Is This 60-Year-Old Plane Still a Killer Combat Aircraft?

 In Land, Air, Forces & Capabilities

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By Adam Leong Kok Wey, The National Interest

It has been sixty years since the first pro­to­type of the Northrop F‑5 family of light­weight fight­er-bombers took its first flight on July 30, 1959. The F‑5 played an impor­tant but under­stat­ed role in the Vietnam War and con­tin­ues to fly today — albeit with updat­ed equip­ment — with some air forces and pri­vate combat flight train­ing con­trac­tors, prov­ing its capa­bil­i­ty to com­pete with some of the latest tech­no­log­i­cal­ly supe­ri­or light fight­ers.

The F‑5 was devel­oped by Northrop as a light­weight super­son­ic fight­er that is both cheap to run and acquire. It first flew in 1959 and was select­ed in 1962 by the U.S. Department of Defence for export to friend­ly coun­tries under the United States’ Military Assistance Program (MAP), pro­vid­ing a cost-effec­tive, easy to oper­ate and main­tain light fight­er air­craft for coun­tries of the Free World during the hot years of the Cold War. It was nick­named the Freedom Fighter.

The F‑5A/B can fly at super­son­ic speeds at Mach 1.4 and pos­sess­es a ser­vice ceil­ing of 50,000 feet with a combat radius of 989 km. It is armed with two M39 20mm can­nons that are equipped with 140 rounds per gun, and up to 1,996 kg of bombs, rock­ets, air-to-air mis­siles, and fuel tanks. 

The Freedom Fighter has a unique combat oper­a­tions eval­u­a­tion — it was tested in the jun­gles of South Vietnam con­duct­ing dan­ger­ous close air sup­port mis­sions. Initially, under Project Sparrow Hawk, the F‑5’s crew and ground sup­port per­son­nel were tested and trained for its oper­a­tional capa­bil­i­ties at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. After com­plet­ing and pass­ing its ini­tial oper­a­tional test, a few improve­ments were made on the F‑5A/B which includ­ed the addi­tion of an air-to-air refu­el­ing probe and 90kg of the cock­pit and engine armor, which would prove valu­able in its sur­vival as a close air sup­port air­craft in Vietnam. 

The improved F‑5s were des­ig­nat­ed as F‑5C/D and sent to South Vietnam for combat eval­u­a­tion in July 1965 under Project Skoshi Tiger (‘Little’ Tiger in Japanese). During its combat eval­u­a­tion phase, F‑5s con­duct­ed thou­sands of Close Air Support (CAS) mis­sions, deliv­er­ing bombs, rock­ets, napalm, and 1.5 mil­lion rounds from its 20mm cannon. Its abil­i­ty to fly fast and low, along with its small size, made it a hard target for anti-air­craft artillery (AAA) to hit, making the plane an excel­lent choice in the CAS role. The Skoshi Tigers, after combat eval­u­a­tion by the U.S. Air Force (USAF), were passed on to South Vietnam’s air force and fought in the Vietnam War until 1975. 

The F‑5 Freedom Fighter was widely exported to many coun­tries, includ­ing Turkey, Greece, Iran, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Norway, Spain, and Canada. It was also pro­duced under license in Canada, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, and Taiwan. The Freedom Fighter was devel­oped fur­ther based on its combat expe­ri­ence in Vietnam into a much-improved ver­sion known as the F‑5E Tiger II which was pro­duced in the mid-1970s. The Tiger II enjoyed brisk sales as an effec­tive light­weight super­son­ic fight­er-bomber. The F‑5E/F has longer range, car­ried a slight­ly heavy pay­load, and improved air-to-air capa­bil­i­ties com­pared to the F‑5A/Bs. The Tiger II also has a reconnaissance ver­sion, the RF-5E, which was pro­duced in lim­it­ed num­bers. 

The pro­duc­tion of F‑5s ceased in 1987, with 2,700 air­craft built. Some F‑5s, upgraded with new weapons sys­tems (able to deploy AIM-120 AMRAAM and/or AIM-9X Sidewinder mis­siles), avion­ics, helmet-mount­ed sights (with off-bore mis­sile firing capa­bil­i­ties), and advanced radars, are still being used today as fight­er-bombers, recon­nais­sance air­craft, and flight train­ers in twenty-six coun­tries. 

Some F‑5Es were used to train pilots in dis­sim­i­lar air combat by the USAF  Weapons School and U.S. Navy (USN) Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center’s (which runs the famous “Top Gun” pro­gram) aggres­sor units. Proving its dura­bil­i­ty and con­tin­ued combat effec­tive­ness as a light­weight fight­er-train­er air­craft, Tactical Air Support Incorporated (TacAir), a pri­vate combat flight train­ing com­pa­ny that sup­ports tac­ti­cal train­ing oper­a­tions for the U.S. gov­ern­ment, has a fleet of twenty-six refurbished and modernised F-5E/Fs used for pilot train­ing and in adver­sary roles. TacAir won a $118.9 mil­lion 5‑year con­tract last year with the USN to pro­vide adver­sary train­ing with its F‑5 fleet (beat­ing its clos­est com­pet­ing bidder offer­ing F‑16s as aggres­sor air­craft!). 

The F‑5 family of fight­ers — refur­bished with up-to-date weapons, new avion­ics and elec­tron­ic sen­sors, low oper­a­tional costs, easy main­te­nance, good reli­a­bil­i­ty, and proven combat flying capa­bil­i­ties that can match some modern fight­er jets — demon­strate the endur­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics and char­ac­ter of what a well-designed combat air­craft from the start could achieve. The via­bil­i­ty of mod­ern­iz­ing select­ed low-oper­a­tional-hour F‑5 plat­forms also pro­vides an attrac­tive option for some small­er air forces with lim­it­ed bud­gets to attain a light, agile and proven fight­er air­craft, which will most likely see no real action but able to give its pilots much-needed expe­ri­ence in oper­at­ing fast and highly maneu­ver­able jet fight­ers.

Adam Leong Kok Wey is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor in strate­gic stud­ies, and the Deputy Director of Research in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDiSS) at the National Defence University of Malaysia. His latest book is Killing the Enemy! Assassination operations during World War II, pub­lished by Bloomsbury (2020). 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

This piece was originally published by The National Interest

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