The Northrop F-5 fighter is gaining a new lease of life.


In late April, sharp-eyed passengers at Los Angeles International Airport may see the unusual sight of a Northrop F-5E fighter lining up for take-off among the airliners. It will be no ordinary F-5, but a completely upgraded fighter fitted with arguably the most sophisticated avionics, controls and displays ever built into the Tiger.

The upgrade is being developed by a Northrop Grumman led industry team, in readiness for full-scale evaluation by US Air Force and US Navy pilots later this year. If all goes as planned, it will be the prelude to an all-out attack on the international F-5 modernisation market, which is estimated to be worth $1-$1.5 billion over the next five to seven years.

This particular F-5 also represents Northrop Grumman's renewed determination to become the natural focus for the international F-5 and T-38 Talon community. "For the last three years, we've made a concerted effort to get back to our original customers and re-introduce ourselves to the world. We're building up support and modernisation and the last element in our three-tiered approach is going to be the re-sale of airframes," says military-aircraft division business-development vice-president James Murphy.

Northrop Grumman's efforts towards these goals were remarkably successful in 1994. In a two-pronged initiative, it forged strategic links with the US Air Force's San Antonio Air Logistics Center (SA-ALC) in Texas, the support centre for all F-5s sold worldwide through the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme.


The major element of this new link is a partnership with the SA-ALC, which is organised under the terms of a co-operative research-and-development agreement (CRDA). Under the CRDA, Northrop Grumman is to ", develop, conduct, analyse, demonstrate and document a total avionics-system enhancement" for the F-5E. In return for free use of an F-5 airframe, which is on loan from the USN, the USAF gains test results to help formulate decisions about technology insertion into older aircraft, at no cost to the US Government.

Murphy says that a consortium of suppliers was formed, with all the manufacturers donating equipment. The result was an avionics suite, which basically replicates that of a modern front-line fighter such as the Lockheed F-16, to turn the F-5 into an enhanced or a lead-in trainer. This was then presented to the USAF. "This is a no-cost agreement with the USAF. We're digging into our pocket book and so are our suppliers," Murphy adds.

The CRDA replaced the original plan under which Northrop Grumman was to have leased an aircraft from the US Navy. Some upgrade competitors, such as Rockwell, argued that such a close arrangement created a distinctly un-level playing field, and that other teams should be given the same opportunity to qualify upgrade packages in this way. After some delay, the CRDA concept was devised as a workable mechanism. Murphy says that this is merely a prototype ready to be copied " to anybody who can come up with a team and some money. Anybody who gets the right ingredients together could also get an F-5 [via the SA-ALC]."

The advantages to those on the Northrop Grumman team are also obvious. Any equipment in the suite has the potential to become an FMS-qualified product for use in a suitable upgrade programme. Neither are suppliers particularly slaved to the team; they are free to offer their equipment as parts of other bids. Many are already involved in competitive F-5 avionics upgrades, offered by companies, such as Rockwell, SABCA and Smiths Industries.

Likewise, potential customers are still free to specify certain equipment preferences. "We have to be very sensitive to what the customer wants. We generalised on what we thought was a good global specification. Other suppliers have also, come to us and said, 'We'd like to be considered'," explains tactical aircraft and modification programmes Vice-President Brian Boyer. In its bid for Brazilian F-5 work, for example, it has offered to include the radar and head-up-display used in the Italian-Brazilian AMX, rather than the equivalent systems used in its basic upgrade.


The second major link was established by successfully tendering for a structural-update programme (SUP) in 1994. Under the SUP, the SA-ALC wanted to give responsibility for the ever-increasing number and variations of structural modifications to a single prime contractor. In the end, it received only the single bid from Northrop Grumman, which will be awarded the contract formally within the next few months. It thus neatly inherits a complete array of upgrade opportunities through the FMS system.

Northrop Grumman views the SUP, and the structural responsibility that comes with it, in an almost maternal sense. "Well, we built the F-5 originally, and I think that's a key thing," says Murphy. Boyer adds, "We could do an avionics upgrade without a structural upgrade, but, being a responsible company, we want to assess an aircraft before we work on it. It's no good planning to upgrade something with just a few hours of airframe life left on it." As part of its renewed emphasis on structural support of the aircraft, Northrop Grumman has developed techniques for replacing upper and lower cockpit-longerons one at a time, so that the nose section does not have to be removed.

Other structural changes called for under the SUP include replacement horizontal-stabilisers made from composites, new bulkheads for some fuselage stations, revised wing-attachment fittings and a new wing for the F-5E/F models capable of carrying the Hughes AGM-65 Maverick missile. A set of 28 new wing shipsets, have already been produced by the company, for aircraft operated by the US Navy and Thailand.

To complete its strategy, Northrop Grumman has concluded licence agreements with some of its fiercest rivals in the tight upgrade-market. "In part, it's a recognition of the fact that the world's a smaller place, and basically discretion being the better part of valour," explains Murphy.

The most extreme example of such discretion is Northrop Grumman's agreement with Bristol Aerospace of Winnipeg, Canada, with which it recently settled a long-running and sometimes acrimonious legal dispute. In future, Bristol will be a vital part of E/F structural upgrade work if it is appropriate to the individual programme.

"It is still free to compete within the F-5A/B arena, but we finally settled the dispute and as part of that they will handle E and F structures," says Boyer.

A similar deal has been concluded with CASA of Spain, which is the prime source for A/B components worldwide, says F-5/T-38 business-development manager, Terry Matter. CASA could also be involved with parts of the E/F where those parts are common, he adds. CASA originally made 18 F-5As, 18 RF-5As and 34 F-5Bs under licence.

It is also coming to the end of a structural-upgrade programme for 22 Spanish air force SF-5B trainers, with Bristol acting as subcontractor.

Samsung Aerospace of South Korea would " significantly involved", if Northrop Grumman wins the work to upgrade F-5s to F-16 lead-in trainers, he adds, and could become a supplier of some E/F parts. Licensed manufacture of 68 F-5E/Fs was carried out in South Korea. A similar situation applies to the Aero Industry Development Center of Taiwan, which made 242 F-5Es and 66 F-5Fs.

A separate deal has been in effect for some time with Singapore Aerospace, which is licensed to perform F-5E reconnaissance upgrades. "We're talking worldwide capability here," Boyer adds. The company also has a technical agreement with Enaer of Chile to support the upgrade of the F-5s, which are being modified by Bedek of Israel and hopes to expand on that relationship, says Boyer.


Northrop Grumman is optimistic that its new-found strength in the F-5 FMS arena could also lead to involvement in the re-sale of some aircraft. Freeing the log-jam of F-5 re-sales could easily set the sluggish upgrade-market rolling. For example, the company is working to locate another 24 F-5E/Fs for Chile. Taiwan would like to off-load some F-5 airframes to help fund the upgrade of others as lead-in trainers for the F-16. The country is anxious to proceed with its fighter-modernisation programme and the F-5 re-sale option is likely to be an attractive option (Flight International, 1-7 March 1995).

Of 3,805 F-5s/T-38s built, almost 1,600 F-5s (just under 500 being F-5As) remain in service with more than 25 air forces. Some 800 T-38s are still used by the USAF. "There are currently between 100 and 150 F-5s that could be re-sold around the world," says Murphy. "We could be in a position to broker those, and upgrades could happen at the buyer or seller end of the chain."

The big prizes remain the potential upgrades of fleets in the Pacific Rim, Turkey and Brazil. Between 90 and 100 of Taiwan's surviving 200 plus F-5E/Fs could be retained for upgrading. Between 40 and 50 of the Turkish F-5A/B fleet could also be converted to the F-16 lead-in trainer role, with the rest becoming available for re-sale. The Turkish programme, however, like so many other upgrade possibilities, is prone to delay and deferment in favour of bigger programmes and tenders are not expected until late 1996 at the earliest.

Brazil is also in the upgrade market, having issued a tender for the structural and avionics upgrade of 50 aircraft. Northrop Grumman is still thought to be optimistic of a teaming arrangement with Embraer as part of its bid, which may take between 18 months and two years to materialise.

Source: Flight International