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Rise of the Tactical Fighter

Building on the success of lightweight tactical fighters like the F-5-series, Mirage III/5, Mirage F-1, MiG-21, and others, aircraft original equipment manufacturers (OEM) began developing successor platforms for a new generation. These new fighters would retain the core advantages of their predecessors, especially low acquisition costs and scalability, but with far better performance and new technologies. However, most of these new projects never made it past studies and prototypes as the majority of the OEMs and their home governments opted to rally their resources behind clean-sheet medium-weight fighters, such as the F-16, Mirage 2000, and MiG-29. In turn, these low-cost, lightweight fighter projects did not catch on.

However, one fighter almost had a shot: the Northrop F-20 Tigershark. Chance would have it that though it acquired the General Dynamics F-16, which it had aggressively sought, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was still in need of an even lower cost multirole fighter. In the early 1980s, the PAF viewed the F-16 as a genuine next-generation high-performance fighter, but it was too expensive to buy in enough numbers to supplant the Shenyang F-6. The F-6 was a Chinese variant of the MiG-19 and, by the 1980s, it had formed the bulk of the PAF’s fighter fleet, complementing the more capable – but also aging – Dassault Mirage III/5.

PAF Air Headquarters (AHQ) wanted to disseminate the technologies and capabilities of the F-16 across its entire fighter fleet. This would include a modern multi-mode radar and avionics suite with head-up display (HUD), hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS), self-defensive electronics suite with a radar warning receiver (RWR), targeting pod integration, and so on. Sound familiar? Indeed, these were the same requirements that drove the PAF to support the JF-17 Thunder program.

Basically, there were multiple scenarios in the 1980s that could have resulted in the PAF acquiring a JF-17-type capability much sooner. One of these scenarios was the F-20. There is an informative account about how the PAF evaluated the F-20 from one of the personnel sent to America to assess the fighter in 1984 – Air Vice Marshal (then Group Captain) Abbass Mirza. Due to a lack of wider market traction and Northrop losing two of its three prototypes, the F-20 did not work out; however, the PAF stuck with the idea and, in turn, helped bring it to life through its current workhorse fighter, the JF-17.

Northrop F-20 Tigershark

While an evolution of the Northrop F-5E Tiger II, which had seen a significant production run and wide-scale adoption around the world, the F-20 was a different and, as importantly, superior fighter.

It leveraged the new GE F404 turbofan engine (which also powered the F/A-18 Hornet), giving the F-20 a thrust-to-weight ratio of 1.13, a top speed of over Mach 2, and initial climb rate of 16,100 m a minute.

The F-20 was powered by the AN/APG-67 radar, which offered many cutting-edge features, such as track-while-scan (TWS) for 10 targets, the ability to detect fighter-sized targets at up to 74 km, ground mapping, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging, and sea-surface tracking, among others.

It was equipped with the AN/APG-67 radar, which was loaded with cutting-edge features, like track-while-scan (TWS) for up to 10 targets, the ability to detect fighter-sized targets at up to 74 km, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging, ground-mapping, the ability to track moving targets on the ground and sea, to name a few. This was paired with a cockpit comprising of HUD, HOTAS, and multifunction displays, giving the F-20 a truly state-of-the-art electronics suite for its time.

Though an evolution of the Tiger, the Tigershark incorporated a number of key changes in its airframe. For example, it leveraged more composite materials, like fiberglass. Northrop also reworked the leading-edge extensions (LEX), enlarged the horizontal stabilizer, and introduced a fly-by-wire flight control system (FCS) to improve its maneuverability to a point where it was comparable to the F-16.

Finally, Northrop was also working to configure the F-20 with a line-up of modern munitions, including the AIM-120 beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) and Harpoon anti-ship missile (AShM). The F-16 was not configured with these munitions until towards the end of the 1980s.

Thus, from the onset, the F-20 customer would have had a potent multirole fighter, but at a lower upfront and lifecycle cost than the F-16. For the PAF, the F-20 promised a compelling package, driving it to consider acquiring a 100 units to replace the F-6 and, in turn, transform its workhorse fighter fleet. Indeed, moving from the F-6 to the F-20 would have been a phenomenal multi-generational jump.

Unfortunately, the PAF could not finish evaluating the F-20. AVM (retired) Abbas Mirza spoke highly of the F-20’s physical performance but noted that his team was unable test the F-20’s weapons control/delivery systems. Losing two of its three prototypes, Northrop also began winding down the F-20 program. Thus, the PAF evaluation team could not recommend the F-20 to AHQ, understandably so.

However, the PAF continued carrying the ideas driving the F-20 and, in a way, tried emulating the model, but on the Chengdu F-7M (a Chinese variant of the MiG-21). Under the “Sabre II” program, the PAF brought in Grumman and Chengdu to study the possibility of greatly modifying the F-7M’s airframe, configuring it with a new turbofan engine (potentially the GE F404), and equipping it with the AN/APG-66 radar. The PAF had likely hoped that the Sabre II could be an ‘Eastern F-20,’ so to speak. Unfortunately, the escalating cost of the project and a chill in Sino-American ties caused the PAF to shelve the Sabre II.

The F-20 (and other similar projects, like the Dassault Mirage F-1.53 and Sabre II) was a victim of a specific, and historic, circumstance – the rise of the F-16. When the U.S. Air Force (USAF) selected the F-16 for its lightweight fighter requirements, it guaranteed economies-of-scale for the fighter and, in turn, rallied most U.S. allies – within and outside of NATO – to join. Consequently, the F-16 became the most popular fourth-generation fighter and, in turn, probably the most produced one in history.

The F-16’s costs dropped and, in turn, many countries – including Pakistan – opted to instead make the fighter their workhorse. In the late 1980s, the PAF had another 71 F-16A/Bs on order, with potential plans to acquire another 50 units in the 1990s. Smaller lightweight tactical fighters like the F-20 were no longer a necessity at that point in time, thus, they never caught on – until exceptional circumstances arose.

Return of the ‘Light Fighter’

A summary of the JF-17’s development history can be found in an earlier Quwa article. Since its induction over 20 years ago, the JF-17 has become the workhorse fighter of the PAF. Its latest iteration, the Block-III or JF-17C, comes equipped with an improved turbofan engine (RD-93MA), an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, a helmet mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system, in-flight refueling (IFR), and three-axis fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system. In effect, the JF-17C continues bringing the dream behind the F-20 to life by packaging 4+/4.5-generation capabilities in a low-cost package.

Yet, like the F-20, the JF-17 has yet to catch on in the world market. In fact, aside from its home customer, the PAF, the fighter has not gotten any sizable export orders. While there are multiple factors constraining it from securing such orders, it is possible that a major blocker is the fact that the world market as a whole still does not require such a fighter. In fact, the JF-17 is not the only lightweight tactical fighter of this type.

The Saab JAS-39 Gripen entered the market before it, yet, despite its compelling design, strong technology package, and versatile capabilities, it remained niche. Outside of Sweden, only four countries bought (or leased) the Gripen. Its latest iteration, the JAS-39E/F, has only been adopted by Sweden and Brazil. Even if one accounts for the Gripen’s use of ITAR-restricted components and subsystems, adoption is still relatively limited and, instead, many potential buyers opted for larger and costlier platforms, like the late-model F-16 Block-70/72. The irony of the Gripen’s situation is that if not for Swedish defence policies and ITAR, the PAF could have been one of its main users, potentially second to only Sweden.

So, why the gap? Why are lightweight tactical fighters having trouble gaining traction? The Gripen and JF-17 examples show that this type of fighter is a niche requirement. Today, most states are prioritizing their use of air power as a strategic asset, one meant to display deterrence. In contrast, countries like Pakistan, Sweden, India, South Korea, and a few others leverage air power for both strategic and tactical purposes. Most countries are not as concerned about fielding the latter, at least individually.

For example, one sees smaller countries like Romania invest in the F-35 Lightning II. One can see two key reasons why Romania would opt for the F-35 over the JAS-39E/F. First, a stealth 5th-generation fighter will demonstrate strategic reach and capability. Second, Romania can integrate it into the wider NATO air force, which can result in joint tactical maneuvers (by pooling the quantity of fighters from each country).

As for countries outside of NATO, many might prefer prioritizing strategic air power use than tactical. They have limited resources, so putting those towards preventing a conflict (via deterrence) may leverage more utility from those means. It is countries that assume they will enter a conflict and, consequently, operate alone. Until it joined NATO, Sweden had approached its air power as a key asset for area denial over home soil and, traditionally, focused on cost-effective and scalable tactical platforms.

Interestingly, Sweden even walked away from collaborating with the British on the latter’s Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), partly due to differences in conceptual requirements. Currently, the GCAP’s design work is likely steering towards a medium-to-heavyweight design, something will not align with Sweden’s traditional preference for light-to-medium-weight aircraft. However, with Sweden joining NATO, it will be worth watching if it pivots to a different strategy, one using air power as deterrence and deferring tactical utilization to coalition support from its new allies.

Besides being a niche requirement, the few countries that need lightweight tactical fighters have their own programs. Pakistan has the JF-17, India has its Tejas, the Swedes their Gripen, and the South Koreans are mass producing their FA-50. Resultingly, there are a large number of vendors competing in a narrow space, which means that neither one will generate large orders. That said, the FA-50 is bucking the trend with a growing customer base. However, the FA-50 was borne from a lead-in-fighter-trainer (LIFT), which serves a widespread requirement and, in turn, helped it build momentum.

That said, it is possible that certain ongoing events may push more countries to consider tactical fighters. For example, the Russia-Ukraine War is showing that a low-cost, scalable, and high-technology asset like the JF-17, Tejas, or FA-50 could have helped Kyiv in its area-denial efforts. Deploying a fighter with an AESA radar, BVRAAMs, and integrated electronic countermeasures (ECM) could have paired well with its ground-based air defence system (GBADS). Likewise, it could have benefitted from such a fighter during its blunted counteroffensive, which it blames in part to a lack of airpower. A low-cost tactical fighter could have been deployed in large quantities to cover each operational theatre, drive high numbers of sorties, and sustain losses. Following this war, one can expect Ukraine to invest in acquiring – if not locally producing – such a fighter. However, with aspirations to join NATO, Kyiv will likely opt for a solution that can its partners would accept, such as the FA-50 from South Korea or the Saab Gripen.

Ultimately, the air operations requirements of certain countries (like Pakistan and India) will likely fuel the continued development of lightweight tactical fighters. The next wave of these small fighters could aim for low observability (LO) on radar through greater composite use and design lessons from stealth fighters. In addition, they could aim to achieve greater sensor fusion between radar and electro-optical sensors, such as infrared search and track (IRST). Pakistan, at least, will one day need to replace the JF-17, even its late-stage variants like the JF-17B and JF-17C; thus, new lightweight tactical fighters will be on the horizon.

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