday's concepts.



Wing Commander Peter P. W. Taylor, AFC, RAF, is the Royal Air Force Exchange Officer at Headquarters, Tactical Air Command, Langley AFB, Virginia. He has flown tactical fighters throughout his career, in the Far and Middle East and in Europe. Involved in the Harrier program since 1967, he has served as a flight commander in a Harrier squadron in Germany, followed by a tour as Squadron Commander of the United Kingdom Harrier Squadron, No. 1 (F). Wing Commander Taylor is a graduate of the Army Staff College, Camberley, and the USAF Air War College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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