It was the British who originally conceived of the Harrier, developing it 40 years ago with funding assistance from the U.S. government. Its unique engine design allows the Harrier to make a short takeoff from a small carrier via a special ramp and to land vertically.
The Harrier was used heavily by the British in the Falkland Islands in 1981, and the Royal Air Force relies on it for ground attacks -- it carries upward of 5,000 pounds of ordnance externally fired from two 30mm cannons. The Royal Navy uses the craft for defensive purposes.
A Marine colonel in the Vietnam War named Tom Miller played a part in the craft's adoption by the U.S. government. Miller observed the Harrier at a 1968 air show in England and became convinced it could be used to provide air support for U.S. Marine Corps amphibious landings.
An updated version of the Harrier, known as the AV-8B, was built in the United States by McDonnell Douglas, now a part of Boeing Co., via an agreement with the British Aerospace Corp. The new craft, about 47 feet in length with a wingspan of nearly 31 feet, can take off and land at a variety of sites, even makeshift airfields. Along with the U.S. Marine Corps, the Spanish and Italian navies also use the AV-8B.
Several design improvements are on the horizon for some Harriers, such as modernized engines and radar, as well as night vision goggles for the pilot that will allow the craft to be operated both during the day and under cover of night.