Impersonating Russian fighters has been good business for the F-5.
On April 30th 1964 the Northrop F-5A Freedom Fighter became operational for the first time with the United States Air Force (USAF) 4441st Combat Crew Training Squadron (CCTS). Still flown by many countries around the world 53 years later, the F-5 family of lightweight twin-engine supersonic fighters have been upgraded and adapted to remain effective in today’s battle space.
The United States Navy (USN) and United States Marine Corps (USMC) still operate single and two-seat F-5s (now called Tiger IIs) as Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) adversary training aircraft. In the movie Top Gun (Paramount 1986) Navy F-5Ns even impersonated the feared “MiG-28s” so handily bushwhacked by recent TOP GUN graduates and new wingmen Maverick and Iceman. Apologies if that’s a spoiler for you live-under-a-rock types.
The prototype N-156F Freedom Fighter was flown for the first time on 30 July 1959. The YF-5A was flown for the first time at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) in California on 31 July 1963. Northrop believed the large and complex fighters then in service and already being designed were too complex and expensive. They wanted to build a simple, economical, and small fighter instead. Although their approach bucked every trend in American fighter design at the time, they succeeded. And how.
The F-5 went into production in 1964 and was built until 1989. Northrop produced 1,871 F-5s (all variants) during that 25 year span. Roughly 500 of the Northrop-built F-5s (all variants) are still operational today. Add to that the derivative T-38 Talon trainers also in service. The jets have been upgraded with improved avionics, protective electronics, more powerful General Electric J85 engines, improved control systems, and the ability to employ the latest generation of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons.
The USAF began a five-month combat evaluation of the F-5A titled Skoshi Tiger in October of 1965. After modifications to add aerial refueling equipment, improved instruments, and armor, the original 12 F-5As delivered to the 4503rd Tactical Fighter Squadron were re-designated F-5C. The Skoshi Tigers flew more than 2600 combat sorties over the subsequent six months. Based at Bien Hoa and Da Nang the F-5Cs flew their missions primarily over South Vietnam and Laos. After April of 1966 the group was expanded to 17 aircraft and re-designated the 10th Fighter Commando Squadron. Eventually the Skoshi Tiger F-5Cs formed a South Vietnamese Air Force squadron. 41 F-5s were captured by the NVA when the war in Vietnam ended.
The updated and improved F-5E Tiger II first flew on August 11th 1972. The two-seater F-5F flew for the first time on September 25th 1974. The F-5E went into service with the 425th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) at Williams AFB in Arizona on April 6th 1973. The E and F Tigers have seen combat, but not with the USAF. Ethiopian F-5 fighters saw combat against Somali forces during the Ogaden War of the late 1970s. Iran employed its F-5s against Iraq during their war during the 1980s, even supposedly shooting down an Iraqi MiG-25 Foxbat. As recently as 2011 Kenya employed F-5s in their operations against Somali terrorists.
During the failed Moroccan coup attempt of 1972, F-5As attacked the 727 belonging to King Hassan II of Morocco while it was airborne. Moroccan F-5s also fought during the Western Sahara War. Saudi Arabia flew close air support and aerial interdiction missions against Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait with their F-5Es during the Gulf War. Tunisian F-5s have flown strike missions in support of major military offensives in the border region of Mount Chaambi against Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda-linked militants since 2013.
The F-5E served with the USAF between 1975 and 1990. The primary USAF operators were the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons based at Nellis AFB in Nevada, the 527th Aggressor Squadron based at RAF Alconbury in the UK, and the 26th Aggressor Squadron based at Clark AFB in the Philippines. The main reason the F-5 was chosen for the DACT role is its similarities to the Soviet MiG-21 Fishbed fighter. Both aircraft are small and have similar performance characteristics.
USMC adversary squadron VMFT-401 Snipers operates F-5Es and F-5Fs from Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma in Arizona. Originally associated with TOP GUN when located at NAS (now MCAS) Miramar in California, Navy VF-126 Bandits operated F-5Ns for years. Other Navy adversary squadrons like VF-43 Challengers based at NAS Oceana in Virginia, VF-45 Blackbirds and VFC-111 Sundowners based at NAS Key West in Florida, VFA-127 Cylons based at NAS Lemoore in California, and VFC-13 Saints based at NAS Fallon in Nevada have operated or still operate F-5s as DACT aggressors. Many of the currently operational Navy and Marine F-5s are former Swiss airframes that have been reworked and modernized.
A total of 776 F-5s have been license-built by Canadair of Canada, CASA of Spain, AIDC of Taiwan, Hanjin Corporation / KAI of South Korea, and F & W in Switzerland. Current and former operators of the F-5 series include Austria, Bahrain, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Ethiopia, Greece, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Kenya, South Korea, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Malaysia, Netherlands, Norway, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Vietnam, Spain, Sudan, Switzerland, Taiwan (Republic of China, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Soviet Union, United States Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, Uruguay, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Yemen. The Federal Aviation Administration has registered 18 privately owned F-5s and Canadair CF-5Ds in the United States. Here’s more information about the F-5 Freedom Fighter/Tiger.