The F-5 in its current state only realistically offers MiG-21 ‘Fishbed’ threat replication and desperately needs to be modernised to offer credible modern-day opposition.
In October, indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contracts worth ISD6.4 billion to provide contracted adversary air (AdAir) support over the next five years were awarded by the US Air Force (USAF) to four companies. According to Jane’s the US Navy, that has pioneered the use of contractor owned/contractor operated (COCO) adversaries in the 1990s, is looking at a number of ways to enhance its own ‘red air’ support to front line forces.
Three reserve command squadrons of former Swiss Air Force Northrop F-5N Tiger IIs, plus three F-5F ‘Frankentiger’ two-seaters, which mated existing F-5F front fuselages with former Swiss rear fuselages, are currently operated by the US Navy and US Marine Corps (USMC). Despite plans to ‘sundown’ the F-5 in 2015, it is now looking at ways to keep them relevant for modern training, and to extend them out past 2030.
The US Department of Defense USD718 billion Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 budget included USD39.7 million to acquire a further 22 F-5E/Fs from Switzerland, to supplement and in some cases replace the 43 aircraft currently in service.
The F-5 started as a privately funded light fighter program by Northrop in the 1950s. The design team wrapped a small, highly aerodynamic fighter around two compact and high-thrust General Electric J85 engines, focusing on performance and a low cost of maintenance. Though primarily designed for a day air superiority role, the aircraft is also a capable ground-attack platform. The F-5A entered service in the early 1960s. During the Cold War, over 800 were produced through 1972 for U.S. allies. Though the USAF had no need for a light fighter, it did procure approximately 1,200 Northrop T-38 Talon trainer aircraft, which were directly based on the F-5A.
After winning the International Fighter Aircraft Competition, a program aimed at providing effective low-cost fighters to American allies, in 1970, Northrop introduced the second-generation F-5E Tiger II in 1972. This upgrade included more powerful engines, higher fuel capacity, greater wing area and improved leading-edge extensions for better turn rates, optional air-to-air refueling, and improved avionics including air-to-air radar. It has served in a wide array of roles, being able to perform both air and ground attack duties; the type was used extensively in the Vietnam War. A total of 1,400 Tiger IIs were built before production ended in 1987. More than 3,800 F-5s and the closely related T-38 advanced trainer aircraft were produced in Hawthorne, California.
As told above the F-5N/F variants are still in service with the US Navy and USMC as adversary aircraft.
The Tiger II in fact is ideal for the role; cheap to operate, simple to maintain with no complex systems. However, the aircraft in its current state only realistically offers MiG-21 ‘Fishbed’ threat replication and desperately needs to be modernised to offer credible modern-day opposition.
Tactical Air Support Inc (TacAir) of Reno, Nevada, acquired a fleet of 21 F-5E/Fs from the Royal Jordanian Air Force in 2017 and immediately began developing a bespoke upgrade for the aircraft at its maintenance and logistics facility in St Augustine, Florida. The company was rewarded when in late 2018 it was awarded a five-year USD107 million contract from the navy to provide adversary services in addition to training for air and ship crews to counter electronic threats.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy