Key point: The Navy and Marines use the F-5s to play the role of enemy planes during realistic war games
U.S. lawmakers are close to finalizing the Pentagon’s budget for 2020. The $738-billion National Defense Authorization Act should allow the U.S. Navy to acquire 22 used F-5E/F Tiger fighters from Switzerland for around $40 million.
The purchase arguably is a serious loss for the Swiss air force.
The F-5s are at least 35 years old and unsophisticated. But they would play an important role in U.S. service. The Navy and Marines use the F-5s to play the role of enemy planes during realistic war games, a mission that’s only growing in importance as America’s rivals expand and improve their own air arms.
One Swiss lawmaker spoke derisively of the old fighters. “If the Americans want to take over the scrap iron, they should do it,” Beat Flach, a lawmaker with the country’s green party, told SonntagsZeitung. “It’s better than having the Tigers rot in a parking lot.”
But the Americans cherish the F-5s. The Navy plans to modify the 12-ton, supersonic Tigers with new avionics, data-links and radar-jammers, bringing them up to the latest F-5N standard.
The Navy and Marines for decades have operated the nimble F-5 in the adversary role. “The design places particular emphasis on maneuverability rather than high speed, notably by the incorporation of maneuvering flaps,” according to the Navy.
The tiny jet boasts flight characteristics that are similar to many Russian-made MiGs. Most famously, F-5s stood in for MiGs in the 1986 movie Top Gun. “The F-5 offers an incredibly economic and proven solution for a range of threat presentations,” Tyler Rogoway explained at The War Zone.
By the early 2000s, however, the single-seat F-5Es and two-seat F-5Fs were wearing out. Luckily for the Navy and Marine Corps, in 2006 the Swiss air force was in the process of retiring many of its 1980s-vintage F-5s. The fighters had flown only a few thousand hours in Swiss service, making them functionally younger than the American F-5s were.
The Navy initially bought 36 Swiss F-5s, growing the adversary fleet to 44 planes. But the Marine Corps in particular demanded more adversaries. "Adversary capacity is the greatest issue in Marine Corps air‐to‐air training," the Corps stated in its 2018 aviation plan.
The problem for the Marines was that they're replacing around a hundred Harrier ground-attack jets with new F-35 stealth fighters that possess much greater air-to-air capability. In order to use their F-35s to their greatest potential, more Marine pilots must train to fight other planes.
"Annual fleet adversary requirements are expected to increase for transitioning squadrons from 6,400 air‐to‐air sorties in [fiscal year] '17 to 8,300 sorties per year in order to meet ... requirements in [fiscal year] '22," the Marines stated.
The service stated that it ultimately would like annually to perform 10,000 adversary sorties. But adversary training is “restrained by aircraft utilization and numbers of F‐5s assigned.”
Moreover, the Corps in 2018 worried that its current F-5s soon might wear out. "The F‐5 fleet is funded for life-limited components of upper cockpit longerons, wings, horizontal stabilator pairs and vertical stabilators," the service stated. The Corps expected the fixes to sustain all 44 F-5s until 2025 and 12 of the planes until 2028.
Adding F-5s would spread out a growing number of flight hours across more airframes, potentially extending the adversary fleet into the 2030s.
The Swiss air force in 2018 retired another 27 low-hour F-5s. It should come as no surprise that the Americans want to scoop them up. The used F-5s would cost the Pentagon just $1.8 million apiece, roughly a fiftieth of what a single F-35 costs.
The growing market for private adversaries might have compelled the Americans to hurry. “The Navy may have had its hand forced to some degree when it came to snapping up those planes as private contractors are gobbling up viable and economical surplus fighter jet airframes available on the international market at a startling pace as the demand for such services balloons,” Rogoway explained.
If in coming years the Navy and Marines decide further to expand and extend the adversary force, there are still 26 F-5s in Swiss service, flying alongside 30 much more modern F/A-18s. The Swiss air force plans to replace the last few Tigers with a new type starting in 2025.
The new jets can’t come soon enough for the Swiss air force. By April 2019 the air arm was down to just 10 ready fighters with full-time pilots. The crisis is the result of the Swiss public's decision in a 2014 referendum to reject the air force's proposal to buy 22 new Gripen fighters from Sweden to being replacing the Tigers.
The air force proceeded with its plan progressively to retire the F-5s, however, freeing them up for the Americans to buy them at bargain-basement prices. Now the Swiss air arm must make do with fewer planes ... and keep those planes in service longer. The knock-on maintenance effects drastically have reduced the number of available fighters.