The F-5A/B Freedom Fighter and F-5E/F Tiger II are part of a family of widely used light supersonic fighter aircraft, designed and built by Northrop in the United States, beginning in 1960s. Hundreds remain in service in air forces around the world in the early 21st Century, and the type has also been the basis for a number of other aircraft.
The F-5 started life as a privately-funded light fighter program by Northrop in the 1950s. The first generation F-5A Freedom Fighter entered service in the 1960s. Over 800 were produced through 1972 for U.S. allies during the Cold War. The USAF had no need for a light fighter, but it did need a supersonic trainer and procured about 1,200 of a derivative airframe for this purpose, the T-38 Talon.
The improved second-generation F-5E Tiger II was also primarily used by American Cold War allies and, in limited quantities, served in US military aviation as a training and aggressor aircraft; Tiger II production amounted to 1,400 of all versions, with production ending in 1987. Many F-5s continuing in service into the 1990s and 2000s have undergone a wide variety of upgrade programs to keep pace with the changing combat environment. The F-5 was also developed into a dedicated reconnaissance version, the RF-5 Tigereye.
The F-5N/F variants remain in service with the United States Navy as an adversary trainer.
When the Military Assistance Program under the Kennedy Administration needed a low-cost fighter for distribution to less-developed nations, the N-156F was at the top of the pile, and subsequently became the F-5A. It was named under the 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system which included a re-set of the fighter number series (the General Dynamics F-111 was the highest sequentially numbered P/F- aircraft to enter service under the old number sequence).
In 1970 Northrop won a competition for an improved International Fighter Aircraft (IFA) to replace the F-5A. The resultant aircraft, initially known as F-5A-21, subsequently became the F-5E. It was lengthened and enlarged, with increased wing area and more sophisticated avionics, initially with an Emerson Electric AN/APQ-153 radar (the F-5A and B had no radar). Various specific avionics fits could be accommodated at customer request. A two-seat combat-capable trainer, the F-5F, was offered. Unlike the gunless F-5B, it retained a single M39 cannon in the nose, albeit with a reduced ammunition capacity (the F-5E was equipped with two M39 cannon, one on either side of the nose). The F-5F was armed with Emerson AN/APQ-157 radar, which is a derivative of the AN/APQ-153 radar, with dual control and display systems to accommodate the two-men crew, and the radar has the same range of AN/APQ-153, around 10 nm. A reconnaissance version, the RF-5E Tigereye, with a sensor package in the nose displacing the radar and one cannon, was also offered. The latest radar upgrade included the Emerson AN/APG-69, which was the successor of AN/APQ-159, incorporating mapping capability, however, most nations chose not to upgrade due to financial reasons, and the radar only saw very limited service in USAF aggressor squadrons and Swiss air force.
The F-5E eventually received the official name Tiger II. The F-5E experienced numerous upgrades in its service life, with the most significant one being adopting a new planar array radar, Emerson AN/APQ-159 with a range of 20 nm to replace the original AN/APQ-153. Similar radar upgrades were also proposed for F-5F, with the derivative of AN/APQ-159, the AN/APQ-167, to replace the AN/APQ-157, but was never carried out.
Northrop built 792 F-5Es, 140 F-5Fs and 12 RF-5Es. More were built under license overseas: 56 F-5Es and -Fs plus 5 RF-5Es were manufactured in Malaysia, which plans to sell the aircraft after upgrading them; 90 F-5Es and -Fs in Switzerland, which currently leases some to Austria to bridge the gap between the retirement of the Saab Draken fleet and the delivery of new Eurofighter jets; 68 in South Korea, and 308 in Taiwan.
The F-5 proved to be a successful combat aircraft for US allies, but had only limited combat service with the US Air Force in Vietnam. The two-seat F-5B actually preceded the F-5A and was actually a fighter development of the T-38 Talon trainer, the world's first supersonic trainer. The design would be the starting point for the Northrop YF-17, which lost out to the YF-16 in US air Force competition for a lightweight fighter but was eventually developed into the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F/A-18 Hornet. Although the F-5 was a lightweight fighter built around what was once an engine for a decoy drone, and then became an unarmed trainer, its descendant, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, is a relatively heavy multi-role fighter-attack aircraft.
Various F-5 versions remain in service with many nations. Singapore has approximately 49 modernized and re-designated F-5S (single-seat) and F-5T (two-seat) aircraft. Upgrades include new GRIFO radar, updated cockpits with multi-function displays, and compatibility with the Rafael Python and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles.
Similar programs have been carried out in Chile and Brazil with the help of Elbit. The Chilean upgrade, called the F-5 Plus, incorporated a new Elta 2032 radar and other improvements. The Brazilian program, whose product is called the F-5M (Modernized), is armed with Python V coupled to the DASH helmet-mounted cue system, and new GRIFO radar, cockpit displays and navigation electronics. The Brazilian F-5M is also equipped with the Israeli Derby missile and can operate in a BVR environment. In the Cruzex 2006 multinational war games, a Brazilian F-5 made simulated kills on two French Air Force Dassault Mirage 2000N aircraft, which were supported by an E-3 Sentry and escorted by other two Mirage 2000C. This result was achieved by using the Derby and the information relayed by datalink from an AEW&C plane, the Embraer R-99, fitted with the Erieye AESA radar.
Another upgrade programs have been carried out in Royal Thai Air Force by Israel being called the F-5T Tigris, armed with Python III and 4 (with the Dash helmet-mounted cueing system). Unlike other F-5s which have undergone updates, the RTAF aircraft cannot use BVR missiles.
One NASA F-5E was given a modified fuselage shape for its employment in the Shaped Sonic Boom Demonstration program.
The first contract for the production F-5A was issued in 1962, the first overseas order coming from the Royal Norwegian Air Force in February 1964. 636 F-5As were built before production ended in 1972. These were accompanied by 200 two-seat F-5B aircraft. These were operational trainers, lacking the nose-mounted cannon but otherwise combat-capable.
In October 1965 the USAF began a five-month combat evaluation of the F-5A titled Skoshi Tiger. Twelve aircraft were delivered for trials to the 4503rd Tactical Fighter Wing and redesignated as the F-5C. They performed combat duty in Vietnam, flying more than 3,500 sorties from the 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Bien Hoa in South Vietnam. Two aircraft were lost in combat. Though declared a success, the program was more a political gesture than a serious consideration of the type for U.S. service. From April 1966 the aircraft continued operations as 10th Fighter Commando Squadron with their number boosted to seventeen aircraft. (Following Skoshi Tiger the Philippine Air Force acquired F-5A and B models in 1965, putting twenty-three into service. These aircraft, along with remanufactured F-8 Crusaders, eventually replaced the F-86 Sabre in the air defense and ground attack roles.)
In June 1967 the 10th FCS's surviving aircraft were turned over to the air force of South Vietnam, which previously had only A-37 Dragonfly and A-1 Skyraider attack aircraft. This new VNAF squadron was titled the 522nd. The president of Vietnam had originally asked for F-4 Phantoms used by the Americans, but the VNAF flew primarily ground support as the communist forces employed no opposing aircraft over South Vietnam, MiG or otherwise. Ironically, when Bien Hoa was later overrun by Communist forces, several of the aircraft were captured and used operationally by the NVAF, in particular against Khmer Rouge. In view of the performance, agility and size of the F-5, it might have appeared to be a good match against the similar MiG-21 in air combat; however, US doctrine was to use heavy, faster, and longer-range aircraft like the F-105 Thunderchief and F-4 Phantom II over North Vietnam. Several of the F-5s left over from the Vietnam war were sent to Poland and Russia, for advanced study of US aviation technology, while others were decommissioned and put on display at museums in Vietnam.
Although the United States does not use the F-5 in a front line role, it was adopted for an opposing forces (OPFOR) "aggressor" for dissimilar training role because of its small size and performance similarities to the Soviet MiG-21.
The F-5E saw service with the US Air Force from 1975 until 1990, serving in the 64th Aggressor Squadron and 65th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, and with the 527th Aggressor Squadron at Alconbury RAF Base in the UK and the 26th Aggressor Squadron at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. The Marines purchased ex-USAF models in 1989 to replace their F-21s, which served with VMFT-401 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. The U.S. Navy used the F-5E extensively at the Naval Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) when it was located at NAS Miramar, California. When TOPGUN relocated to become part of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at NAS Fallon, Nevada, the command divested itself of the F-5. Relying on VC-13, redesignated VFC-13, to employ the F-5 as an adversary aircraft. Former adversary squadrons such as VF-43 at NAS Oceana, VF-45 at NAS Key West, VF-126 at NAS Miramar, and VFA-127 at NAS Lemoore have also operated the F-5 along with other aircraft types in support of Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT).
The U.S. Navy F-5 fleet continues to be modernized with 36 low-hour F-5E/Fs purchased from Switzerland in 2006. These were updated as F-5N/Fs with modernized avionics and other improved systems. Currently, the only U.S. Navy units flying the F-5 are VFC-13 at NAS Fallon, Nevada and VFC-111 at NAS Key West, Florida.
From January 1974 with the first squadron of 28 F-5Fs, Iran received a total of 166 F-5E/F and 15 additional RF-5Es with deliveries ending in 1976. While receiving the F-5E/F, Iran started selling its F-5A/Bs to other countries including Ethiopia, Turkey, Greece and South Vietnam; by 1976, they were all sold apart from some F-5Bs retained for training.
After the revolution, the new Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force was partially successful keeping Western fighters in service during the war with Iraq in the 1980s and the simple F-5 had a good service readiness until late in the war. Initially Iran took spare parts from foreign sources, later it was able to have its new aircraft industry keep the aircraft flying.
During the war with Iraq, IRIAF F-5s were heavily involved, flying air-to-air and air-to-ground sorties. Iranian F-5s took part in many air combats with Iraqi MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-25, Su-20/22, Mirage F-1 and Super Etendards scoring many victories but alternately suffering many losses. However the exact combat record is not known with many different claims from Iraqi, Iranian and even Western and Russian sources. From a general standpoint, during the first years of service, Iranian F-5 fighter aircraft had the advantage in missile technology, using advanced versions of the IR seeking Sidewinder, later lost with deliveries of new missiles and figthers to Iraq.
Today, Iran produces an indigenous aircraft titled the "Saegeh" which is built on the same platform as the F5.
Ethiopia received 10 F-5A, 2 F-5B, from USA starting in 1966. In addition to these Ethiopia had a training squadron equipped with at least 8 T33A. Later in 1970, Iran transferred at least other 3 F-5A/B to Ethiopia. In 1975, another agreement was reached with USA to deliver a number of military aircrafts including 14 F-5E and 3 F-5F and so later in the same year 8 F-5E were transferred while the other were embargoed and delivered to a USAF aggressor Squadron due to changed political situation. The USA withdrew its personnel and cut diplomatic relations too. Ethipioan officers contracted a number of Israelis to maintain American equipment.
The Ethiopian F-5 fighters saw combat action against Somali forces and air force during the Ogaden War (1977-1978). The main Somali fighter aircraft was the MiG-21MF delivered in the 1970s supported by MiG-17 delivered in the 1960s by the Soviet Union.
Ethiopian F-5E were used to gain air superiority because they could use the AIM-9B air to air missile, while the F-5A were kept for air interdiction and air strike and F-86 for close air support. During this period Ethiopian F-5E were on training against Ethiopian F-5A and F-86 (simulating Somali MiG-21 and MiG-17).
On 17 July 1977, 2 Ethiopian F-5 were on combat air patrol near Harer, when 4 Somali MiG-21MF were detected nearby. In the engagement 2 MiG-21 were shot down while the other two had a mid-air collision while avoiding a AIM-9B missile. The nationality of the F-5 pilots (Israeli or Ethiopian) is disputed. The better trained Ethiopian Air Force F-5 pilots swiftly gained air superiority over the Somali Air Force, shooting down a number of aircraft, while other Somali aircraft were lost to air defense and to incidents. However at least three F-5 were shot down by air defense during attacks against supply bases in western Somalia.
Northrop attempted to develop an advanced version of the F-5E, originally designated F-5G, as an export competitor for the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The F-5G was later redesignated the F-20 Tigershark. It received favorable reviews as a less expensive but capable alternative to early-block variants of the F-16 (and superior to the similarly never-purchased export variant F-16/79), but it never had the appeal of the much newer fighter design even at a lower cost.
: On loan from Switzerland
Prior to the scene of the very famous line "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" in the 1979 classic movie Apocalypse Now, 4 F-5 fighters were shown dropping napalm on a battlefield. These aircraft belonged to the Philippine Air Force which provided not only the F-5s, but also the UH-1H helicopters, for the film. The aircraft were portrayed as American in the film.