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Military 101: F-20 Tigershark – Excellent Fighter That China Helped To Kill

F-20 Tigershark Northrop F-5E RMAF fighter jet aircraft

What if Northrop (now Northrop Grumman) brings back their next evolution of F- 5E fighter which is known as the F-20 Tigershark and update it with the latest technology and offer it as the next generation light combat fighter? Image source: Wikipedia.

In reference to the RMAF fleet of fighters, I still consider the old F-5E as one of the most beautiful and capable fighters that RMAF had before the beautiful sleek Russian Sukhois made their mark over Malaysian skies. And now RMAF is looking for a light combat fighter with the Indian Tejas at the forefront of the competition. What if we have the insanely capable F-20 Tigershark on the table?

Read these first:-

AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-Kuo Taiwan Fighter Jet Aircraft

Disappointed with US’s decision to please its arch-enemy, China, Taiwan was forced to develop its own advanced fighter named AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-Kuo (some say double meaning F-CK-1 was intended for the Americans) which clearly has the F-5E DNA. It fires an indigenous Sky Sword II air to air missile which is similar to AIM-7 Sparrow which they wanted to use in the first place. Image source: Wikipedia

The History of F-20

Interestingly the threat by the Chinese was the catalyst for the F-20 fighter program and yet, it was the same Chinese that forced the sale of the F-20 to the Taiwanese to be aborted by the Americans in fear of upsetting the Chinese.

Then there was the unfavourable competition between the F-20 and the more known F-16 Falcon which went to service with many countries’ air forces including Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand.

In the late 1970s, the Taiwanese Republic of China Air Force started looking for a fighter aircraft to match improvements made in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force. In particular, they wanted a platform capable of firing the AIM-7 Sparrow long-range missile.

At the time, the US 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 US support of Taiwan against their interests, and the US State Department wanted to tread carefully. They blocked the export of all of the AIM-7 capable aircraft, even otherwise outdated early models of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II.

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.

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; nonetheless, President Carter personally blocked the sales of the F-5G to Taiwan.

After a lengthy study, in January 1980, President Carter allowed the development of a new export fighter: the FX. The FX would have to outperform the F-5E; however, it could not use any advanced avionics systems that were also used in U.S. aircraft. 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 Department of Defense.

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 signing the Communiqué, the U.S. was signaling that Taiwan would not receive modern aircraft; accordingly, the Ching-kuo became Taiwan’s primary focus. As a result, the F-5G’s sales potential remained unestablished.

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. This would require not only better performance from the engine, but a new and comparable avionics suite as well. Northrop saw that the F-5G was still being viewed as the “FX fighter”, a low-cost option for second-tier air forces. To offset this impression, Northrop requested the designation “F-20”; the USAF approved in late 1982, and of the name Tigershark in March 1983.

After six years with no buyers, in late 1986 Northrop cancelled the $1.2 billion project. Northrop was reluctant to protest perceived favouritism of the F-16 in fear of losing support for the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bomber project

(Source: Wikipedia)

F-20 Tigershark Missile Aircraft Jet

F-20 Tigershark goes head to head with F-16 Fighting Falcon and this includes being able to handle multiple roles and able to carry an impressive weapon load. Same as F-16, the F-20 only has a single-engine compared to F-5E’s twin-engine but it is more powerful and is able to reach Mach 2++. Image source: Wikipedia

F-20 Related Videos

It is said that F-20 was the right fighter but it came out at the wrong time when most countries were not keen on a light fighter against the heavier, longer-ranged fighters that they are facing.

YouTube player


This is an interesting F-20 Tigershark sales video with an introduction by Brigadier General Charles Elwood Yeager who was a World War 2 ace and the test pilot who broke the sound barrier with Bell X-11 in 1947.

HAL vs F-20 Tigershark

It will be interesting to match F-20 Tigershark against RMAF candidates for the Light Combat Fighter namely Indian made HAL Tejas

HAL TejasF20 TigersharkF-5E Tiger II
Crew1 or 211
Length (m)14.614.4314.69
Wingspan (m)8.58.538.13
Height (m)4.864.224.08
Empty weight (kg)7,8505,3574,347
Max takeoff weight (kg)17,50012,47411,192
Powerplant1 × General Electric F414-GE-INS6EPE after burning turbofan. (Indigenous 110KN Engine to be used in future), 58.5 kN (13,200 lbf) thrust dry, 98 kN (22,000 lbf) with afterburner1 × General Electric F404-GE-100 afterburning turbofan engine, 11,000 lbf (49 kN) thrust dry, 17,700 lbf (79 kN) with afterburner2 × General Electric J85-GE-21 afterburning turbojet engines, 3,500 lbf (16 kN) thrust each dry, 5,000 lbf (22 kN) with afterburner
Maximum speed (km/h)2,3852,1241,741
Maximum speed (Mach)1.820.98
Cruise speed (km/h)1,974NA850
Range (km)2,5001,020891
Combat range (km)1,5003,7302,940
Service ceiling (m)17,30017,30015,800
Guns1 x 30 mm (1.2 in) GSh-30-12 × 20 mm (0.79 in) Pontiac M39A2 cannons in the nose, 280 rounds each and a General Electric 30 mm gun pod which can be mounted on the fuselage2× 20 mm (0.787 in) M39A2 Revolver cannon in the nose, 280 rounds/gun

F-20 Tigershark Cockpit Aircraft

F-20 Tigershark lives on Japanese anime, Area-88 which talks about a young pilot named Shin Kazama and his experiences at Area 88, a mercenary air force base secluded in the desert of a war-torn country. The F-20 cockpit is modern and easy for the pilot to engage multiple enemy targets. Image source: Wikipedia.

Final Say

It is too bad that the US efforts to be close with the Chinese caused the cancelled delivery of F-5G which was later designated as F-20 Tigershark. No doubt, it was an impressive fighter and would have held well against F-16 Fighting Falcon had it been allowed to be sold to small air forces in the developing countries.

The F-20A Tigershark was fast, maneuverable, lethal, easy to fly and easy to maintain. But Northrop was never truly able to compete with the F-16 on cost and the Tigershark failed, ultimately, because it tried to be too many things.

Too heavy to be a lightweight, lacking the stealth properties then being developed in supersecret “black” programs, the F-20A was also too light to be a robust, globe-girdling warplane like the F-15E Strike Eagle.

It was an outstanding fighter, but in the end the Northrop F-20A Tigershark was the right aircraft at the wrong time.

(Source: Defence Media Network)

Of course, the development of the components for the F-20 such as the HOTAS (Hands-On-Throttle And Stick) was also reused in the development of the twin-engine F-18 Hornet which RMAF is also operating now. And yet, in the market where there is a great demand for light combat fighters and the need for cheaper military aircraft, the F-20 Tigershark would have certainly given its modern rivals a run for the money.

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