But has the Harrier really proven its unique value in countering insurgencies, etc? The Harrier has surely been a large part of Marine aviation since 9/11, but its STOVL characteristics were rarely, if ever, critical to the conduct of operations. If anything, the capability was a liability when it came to the requirement for long on-station times, multiple ordnance options, and tedious scanning of compounds and cities with targeting pods in support of troops on the ground. Marines often refer to the plane by saying "one man, one bomb, one hour." It is not that the Harrier has been incapable or has failed in its support of Marines on the ground. However, the STOVL capability forces a tradeoff in terms on-station time and weapons carriage. The F/A-18, especially in the two-seat D version, is far more capable of staying on station longer, conducting better scans using targeting pods, and carrying more weapons to give the ground units more options in these fights where one might need to level a building or might need to take out a small group of insurgents not far from a civilian-inhabited compound.
While Harriers have conducted some forward rearming and refueling at shorter strips, these were more driven by the Harrier's limitations and the desire to validate its expeditionary capability than a value added to the fight. That is, while a Harrier was rearming and refueling, a Hornet would be overhead, sensor still on target, refueling from a KC-130, more weapons still on the wing.
So, when the program hits a rough spot again, which history suggests is very possible, and when the budget adjusters come knocking, the Marine Corps needs to be honest about how much STOVL capability it really needs to maintain its close air support capability aboard amphibious shipping, how soon unmanned aerial systems can fill that gap, and what the best option is for the rest of our close air support needs.