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Indian Navy-Sea Harriers-Narendra Modi
AP Photo/Manish Swarup
One last time.
THE LAST SORTIE

After 30 years of service, India is retiring its iconic British-built Sea Harrier fighter jets

By Manu Balachandran

It’s the end of the runway for one of the world’s most iconic naval fighter aircraft.

On May 11, the Sea Harrier will fly its last sortie for the Indian Navy, the only remaining operator of the British-built fighter jet.

With the ability to vertically take off and land on aircraft carriers with very short runways, the Sea Harrier entered service with Britain’s Royal Navy in 1980. In the 26 years it served on British aircraft carriers, the jet saw action in the Falkland Wars and the Balkans. The Royal Navy phased out the aircraft in 2006.

“Unusual in an era in which most naval and land-based air superiority fighters were large and supersonic, the principal role of the subsonic Sea Harrier was to provide air defence to naval fleet by operating from their aircraft carriers,” the Indian Navy said in a statement.

Sea Harriers, made by Hampshire-based British Aerospace, were inducted into the Indian Navy in 1983 following the phasing out of the Seahawks. The jets had an operational speed of 640 knots or 1,186 kilometres per hour and were also capable of air-to-air refuelling.

The aircraft was already something of a legend by the time India inducted it, thanks to its successful deployment in the Falklands War of 1982. “Its usage in the Falklands War (1982) was its most high-profile and important success, where it was the only fixed-wing fighter available to protect the British Task Force over 8,000 miles from homeland,” the statement from the Indian Navy added.

Since its induction, the Sea Harriers have been the air arm of India’s battleships, INS Viraat and INS Vikrant. While INS Vikrant has already been dismantled, the navy is in the process of phasing out INS Viraat too.

“You could take off and land at any speed from zero to 160 knots,” Arun Prakash, former chief of Indian Navy, wrote on May 09. “While others ‘landed and then stopped’, Harrier pilots had the luxury of ‘first stopping and then landing’!”

The Indian Navy had initially purchased 30 Sea Harriers and assigned its best pilots to the aircraft. Yet, over the past three decades, some 15 Sea Harriers have crashed, killing eight pilots. The last such incident took place in the Arabian Sea in 2009, killing the pilot.

The decision to phase out Sea Harriers is also largely due to the huge maintenance cost. The British Royal Navy had phased out Sea Harriers after British Aerospace stopped production in 1998.

India’s Sea Harriers—which are likely to be rested at museums across the country—will be replaced by the much younger and sophisticated Russian Mig 29K jets.