(Small, sleek, agile but seriously packed with a powerful punch, Northrop’s F-5E Tiger II – the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s first supersonic fighter jet and the first that was considered as the most advanced fighter jet in its inventory in the 1970s and 1980s. Image of the F-5F the two-seater variant source: Wikipedia)
I always have the special fondness when it comes to the military especially when it is related Malaysian military. I had always found some similarities between the military and the kind of work I do. Well think about – every time I go out for projects, there is no difference with the military going for a critical mission. Both have specific objectives, timeline and always comprised of trained and specialised team members.
Anyway, let’s get back at the topic at hand.
The Northrop F-5 which is also known as the Freedom Fighter was interestingly a privately funded project started in the 1950s. But it made a huge impact when the Cold War started and countries that were not aligned to the Soviet started to face MiGs at their doorsteps.
Nearer to home, the Vietnam War erupted and all the sudden there was fear that such influence will be spreading across South East Asia. Malaysia then was still fighting off the communist insurgents in the jungles and this was effectively contained. However, there was fear in the sky too. Malaysia did not have any capable fighter jets that are capable of dealing with the modern Russian fighter jets like the famous MiG-21.
So when Northrop introduced the upgraded F-5E Tiger II in 1972 which saw an even more powerful engine, larger fuel capacity and many other major improvements, it was ripe for the Royal Malaysian Air Force to get an upgrade.
So, in 1975, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (fondly known as TUDM) bought the Tiger II Fighters, the very first supersonic fighter jet for Malaysia, capable of a maximum Mach 1.6 – to the strength of 16 fighter jets mostly comprising of F-5Es and later included RF-5E Tigereye which was used purely for reconnaissances.
I still recall from my school days, a few days before Merdeka, we were at the school field at recess and TUDM was doing their fly-by rehearsal for Merdeka. And the star of this rehearsal was the F-5Es. We could see how agile and fluid it was in the air and it was spectacular to see it then.
(RMAF’s BAe’s Hawk 200 along with the RMAF’s F/A 18 Hornet was involved in the ground attacks against the intruders during the Lahad Datu’s intrusion in 2013. Lightweight but effective indeed. Image source; Wikipedia)
However, by the 2000s, F-5Es were all retired after Malaysia started deploying British Aerospace’s multi-role lightweight Hawk 100 & Hawk 200 and yes, the very first Russian’s fighters, the famed MiG 29.
In recent years, RMAF had also added the heavyweights namely the battle-proven multi-role McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet (which incidentally has F-5E DNA as Northrop were also involved in its development) and of course the beautiful Sukhoi SU 30MKM air superiority fighter.
F-5Es may now be considered old and has been retired in most air forces units around the world but there some countries still using it as their mainstream fighter and Iran in the case, even replicating it as a brand new fighter. The US even used it in their Top Gun school as it was comparable to the Russian’s MiG 21 and a variant of F-5 was used by NASA for research and development. You would have seen them escorting the Space Shuttle whenever it coming to land.
(A snippet from Malaysian “Top Gun” movie which showcased the F-5Es being scrambled to intercept “enemy” intruding the nation’s airspace. A poorly made movie from the 1980s but it is probably the only local movie that showed the key RMAF jets in action – F-5Es and A-4 Skyhawks and also the transport plane Charlie, the superb Hercules C-130)
Some, like Brazil, have decided to take F-5E into the new millennium:-
The program began in the 2000s when a contract was awarded to the Brazilian firm Embraer to modernize forty-six F-5Es with European and Israeli technology.
The key aspect of the modernization was to “extend” the legs of the F-5E from being a short-range “point defence” fighter to something that could cover more ground over Brazil’s rather large borders.
To take advantage of the additional range given by the data link and radar systems, the Israeli Derby active-radar medium-range air-to-air missile was integrated into the F-5EM.
While lighter and shorter ranged than heavier missiles like the AMRAAM and R-27, the missile gave the FAB much-needed beyond-visual-range capability in air-to-air combat, the third nation after Chile and Venezuela to gain such capability.
Many other systems were added or upgraded on the F-5EM. In addition to the Derby, Israeli Python III short-range missiles were integrated. The Israeli DASH helmet-mounted display was installed in the cockpit to cue those missiles, making the F-5EM a formidable close-range fighter.
A radar-warning receiver, onboard oxygen generation system, hands-on throttle and stick, and INS/GPS navigation are all included. The addition of all these systems came at a cost though. The starboard M39A2 20mm cannon was removed to make space for electronics in the jet.
Finally to address the F-5E’s meagre internal fuel capacity, provision for air-to-air refuelling was added.
(The 1988 Hollywood movie, Bat 21 starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover which did a better job portraying the Malaysian military in a better might than the Malaysian movie. Yes, that is RMAF F-5Es in the shot and as well as Malaysian Army trucks and personal carriers taking the role of the North Vietnamese military. The mistake is obvious – when did the North Vietnamese military use Mercedes Benz trucks during the Vietnam War?)
It is said that the two main reasons why F-5 fighter was popular with many air-forces around the world were that it was their first crack at a supersonic fighter which was not only affordable to purchase (due to the aggressive American’s policies to fight off the Communist influence) but it was also affordable when it comes to maintenance.
The other reason is the size which was small (it was only 4,347 kg in weight compared to 13,757 kg of a Phantom 4E) which makes it difficult to track and yet, it can carry an impressive payload with short-range 4 AIM-9 Sidewinder or medium range 4 AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles.
Given the fact that the F-5E Tiger II is still in active duties in some part of the world, it is indeed an impressive record for a plane that was born in the 1950s.