The U.S. military aircraft industry is responsible for some of the most advanced Cold War-era designs in the world, shattering numerous performance records and transforming the operational landscape of modern military aviation. But if there is one word that can’t describe most US-produced fighters and bombers, it’s “affordable.” This makes Northrop’s F-5 all the more remarkable as a wildly successful attempt to create a low-cost, low-maintenance fighter with widespread export appeal.
The F-5 has its roots in 1950’s efforts by Northrop Corporation to design a cost-effective fighter for the Navy and, later, the Air Force. Both initiatives sputtered amid shifting bureaucratic priorities and, by the early 1960’s, it appeared as though Northrop had run into a dead end. But the program received a new lease on life in 1962, after winning a US government procurement search for an affordable export fighter. Christened as the F-5A under the government’s naming guidelines, Northrop rolled out as many as 800 serial models over the coming decade.
A lightweight supersonic fighter, the F-5A is powered by twin J85-GE-13 turbojets that offer a relatively high thrust-to-weight ratio for its class. It flies at a top speed of up to Mach 1.4, and boasts a range of around 900 kilometers. The F-5A didn’t have much by way of avionics, nor did it offer any meaningful air-to-air capability. It is, instead, a light ground-attack fighter, compatible with a wide range of air-to-ground ordnance including unguided and laser-guided bombs. The fighter benefited from a major 1973 revision, phasing out the F-5A for the more sophisticated F-5E. The baseline F-5E introduced the more potent AN/APQ-153 radar, more recent version of the J85 engine, and slight airframe tweaks to boost maneuverability. Still more sophisticated features, including an inertial navigation and limited electronic countermeasures (ECM) features, were available by customer request. Further revisions to the F-E included a larger maximum payload, several generations of updated radar systems, and a slightly expanded armaments suite for limited air-to-air capabilities. Some of the F-5’s latest upgrades include helmet-mounted sights for off-boresight firing and a revamped communications network.
The F-5 saw widespread success as an export product throughout the Cold War. The Iranian Air Force received just over 150 F-5 models—consisting of F-5A’s and later generations alike—under the auspices of US military aid to the Iranian Shah. Tehran owned such a glut of F-5’s that it began to offload its excess stock through second-hand sales in the mid 1970s. Other F-5 customers included Turkey, Thailand, Brazil, Greece, and South Korea. Notwithstanding its popularity as a direct export product, the F-5 also spawned some licensed (and a few unlicensed, in the case of Iran) copies in Canada and Spain.
The F-5 still sees limited use throughout the US air force as a cheap adversary trainer. More impressively, F-5 continues to serve in several militaries across the world: notably, the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) roster still contains just under 200 hundred advanced F-5 variants that have yet to be phased out. Iran’s archaic air force consists in no small part of F-5’s and F-5 spinoffs. As its many variants and sidegrades attest, the F-5’s attractiveness stems, to some degree, from how conveniently upgradeable and modernizable of a platform it has proven to be.
The F-5’s blend of impressive price-to-performance, low maintenance costs, and sufficiently adequate capabilities as a light ground-attack fighter has shown itself to be a winning export formula to the present day.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.