America's F-5E "Tiger" Budget Fighter Refuses To Die

Charlie Gao

Key point: Brazil has invested heavily in the F-5E.

The F-5E “Tiger” is one of U.S. aerospace industry’s largest export successes. Designed as a budget lightweight fighter, the F-5E is still operated by many nations around the world despite the availability of more modern fighters.

Its continued service is enabled by miniaturization of electronics, which allows for more powerful radars and more systems to be integrated into the same spaces as the original system. This approach is exemplified by the F-5EM operated by Brazil, one of the most advanced variants of the F-5E flying today.

Brazil first acquired F-5Es in 1974 after comparing it to rival NATO light fighters like the Harrier, Jaguar, Fiat G.91 and A-4 Skyhawk. Forty-two units were purchased originally, followed by twenty-six more in the 1980s.

These aircraft served in without much modification until CRUZEX I aerial exercise in 2002. The exercise simulated conflict between the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) and a French Armee de l’Air force equipped with Mirage 2000s with E-3 Sentry AWACS support. The results were abysmal, with France expected to take air superiority in a real conflict despite some good simulated kills by FAB Mirage IIIs.

This sparked a significant push to modernize the FAB’s capability to defend Brazil’s airspace. Modernization of the Mirage III was explored but deemed to be cost ineffective. The F-5E showed much more promise.

In the 1990s, Chile, facing a similar need to modernize, created their own variant, the Tiger III Plus with assistance from Israel Aircraft Industries. A similar program with newer technology could be done with the FAB’s F-5Es.

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 defense” fighter to something that could cover more ground over Brazil’s rather large borders.

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