In their place will be RAF Harrier GR.7's, taken out of storage and upgraded to GR.9's.
The GR.9 will have a more powerful engine, some avionic upgrades with provision for Brimstone anti-tank missiles and Storm Shadow stand-off weapons, along with the current Maverick missiles and LGB's.
Also, the new ASRAAM will replace the AIM-9 self-defence missiles.
What the GR.9 won't have is a modern radar, like the Sea Harrier's Blue Vixen, along with AMRAAM missiles.
So the RN loses much of it's air-defence capability, no way is even the GR.9 capable is this role.
The Blue Vixen/AMRAAM capability was only introduced in 1994, the last Sea Harrier was completed in 1999, so the 'ageing' arguement does not hold up.
Since the mid-90's, with UK forces almost constantly in action, RAF Harriers have deployed on the RN carriers. They are much better strike aircraft, being based on the AV-8B with it's greater payload/range, and are night/adverse weather capable. So the two are complementry.
Usually a carrier will carry 14-20 Harriers, split between the RN/RAF versions.
The GR.9 will be a formidable attack aircraft, a real improvement in RN strike capability, unless the enemy has a half-decent airforce.
The MoD says it will reduce costs, and that the Sea Harrier needed an upgraded engine for 'hot' conditions. They implied that it was not technically feasible, but some Sea Harriers were already in line for the upgraded engine.
They will reduce costs, the two Harriers are very different:
Photo © Colin Norwood
Photo © Mark Heywood
The USMC are modifying some of their AV-8B's to carry APG-65 radars, and retaining attack sensors, the Spanish and Italian fleets are doing the same, and introducing AMRAAM capability for their aircraft.
So why not fit at least some of the GR.9's with Blue Vixen radars taken from the FA.2's, if it can fit on a Harrier airframe, should be no problem with a AV-8B derived platform like a GR.9
You'd lose a lot of the short term cost savings of course, but keep an important capability, the GR.9's would not be as nimble as the FA.2's, though they probably have a better turn rate, along with greater endurance.
It seems the hard lessons of the Falklands war have faded from memory, 20 years on.
The future of the AEW modified Sea King helicopters is also called into question, though it could be argued that they'll be even more vital now, with radar-less Harriers to support.
It can be argued that this move reflects the reality of the type of role the RN will be called upon to do nowadays, this has a lot of truth, but it also sounds like planning for the future by only learning from very recent conflicts/operations.
This is a victory for the RAF, but many RN Harrier pilots may resign, they were already unhappy about moving to an RAF base in middle England to be the the RAF Harriers, from their current base in Yeovilton which is in the same part of the country as the main naval bases.
The gap will be filled from 2012, when the first of two big new carriers is due to enter service. They will each carry 24-40 JSF's, almost certainly the STOVL version. From the start the airgroup has planned to be an extension of the current RN/RAF airgroups.
As the USMC will fund AMRAAM integration for their JSF's, no excuse for the UK ones not to have this capabilty, though the UK MoD has taken the gun off the RAF Eurofighters to save, over the life of the aircraft, the cost of half a Eurofighter!
It had been hoped the new Meteor BVRAAM might be adapted for RN JSF's, not now it seems.
The new carriers will also need a new AEW aircraft, probably an EH-101 variant.
Let's hope the RN don't face a competent air to air opponent without US air-defence support between 2006-2012.