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|F-20 prototype 82-0062|
|National origin||United States|
|First flight||30 August 1982|
|Program cost||US$1.2 billion|
|Developed from||Northrop F-5|
|F-20 prototype 82-0062|
|National origin||United States|
|First flight||30 August 1982|
|Program cost||US$1.2 billion|
|Developed from||Northrop F-5|
The Northrop F-20 Tigershark (initially F-5G) was a privately financed light fighter, designed and built by Northrop. Its development began in 1975 as a further evolution of Northrop's F-5E Tiger II, featuring a new engine that greatly improved overall performance, and a modern avionics suite including a powerful and flexible radar. Compared with the F-5E, the F-20 was much faster, gained beyond visual range air-to-air capability, and had a full suite of air-to-ground modes capable of firing most U.S. weapons. With these improved capabilities, the F-20 became competitive with contemporary fighter designs such as the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, but was much less expensive to purchase and operate.
Much of the F-20's development was carried out under a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) project called "FX". FX sought to develop fighters that would be capable in combat with the latest Soviet aircraft but, by excluding sensitive front-line technlogies used by the USAF, the FX could be safely sold to foreign nations without the risking significant technological advancements falling into Soviet hands. FX was a product of the Carter administration's military export policies. Northrop had high hopes for the F-20 in the international market; however, policy changes following Ronald Reagan's election meant the F-20 had to compete for sales against aircraft like the F-16, the USAF's latest fighter design. The development program was eventually abandoned in 1986 after three prototypes had been built and a fourth partially completed.
When the Kennedy administration entered office in 1961, the U.S. Department of Defense was instructed to find an inexpensive fighter aircraft that the United States could offer to its allies through the Mutual Defense Assistance Act. A number of designs were studied, including stripped-down versions of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and Vought F-8 Crusader, and the fresh-build Northrop N-156F. On 23 April 1962, the United States Air Force (USAF) informed the United States Secretary of Defense that the N-156F had been selected, under the designation F-5A and given the name "Freedom Fighter."
As the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 become more common, the U.S. Air Force initiated the International Fighter Aircraft (IFA) program. The USAF desired a light weight fighter to compete with the MiG, inexpensive enough to be purchased in large numbers and within the price range of many countries. Although numerous companies entered designs, Northrop's existing F-5 put them in a leading position. They submitted an upgrade, the F-5E Tiger II, with the AN/APQ-153 radar and other changes to allow the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile to be fired from wing-tip rails. On 20 November 1970, Northrop's entry was announced as the IFA winner. Northrop would go on to produce a total of 1,399 F-5E/F Tiger IIs by the time manufacturing ended in 1986.
In the late 1970s, the Republic of China (Taiwan) Air Force started looking for a fighter aircraft to match improvements made in mainland China's air force. In particular, they wanted a platform capable of firing the AIM-7 Sparrow long-range missile. At the time the U.S. was in the process of opening up ties with the People's Republic of China after President Nixon's famous visit in 1972. China considered U.S. support of Taiwan against their interests, and the U.S. State Department wanted to tread carefully. They blocked export of all of the AIM-7 capable aircraft, even otherwise outdated early models of the F-4. The State Department suggested the Israeli IAI Kfir instead, however it was rejected. Taiwan was already producing the F-5E under license, so the Department of Defense asked Northrop to study adding an AIM-7 capable radar to the Tiger II as an alternative. This effort became the first of several F-5G studies.
In the spring of 1977, Jimmy Carter's administration had announced a new military export policy that limited sales of front line designs to countries within NATO, along with Australia and Japan. Carter stated at the time that the U.S. could not be "both the world's champion of peace and the world's leading supplier of the weapons war." Previously there was no coherent export policy, fueling concerns that the U.S.'s latest technologies might quickly end up in Soviet hands.
Numerous exceptions were made; Israel and Egypt could buy advanced designs under the Camp David Agreements, Israel was even allowed to buy McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagles, a key component in U.S. air-defense technology. Iran was already receiving the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, and this demonstrated the problem with advanced exports in February 1979 when reports emerged that Iran had sold an AIM-54 Phoenix missile to the Soviets. South Korea's F-16 order was initially blocked under this policy, but later allowed to under the context of strengthen relations. Despite exceptions, the export policy was implemented, covering many potential and current customers. As the F-5G was a relatively modest upgrade to the F-5E, the F-5G appeared to be in a strong position for sales given the limitations placed on rival designs, however Carter personally blocked the sales of the F-5G to Taiwan.
In 1979 problems with the export policy were becoming apparent. The Soviets continued to sell newer aircraft designs to their clients, placing allies of the U.S. at a disadvantage. Denied by the U.S., countries were turning to other vendors for modern fighters, notably France's Mirage 2000. Barry N. Blechman, Assistant Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, testified that the US reductions in foreign arms transfers had actually encouraged other nations and increased worldwide arms sales. At the same time, there was considerable pressure to provide a suitable aircraft for Taiwan.
The State Department argued that the U.S. needed a modern design to that which the F-5E had occupied in the 1960s and 1970s. In light of Carter's concerns, they suggested that a new aircraft be designed for the role, based on technology that would not pose a threat to the U.S. After a lengthy study, in January 1980, President Carter allowed the development of a new export fighter: "FX." The FX would outperform the F-5E, however it could not use any advanced avionics systems. Unlike the Mutual Defense Assistance Act programs that led to the F-5E, FX would be entirely privately financed. Moreover, the companies could not market the aircraft directly; all sales would be handled by the Secretary of Defense.
Both Northrop and General Dynamics (GD) responded to the FX requirement. GD's F-16/79 was a variant of the F-16A, replacing the Pratt & Whitney F100 engine with the J79 and equipped with downgraded avionics; Northrop responded with the F-5G.
When Ronald Reagan's administration took power in 1981, the export restrictions put in place by the Carter administration were slowly relaxed. At first the FX program continued as normal, but a number of events would erode the value of the program and limit the F-5G's potential sales. The signing of the 1982 US-PRC Joint Communiqué was a major agreement on arms sales, which continued blocking sales of the F-5G to Taiwan. By this point the Taiwanese had started their own light-fighter project, the AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo. In the signing the Communiqué, the U.S. was signaling that Taiwan would not receive modern aircraft, as such the Ching-kuo became Taiwan's primary focus. As such, the F-5G's sales potential remained unestablished.
In the summer of 1982, Deputy Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci sent a memorandum to the Air Force and Navy, encouraging them to seek out potential foreign customers to procure FX aircraft. However, four months later Carlucci sent a classified memo to the same services to abandon the FX, and green-lighting the exporting of front-line fighters overseas. In December, after prompting from the White House, Carlucci reversed his position again, and directed the Air Force to fund a small number of F-20s in the fiscal year 1984 budget.
The future of the FX program seemed doubtful. Following an agreement to sell F-16s to Pakistan, Northrop felt that the F-5G needed to match the performance of F-16's; implementing both avionics and engine upgrades. Northrop saw the F-5G was still viewed as the "FX fighter", a low-cost option for second-tier air forces. To combat this perception, Northrop requested the designation "F-20"; the USAF approved in late 1982, and of the name Tigershark in March 1983.
The primary design change between the earlier F-5E and the F-5G was the use of a single General Electric F404 engine that was originally designed for the F/A-18 Hornet. The new engine provided 60% more thrust over the twin-engined F-5E. It had a top speed over Mach 2.0, a ceiling over 55,000 ft (16,800 m), an initial climb rate of 52,800 ft per minute (16,100m/min), and improved overall climb performance to 40,000 ft (12,192 m). The F-20 would also make greater usage of composite materials in its construction.
Although the wing profile had been changed, the overall size was comparable to earlier versions of the F-5. This did not present a problem in the fighter role, but did severely reduce its payload/range figures. Offered as a low-cost option, the F-20 was significantly more expensive than the F-5E, but much less expensive than other designs like the $30 million F-15 Eagle, or $15 million F-16 Fighting Falcon. The F-20 was projected to consume 53% less fuel, require 52% less maintenance manpower, had 63% lower operating and maintenance costs and had four times the reliability of average front-line designs of the era.
The F-20's avionics suite was all-new and greatly improved over the earlier designs. The General Electric AN/APG-67 multi-mode radar was the heart of the sensor suite, offering a wide range of air-to-air and air-to-ground modes. Time from power-on to being able to launch was greatly reduced as a result, to about 22 seconds, and Northrop boasted the aircraft had the shortest scramble time of any contemporary aircraft. The cockpit of the F-5 was completely re-worked with a large heads-up display (HUD) and two monochrome multi-function displays set high on the control panel, and the addition of a complete hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) control system. Many of the avionics promised to have reliability beyond that of any competing aircraft then in service.
The F-20 would have been able to utilize most of the common weapons in U.S.'s inventory, including the entire range of Mark 80 series bombs, the AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missile, and the AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missiles. Like the earlier F-5s, the test F-20s were equipped with two M39 cannon mounted in the nose. Production F-20s may have substituted two Ford Aerospace Tigerclaw cannons instead of the M39s; while the Tigerclaw was based on the M39, it was lighter and had a higher rate of fire than the M39A2.
On 30 August 1982, the original engine-change-only F-5G (serial 82-0062, c/n GG1001, registered N4416T) made its maiden flight piloted by Russ Scott. During the 40-minute flight, the prototype climbed to 40,000 feet (12,000 m) and reached Mach 1.04. GG1001 demonstrated outstanding reliability; by the end of April 1983 240 flights had been accumulated, including evaluation flights with 10 potential customer nations. The second prototype (serial number 82-0063, registered N3986B, c/n GI1001), featuring the complete avionics suite, made its first flight on 26 August 1983. The F-20 would fly a total of 1,500 flights prior to its termination; although these were exclusively flown in ideal conditions.
During the test program, the F-20 fired the AIM-9 Sidewinder and, in February 1985 the AIM-7 Sparrow. In air-to-ground testing, it fired the AGM-65 Maverick, 2.75 in (70 mm) folding fin aerial rockets, dropped Mk. 82 bombs, and fired rounds from a 30 mm (1.18 in) gun pod (GPU-5/A, four-barrel GAU-13/A) in addition to the two internal 20 mm (.79 in) M39 cannon. One of the F-20's flight characteristics was the ability to fly at only 124 kilometres per hour (77 mph) at 35° AoA (angle of attack), while the F-16 was limited to 30°; acceleration from Mach 0.9 to 1.2 in 29 seconds (at 9,150 m); climb to 12,200 m (or 40,000 ft) in 2.3 minutes (including 55 sec for the start and 22 for the INS set-up).
Northrop signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the Air Force in May 1983 that made the Air Force responsible for certifying the F-20's performance, air worthiness and fixed-price program. Aerospace legend Chuck Yeager, employed as a spokesperson for Northrop, touted the aircraft as "magnificent" and was featured in advertising.
In November 1982, Bahrain became the first customer. South Korea also explored local production of the F-20, and in support improvements were implemented. These included avionics upgrades, an expanded fuel tank, and the use of fibreglass composites. The changes were so extensive that a fourth prototype was built to test them. By 1983, Northrop was involved in a number of simultaneous negotiations for the F-20, and its prospects appeared positive.
On 10 October 1984, GG1001 crashed in South Korea on a demonstration flight, killing Northrop pilot Darrell Cornell. An investigation cleared the F-20 of mechanical or design faults; it concluded Cornell had blacked out due to excessive g-forces. GI1001 crashed in May 1985 at Goose Bay, Labrador, killing Northrop pilot Dave Barnes. Again the crash was blamed on G-LOC; Barnes had been practicing his acrobatic routine for the Paris Air Show.
In December 1981, President Reagan, reacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, signed a major economic and military aid package for Pakistan that included 40 F-16As. The offer was in keeping with U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union, and the idea of "containment" within a ring of U.S.-friendly countries. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was initially viewed as an attempt to break out of the arranged containment system, thus the U.S. placed a priority on quickly building up a new layer of defense. However, other U.S. allies saw this as a potential break in the FX policy, and began requesting only "the very best."
Such approval was increasingly granted starting in 1982. In May, Venezuela, who had long examined the FX project, agreed to buy 18 F-16As and 6 F-16Bs, replacing a fleet of Mirage III interceptors and Mirage 5 ground-attack aircraft. Sweden decided to develop their own design, the JAS 39 Gripen. In September 1983, Turkey announced plans to buy 132 F-16Cs and 28 F-16Ds to replace their Lockheed F-104G/S Starfighter and Northrop F-5A/B. Greece, stung by its long-time rival receiving the F-16, purchased 34 F-16C and six F-16Ds in November 1984, giving a firm pledge of secrecy.
Then, late in 1983, the U.S. government made a financial commitment to help Israel develop its own new fighter, the IAI Lavi. Northrop objected to this as the Lavi would be a potential competitor to the F-20 in the export market - while Northrop had to privately fund the F-5G, the government was directly subsidizing a foreign competitor. Congressional support for Israel overruled Northrop's complaints along with complaints from other branches of the government. While other companies marketed directly to foreign air forces, as part of the FX program, the F-5G could only be marketed by the State Department. Under this policy umbrella, Northrop had to submit every piece of marketing material to government review, which could take months. The State Department had no interest in selling the FX, from their perspective it was one aircraft among many, leading to a lackadaisical approach, and led to complaints from Northrop that the government was not promoting the F-20 enough.
Starting in March 1984, Congress chaired a series of hearings into FX. William Schneider, Jr., the Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology, testified that FX policy might not result in any sales, in spite of any government support. He stated that the sales of arms such as FX was primarily a matter of foreign policy, secondarily a commercial venture. Thomas V. Jones, Northrop's CEO, argued that there was little point independently developing aircraft if companies were reliant on the government to sell them. He suggested the FX concept be dropped, and F-20 allowed to be sold by the vendor. Additionally, Brigadier General Thomas Baker, USAF Director of International Programs, testified that the Air Force was not actively marketing FX. He observed that over four years the US had sold 100 fighters to 29 countries, none were FX. He also compared France's aircraft exports, showing a market for a low-cost fighter existed. In the Committee's concluding remarks, the State Department and DOD were accused of rhetoric, and lacking support, on FX.
In April 1984, after the Congressional hearings, the USAF was directed to promote FX actively. Several potential customers were briefed during May and June 1984 on the performance and cost of both the F-20 and F-16/79. The Air Force published an internal report on FX in late June 1984. The F-20 was characterized as having outstanding performance against viable threats; and seen as a candidate for the Air Force's aggressor requirement. The report additionally stated that the F-20 had been contractor-funded, totaling over $750 million, compared to $60 million on the F-16/79. However, the report concluded that it had little or no market to sell to. The USAF had a vested interest to encourage F-16 sales; larger production numbers would drive down the cost per unit. Gregg Easterbrook noted that F-20 may have cast the Air Force in a bad light, as an aircraft developed independent of their input, authors such as Donald Pattillo shared this conclusion. In contrast, the F-16 was heavily involved in the USAF hierarchy, originating from a group of officers known as the "fighter mafia." By March 1985, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of State were reconsidering the policy. Despite some calls to support Northrop, FX was abandoned.
A possibility for a U.S. purchase opened in 1984, for a small number of "aggressor aircraft" for dissimilar air combat training. This style of training had been introduced by the U.S. Navy at their TOPGUN school, using the F-5 to simulate the MiG-21. In November 1984, Congress directed the Navy and Air Force to study the use of a single aircraft type to fill similar aggressor roles for both services. In January 1985 the Navy announced they had selected a specially configured version of the F-16. It was rumored that the aircraft was sold at a loss to keep Northrop's F-20 out of the market.
Another chance for the F-20 was as an upgrade for the Air National Guard (ANG). Northrop claimed that the F-20's fast scramble time made it a natural fit for this role, its lower cost would allow the ANG to operate larger aircraft numbers, and that it supported the AIM-7 while the F-16 did not. Additionally, the ANG would not be competing with the Air Force for production quotas, they would be able to replace their aircraft more quickly. However, the Air Force's requirements had priorities favoring the F-16 for the role; if the ANG flew the F-16, they would further lower unit costs, maintain commonality between the ANG and USAF, and better equip ANG units to perform front line combat roles. The Congressional Budget Office had also disputed Northrop's lower cost claim in their own research. On 31 October 1986, the Air Force announced that the F-16C had been selected, which had been upgraded to support the AIM-7 . As several nations had suggested they would accept the F-20 on the condition that it was inducted into the USAF, the selection was a heavy blow to Northrop.
After six years with no buyers, in late 1986 Northrop cancelled the $1.2 billion project. Northrop was reluctant to protest perceived favoritism of the F-16 in fear of losing support for the project for the Northrop B-2 stealth bomber. Ongoing negotiations with the Royal Moroccan Air Force for 20 F-20s were canceled; along with the small order by Bahrain. Later on, a bribery scandal would emerge from the attempts to market the F-20 to South Korea, leading to several Northrop managers resigning and the reprimanding of chief executive Thomas V. Jones, who retired in 1989.
In the late 1980s, local production of the F-20 was discussed with India. Of the components of the F-20, the radar would end up being the most successful; Taiwan selected it for the Ching-kuo, South Korea also adopted it for the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle trainer aircraft, and the radar was used in the multinational FMA IA 63 Pampa. As sales prospects were not apparent early on, GE sold their radar division, which was eventually acquired by Lockheed-Martin.
Aviation author Steve Pace wrote of the F-20 as "one of the best fighters that never went into production." While discussing military procurement, Thomas McNaugher stated that competition between the F-20 and the F-16 served to lower prices and generate "massive savings" for the U.S. government. Writing prior to cancellation, Ralph Nader and William Taylor noted that the F-20 had been commonly described as "the first privately funded U.S. combat aircraft in recent history." Mazher A. Hameed commented in 1986 that the F-20 was a "logical choice" for the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, however it had "scant chance of being selected" due to political factors, as well as competition from other candidates such as the Mirage 2000 and Panavia Tornado ADV.
|Northrop F-20 (F-5G) cutaway|
|Hi-res cutaway of the Northrop F-20 (F-5G) by Flight Global.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: F-20 Tigershark|