The Harrier versus the Lightning II: Which does close air support better?

With the debate on close-air support raging between those who think the F-35 Lightning can perform the role versus those who think the A-10 Thunderbolt II (aka the Warthog) can’t be beaten, one other plane that excels in this role has been all but forgotten.

Marine Corps Air Station Cherry , North Carolina - Maj. James S. Tanis lands an AV-8B Harrier during field carrier landing practice sustainment training at Marine Corps Auxiliary Landing Field Bogue, N.C., Dec. 5, 2014. (Photo By: Cpl. J. R. Heins)

Marine Corps Air Station Cherry , North Carolina – Maj. James S. Tanis lands an AV-8B Harrier during field carrier landing practice sustainment training at Marine Corps Auxiliary Landing Field Bogue, N.C., Dec. 5, 2014. (Photo By: Cpl. J. R. Heins)

The McDonnell-Douglas/British Aerospace AV-8B+ Harrier has played a role for decades supporting troops on the ground in combat.

The Harrier had caught the fancy of Hollywood for a while – notably being used to evacuate a defector in the beginning of “The Living Daylights” – and especially after it proved to be a war-winning weapon in the Falklands in 1982. The U.S. Marines had a similar plane in the AV-8A Harrier.

Then, around 1985, the AV-8B and GR.5 entered service, offering a greater payload for ground attack. The 1990s saw the AV-8B+ enter service with the APG-65 radar used on the F/A-18 Hornet.

So, how does this plane stack up against the competition is a close-air support mission?

In a max-payload configuration, the AV-8B+ can carry 14 Mk 82 500-pound bombs. The AV-8B+ can carry a wide variety of other weapons as well, including the Mk 84 2,000 pound bomb, CBU-87 and CBU-100 cluster bombs, the AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missile, GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), and laser-guided bombs.

The Harrier also features an internal gun – the 25mm GAU-12 — with 300 rounds of ammo. While not as powerful as the A-10’s GAU-12, this gun still packs a punch.

So, how does this stack up to the F-35B which the Marines are using to replace the Harrier?

The F-35B can carry JDAMs, but cannot carry any 2,000-pound bombs. As this Military.com video shows, 2,000 pound bombs are sometimes needed to support grunts.

U.S. Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, conduct the first ever hot load on the F-35B Lightning II in support of Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course 1-17 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., Sept. 22, 2016. (Staff Sgt. Artur Shvartsberg)

U.S. Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, conduct the first ever hot load on the F-35B Lightning II in support of Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course 1-17 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., Sept. 22, 2016. (Staff Sgt. Artur Shvartsberg)

Even though the F-35 has a larger maximum payload (15,000 pounds to the AV-8B’s 9,200 pounds), not being able to drop the bigger bombs can be a problem. The F-35 also doesn’t carry the Maverick missile, which can be a problem when there are ground-based air defenses.

The lack of an internal gun is another killer. Sometimes, you don’t need a big bang, especially when you have to be aware of collateral damage. When you drop a 500-pound bomb, that’s still a lot of high explosives going off.

Even the AGM-114 Hellfire used on drones has caused some civilian casualties when taking out high-ranking terrorists.

The Marines need new aircraft, particularly since they had to be bailed out by the boneyard earlier this year. The high-tech F-35B may be a good replacement for the F/A-18C Hornets the Marines desperately need to replace, but the AV-8B+ may need to stick around a while to help with the close-air support mission.

Because like the Hog, it can do stuff that the F-35 just can’t do.