Platforms That Never Were: F-20

The F-20 started off as an upgraded version of the F-5, a low-end fighter that had enjoyed great quantities of export success. The F-5 saw only limited use (largely as an “aggressor” trainer) in US service, but was used extensively by the South Vietnamese and Iranian air forces.

The F-20 grew more advanced, to the point where it kept the basic appearance and layout of the F-5 but little else. Promoted as an economical, reliable fighter, it nonetheless attracted only tentative sales that were cancelled when it was clear the production run would not be large enough to be profitable.

Was the F-20’s fate cruel, a can-do little fighter sacrificed for the sake of shallow shininess? Maybe. First, it was always a “loophole” fighter, being most intensely pursued during a period of Carter administration policy that prevented the widespread export of “first-line” equipment. Once the F-16 could be sold to more than just the closest allies, it was. For all of the advances of the F-20, it was still an older design compared to the much newer and more upgradable F-16.

A RAND Corporation study on the F-20 was somewhat sympathetic but still remained skeptical. The paper noted that the claimed serviceability and reliability figures were from a handful of prototypes in an environment where any fighter could be made to look good (rather than many fighters in a field environment, or, in the case of the F-16, actual combat over Osirak and Lebanon). Also, it noted that by trying to match and even exceed the F-16, the Tigershark was getting more and more complex.

Finally, while the US Air Force did have a vested interest in getting as much of an economy of scale for the F-16 as possible, this was not necessarily a bad thing. A huge dual F-16/F-20 buy for the Air National Guard would have created logistical issues and given the appearance of even more pork politics in an industry already notorious for its porcine qualities.

With the addition of the F-20 to the Command Database, it can be used. The question is who would use it? The plane historically was shopped around to nearly everyone from India to Venezuela.

The most obvious users of the F-20 are:

  • Users of the F-5 replacing it with the F-20.
  • Air Forces that historically bought the F-16, but chose the F-20 instead.

If one is willing to be more fanciful, it can be put in the hands of anyone not politically wedded to non-Western aircraft. One paper even proposed donating two hundred Tigersharks to mainland China to pin down greater numbers of Soviet planes away from the European theater.

As for whether it would be a good choice, well, that’s for the scenario designers and players to find out.