The launch of RAZBAM’s AV-8B NA Harrier II for DCS World back in October of 2017 happened much closer to the start of what has become a growing wave of third-party developers aimed at bringing high-fidelity aircraft to DCS World. The module has seen its share of up and down moments through it’s history and most recently has seen some larger scale updates to its core systems and functionality and a slightly growing arsenal too. How does the DCS: AV-8B stack up in 2021? Let’s revisit this aircraft as the first in what will be several that I plan to revisit this year.
Needs no introduction
The Harrier is the archetypal vertical take off, jet fighter, that has made its share of movie, TV and commercial appearances. The design from Hawker Siddeley was the only one of its generation to become a success. Other VTOL designs were ultimately deemed failures or saw limited use only where the Harrier became a staple. Early versions went on to fame and an impressive reputation during the Falkland Islands War where a small number of RAF and Royal Navy Harriers provided the only fixed wing air coverage over the islands thanks to their ability to deploy from carriers. They had an impressive serviceability rate and an even more impressive kill ratio with none of the Harriers being lost in air combat. It was so unique in its success that the design was imported into the United States and used heavily by the USMC – a notably rare moment in U.S. military procurement history where a foreign design became a significant part of the force.
The DCS: AV-8B represents a second-generation design of the jet by McDonnell Douglas. The NA, or Night Attack, variant was upgraded with equipment such as a forward looking FLIR that allows the jet to operate at night.
Inside and out
Let’s start with the visuals of the AV-8B and how well they have held up over the years and I want to start this section by looking at its cockpit.
Almost two years ago, RAZBAM released a major update for the AV-8B that featured all new cockpit visuals. The texture overhaul took the aircraft from good but average art design into new territory that holds up extremely well under scrutiny. Wear marks and scratches are tastefully managed and match well with any of the real-world photos I’ve seen. In short, RAZBAM has created a fantastic looking cockpit that feels at home and at a level similar to what we’ve seen from Eagle Dynamics in the F/A-18, F-16 and revamped A-10C II.
There are still a few blemishes. The jet’s MFD and HUD displays still require some attention. At a basic level, the text is sometimes hard to read against different backgrounds and can sometimes appear to be blurry or just hard to decipher. The MFD’s are the worst offenders while the HUD has generally been less of an issue but still occasionally proves more difficult to read than similar jets in DCS.
There’s also issues with contrast of displays. I find this is most challenging when I switch to the night mode of the display which are sometimes not readable at night. In some cases the day mode was easier to read at night than the night model.
RAZBAM has talked previously about how they are transitioning the displays to a scalable vector format as Eagle Dynamics has started doing over the last couple of years so hopefully we’ll see this issue resolved.
The exterior model of the AV-8B has long been among the module’s strongest attributes. The AV-8B is a complex aircraft to model and RAZBAM’s modeler team went all out right from day one to make sure that it matched and looked authentic. I appreciate the fine 3D detailing, the exceptional texture work, and the extra lengths that the team went to ensure that this jet looks good. Right down to the part where the rotating exhaust system heats-up and glows a subtle shade of red when under high throttle at night. Those are the kinds of details that sim fans look and proclaim as “cool.”
There’s not as much to say about the exterior because it looks superb from just about any angle. From the fine texture detailing to the 3D modeling, it’s always impressed and it still does in 2021 under the latest lighting model in DCS 2.5.6.
Quirks with the jet’s displays aside, the AV-8B is great looking module and fits in with the best in the series.
Systems and button pushing
Fans of the DCS: F/A-18C Hornet, when jumping into the AV-8B for the first time, are going to notice a lot of similarities and the two McDonnell Douglas jets appear to have been worked on by the same cockpit designers. That said, the AV-8B certainly has it’s share of quirks inherited from its origins at Hawker Siddeley.
The basics of operating the jet’s MFD’s will feel remarkably familiar. There are some quirks, such as redundant digital and physical buttons for things like toggling weapons pylons and setting fuses, but those mostly add character to the operation of the jet anyways. The center mounted UFC is almost identical to the Hornet’s although I’ve noticed a persistent bug where the decimal point sometimes doesn’t work. For example, when typing in a radio frequency such as 249.500, it instead appears as ‘249500’. The bug goes away on the second attempt but it is annoying.
The DCS: AV-8B has changed a lot over the last couple of years and perhaps none more than in the last few months. The addition of new weapon systems (more on that in a bit), a revised and newer variation of the Lightening II targeting pod and some additional system overhauls has changed some of the workflow with the jet. Being familiar with how to do things before, I did need to do some retraining.
In comparison to the Hornet, I found the Harrier’s smart weapons to require more button presses and more procedures to get things just right. Once I did, things seem to work fairly smoothly and you can be almost as quick if you know what to press and when. It’s still less intuitive but this is apparently even closer to real world Harrier operations than before. RAZBAM have also done their best to provide kneeboard functionality for multiple target attacks via the F10 map display which does help for those wanting to set-up pre-planned attacks.
Despite the update to the Lightening II targeting pod, many users still have issues with the slew controls not slewing smoothly. I use a four way hat switch and it seems fine in that use but analogue sticks may have more problems. I have also run into rare issues where the designator becomes inverted and scrolls in the opposite direction (don’t ask me how that happened) or where assigned key presses seem to do something other than commanded. Other issues are more about how the real jet was setup and that includes no HOTAS control that enables and disables the laser marker. It requires MFD presses to turn on and off the laser and it’s an awkward workflow for those of us without MFD buttons to press in real life.
There have also be some changes to the way the jet starts up starting with the wheel chocks. RAZBAM has added these as default when you start in a jet and unfortunately they cannot be removed once the jet is operating. Safety first! I can tell you that I’ve started the jet many times only to need to shut down and remove them so I can do it over again. Fortunately the AV-8B starts up quickly so it wasn’t the worst thing for me to forget.
There is a mix here of real-world issues in the real jet together with some bugs that are almost certainly an issue with the module. While most of the AV-8B’s systems work great, the few that are quirky can be frustrating and they leave you wondering if you’ve made a mistake or if you’re facing a glitch in the system.
More precision, more boom
One of the things that has really enhanced the Harrier recently is the adding of some more weapon systems to the list. GBU-32, GBU-38, and GBU-54 JDAM’s have all been added to the jet over the last year and the most recent addition, the GBU-54 Laser-JDAM, adds a ton of flexibility. This is a high precision weapon that can be used in GPS mode against fixed targets and together with the Lightening II targeting pod’s laser marker to engage moving ones.
If the JDAM’s are a little too impersonal, the Harrier has also very recently been given another new DCS World weapon. The Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) takes a very simple Hydra 70 rocket and turns it into a precision laser tracking weapon. Although the range is limited, it means that a laser designated target can be struck once or repeatedly with a high degree of precision meaning that rockets don’t have to be wasted in saturation attacks. They can also be designated by a JTAC increasing the flexibility. With 7 in each pod, it’s possible to bring a total of 28 APKWS on the Harrier’s pylons meaning that 28 soft targets can be struck with precision.
All of that is on top of the usual mix of GBU-12 and 16 laser guided bombs and unguided MK-82 and 83 bombs and Hydra and Zuni rockets that the AV-8B has available since the earliest days of early access. The AV-8B also, uniquely, has the AGM-122 Sidearm which is a Sidewinder adapted into an anti-radiation missile. It doesn’t have much range but it lets the AV-8B engage short range SAM’s with its own precision weapon.
When it comes to making things go “boom”, the AV-8B is extremely adept!
Flying the jump jet
The AV-8B is an interesting jet to fly as it can do everything that a normal fixed wing aircraft does but with its own unique set of tools that other jets do not have. The biggest part of that is the vectored thrust nozzle system that provides the jet’s only thrust. The nozzles can be pointed at 0 degrees providing the jet with excellent sub-sonic performance – infact the Harrier climbs extremely quickly and accelerates to its top speed with great haste. It’s held back by aerodynamics rather than outright engine power.
Drop the speed, lower the flaps and point the nozzles towards the ground or even slightly forward and watch the speed come off and watch the jet turn into the VTOL wonder that it is. Flying this is unlike any other experience you’ll have in DCS as it handles differently than any other jet and differently than a helicopter too. The VTOL capability means you can land and takeoff from places that other jets just cannot.
That includes the USS Tarawa carrier that RAZBAM built for the module. The Tarawa is a superb recreation of this light carrier type. It doesn’t have the animated crew of DCS: Supercarrier but still holds up exceptionally well with plenty of beautiful details. RAZBAM went ahead and made sure that everyone could have access to the carrier which means everyone benefits from the development of the AV-8B even if you don’t own it – I’ve seen plenty of helicopter pilots enjoying it too!
There are very few quirks to flying the jet otherwise. The AV-8B is often talked about in the same breadth as the A-10C and while it doesn’t have the sheer number of weapons or the endurance to stay on station for a long time, it’s also much faster and can get where it’s going and home again in a much shorter period of time. Often a good thing if you have time for only a quick multiplayer sortie.
Overall, the AV-8B flies well and is a highly responsive jet which feels precise and relatively easy to fly without the fly-by-wire feeling as the AV-8B is not equipped with anything like that. Hovering takes some skill and practice but once you get there it’s relatively straightforward to fly compared to something like a helicopter. It’s a real joy to fly and it doesn’t loose much of that even when all bombed-up and ready for a strike.
The AV-8B is primarily an attack aircraft with some strike capabilities. Close air support is where it’s most adept and the AV-8B is equally fun placing dumb bombs on target as it is setting up a more precision oriented attack. The AV-8B is also, sans massive weapon load, relatively agile and capable at dogfighting in close range engagements. It’s GAU-12 25mm gun is more intended to be used against ground targets but is devastating when it connects with an air target. It also has AIM-9M Sidewinders which provide the jet with ample self defense capability.
The Harrier’s available ECM pod slightly reduces engagement ranges (although that appears to not always work very well in DCS World) and its RWR is at the same level of capability as other modern types like the F/A-18 and F-16. It’s countermeasure system includes a large number of flare and chaff which can be deployed automatically or manually.
I’ve been recently flying the jet in Persian Gulf at War and Georgia at War scenarios and it has plenty of ability to take on any ground target except for those defended by some of the larger SAM umbrellas. Here team coordination is essential. In one situation I did try and take on a guided missile cruiser with it but that was mostly a foolhardy and ended in disaster.
I do find myself sometimes frustrated during repeat attacks where the targeting pod tends to wander. It does this more than the F/A-18 does and that makes evading incoming fire and setting up for the next attack a bit more of a challenge.
Work within the AV-8B’s constraints as a combat aircraft and you have a capable attack and strike aircraft that integrates well with other jets in multiplayer and has enough systems and weapons to throw at targets. Get a little creative and the Harrier can do just about everything that it’s tasked with.
The DCS: AV-8B has come a long way since it’s release. It has managed to stay relevant to the sim through that time despite some longer stretches where the developer had left it alone. Those days seem to be behind us and despite the controversy last year around the declaration of early access being over, RAZBAM has continued to add new systems and features. The AV-8B is not the most complete module out there but for the majority of use cases you’ll be fine to fly the AV-8B as it is in combat and normal flight modes.
A few bugs and display readability issues continue to plague the AV-8B and they mar and otherwise good experience. They aren’t always persistent and are often a non-factor but some virtual pilots, depending on their joystick configuration, may struggle more than others.
Development on RAZBAM’s AV-8B has not been consistent over the course of it’s life as an early access and now released module and instead has happened in fits and starts. The long times between updates have soured its reputation and other newer jets caused me to fly other types awaiting further updates before jumping back in. Now that I’m back, I’m glad to have spent quite a bit of time with the jet and I look forward to spending more as the AV-8B can offer a ton of capability and a lot of fun. I recommend it for anyone looking at something that is both unique and capable as a modern attack aircraft in DCS World.