The F-5S, an early version of the F-20 with a large wing for better short-field performance, was proposed as an alternative to the Saab Gripen to Sweden. The Gripen went into production, but only 153 were built for the Swedish Air Force in the period 1993 to 2005, compared to the 225 (plus 178 export orders) originally expected to be delivered in 1991 to 2001. Export sales were possibly representative of what the F-20 could have expected, and these developed poorly indeed. By 2006 only a handful were sold to South Africa, and possibly a few others leased to Hungary, in the face of fierce competition from the F-16C, MiG-29, Rafale, and Typhoon.
The Indian LCA turned into one of the most drawn-out development programs in history. Originally 150 were to be delivered in 1994 to 2001. India briefly considered purchasing the F-20 design and tooling in 1991, but reaffirmed its originally decision to proceed with a completely indigenous airframe and engine. So the first prototype did not fly until 1997. By 2005 only three prototypes were flying and production was years away.
The Lavi was resurrected in China as the F-10, which first flew in 1996. Development proceeded slowly, but by 2005 there were a handful flying and the way seemed clear for large-scale production to begin. As the Chinese aerospace industry developed further in the 21st Century, the Lavi might have been the seed that would destroy the aircraft industries of the West.
The Taiwanese ACF went into production in 1994 as the Ching Kuo, a flying counterpart of the twin-engined F-5X version of the F-20 favored by some traditionalists within Northrop. The program remained fairly secretive, but it seems the aircraft could not be considered very successful. By 2005 Taiwan had completed production after delivering only 130 aircraft. It was still seeking to purchase Typhoons, Rafales, or F-16s to match mainland China's license-built Su-27 and F-10/Lavi fighter aircraft types. The situation of thirty years earlier had not changed.
South Korea did not purchase the F-20 after the Blue House scandal, but instead bought more F-16s. However under the F-16 sales agreement they also developed a light 'trainer' aircraft powered by a single F404 engine dubbed the T-50. Production began in 2006 and the T-50 seemed a good contender to replace the T-38 in world trainer inventories.
The F-16 fulfilled its promise as the Fighter Deal of the 20th Century. By 2005 over 4,000 had been built (as against an original projected market of 3,000), and production continued into the indefinite future. The aircraft was no longer lightweight, having been loaded down in each successive version with more avionics and equipment, requiring more fuel, in turn requiring more powerful engines, which in turn required even more fuel. The mold line was interrupted by the lumps and bumps of conformal fuel tanks. A welter of avionics versions were operated by each customer. The price had bottomed out at $ 8 million at the high production rates of the F-16A/B version. This was the price the F-20 was competing against. But that price skyrocketed again to $ 23.3 million an aircraft as soon as the F-20 was canceled and the F-16C version introduced.
Even in the early 1980's the word was out that the F-16A was plagued with premature maneuvering flap cracking and wing fatigue problems. The F-16 had been designed to the maneuver life G-profile of the F-4E, the Air Force's air combat fighter at the time the F-16 was designed. But the fly-by-wire system of the F-16 allowed the pilots to pull incredibly high-G maneuvers with massive rates of onset. The pilot needed only to pull the joystick full back, and the unstable aircraft was commanded immediately into an 8 G turn, snapping the unwary pilots head back in the reclining seat (resulting in injury in many cases). The wing just wasn't designed for such repetitive maneuvers, and by the late-1980's it was apparent that all F-16A/B aircraft would require expensive wing replacements or retirement.
Once the F-20 was out of the way, the problem became public. Instead of paying to upgrade the aircraft to the design 8,000-hour airframe life, the Air Force scrapped virtually all of the 792 F-16A's and B's it had bought in the 1980's after just a decade of service. In the post-Cold War rundown, and the acquisition of over 1400 F-16C/D's, no one noticed. The aircraft retired included the low-ball F-16N Navy agressor and all but 24 of the F-16 ADF versions that had beaten out the F-20.
Just at the end of the F-20's brief saga the NATO states began development of fighters designed to match or exceed expected Soviet next-generation fighters. The French began development of the Rafale. The other major europeans states began development of the Euofighter Typhoon. With the competitive pressure of the Cold War removed, development was agonizingly slow. Test structural articles for the Eurofighter could be seen at European factories in 1988, but the first aircraft didn't fly until 1994, and production deliveries of limited versions of the aircraft would not begin until 2006. Compare this 20-year development cycle with the 20-month cycle of the F-20A.
The US Air Force next-generation-fighter was the stealthy Advanced Tactical Fighter. On the same Halloween night the F-20 was canceled, Northrop won a contract to build its F-23 prototype of the ATF. General Dynamics built its F-22 in competition. History tiresomely repeated itself. General Dynamics won the competition, with a design clearly inferior in every respect. There were stories that a bomber or reconnaissance version of the F-23 had secretly gone into limited production, but as of 2005 no such program had been publicly revealed.
The development of the F-22 was also incredibly protracted in the absence of cold war competitive pressure. It took 10 years from go-ahead decision to first flight of a production-representative aircraft, compared to 18 months for the F-20. It was another 10 years to first production delivery. By then the aircraft cost so much that the original planned delivery of 648 aircraft in the 1992 to 1998 period had shrunk to 120 in the 2007 to 2012 period, after which production would cease.
Historically each twin-engine fighter engendered a lightweight fighter using one of the same engine. This never happened according to plan, although it might as well have (F-4/F-104; F-15/F-16; F-18/F-20). Similarly the F-22's engine was used in a single-engine, not-quite-as-stealthy, hopefully-less-expensive fighter, the F-35 Joint Strike fighter. This was to be a return to the abominable F-111 concept - a single aircraft that was supposed to serve as an interceptor, fighter, bomber; in vertical-takeoff, conventional takeoff, and carrier-launch versions; built for the Navy, USAF, and Marines, with supposed vast export potential. The same countries that had been export launch customers for the F-16 bought into the F-35 as a next-generation replacement (in preference to the Eurofighter, which had no particular stealth credentials and represented no significant improvement over the F-16C).
But the United States had continued to fund weapons system development at cold-war levels through the 1990's while the rest of the world had not. That meant that the United States weapons technology had become costly but vastly in advance of that of other nations. The Americans jealously tried to protect this lead by refusing export of key technologies. By 2005 the F-35 was inevitably behind schedule, over budget, and its export potential in crisis. The main thing saving it was the incredible expense of the F-22, making the F-35 looking like a cheaper alternative. The cost and delays of the American 'next-generation' aircraft meant the F-15, F-16, and F-18 would remain into production well into the 21st Century, probably as much as 50 years after development had begun.
The T-38, F-5A and F-5E aircraft built by Northrop proved so durable and reliable that they needed no replacement. A variety of countries offered avionics upgrades and would inexpensively zero-time the airframes. Of the original US Air Force buy of 1189 T-38's, over 670 were still flying in 2005. Upgraded with modern avionics, they were expected to continue to meet USAF training needs until 2050 - by which time the airframes would be approaching 100 years old. Of 1199 F-5A/B aircraft delivered in the 1960's, 280 were still flying. Of 1350 F-5E aircraft, 530 were still flying. Avionics upgrades were available from Canada, Israel, the United States, Germany, Singapore, and Korea. Airframe updates could be conducted in Canada, Spain, Israel, Singapore, Korea, or Taiwan. No other fighter or trainer aircraft designed in the 1950's continued in service in such numbers, with the exception of the Russian MiG-21. Northrop had put itself out of the fighter business by building a design so classic, so durable, so correct, that it could not be replaced.
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© Mark Wade, 1997 - 2006 except where otherwise noted.
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