The Myth of the Export Fighter
At the beginning of the Nixon Administration, there was renewed concern that our friends in the Third World needed to do more for their own defense. In air defense terms, the “Nixon Doctrine” led to the International Fighter Aircraft Program.
–RAND Case Study P7495
Figure 1: The export fighter that wasn’t: An F-20 Tigershark fires an AGM-65 Maverick Missile. (U.S. Air Force)
For over a decade, the OA-X light attack aircraft has been touted as ripe for export. Indeed, the OA-X enabling concept, which started the ball rolling for a light attack aircraft, specifically called for the aircraft to be transferrable, affordable, modular, and interoperable — all characteristics that would make it exportable. The view was always that the U.S. Air Force needed an aircraft that it could use for low-intensity conflict, and also share with partners. A key element in the concept was sharing — not selling. By 2011 Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, then Air Force chief of staff, had altered the concept, retitled “Light Attack / Armed Reconnaissance,” into a program that would train foreign airmen for an aircraft that the U.S. Air Force would not itself operate.
While that concept succumbed to the Budget Control Act of 2011, the idea that the United States could provide an exportable aircraft that it did not use persisted, and worked itself into the OA-X program. But this idea springs from a fundamental premise that has never been correct for foreign air forces — that if the United States offers a product it does not operate, those air forces will come running to buy it. This has never been the case and there is no evidence that this assumption would play out today. Some might counter with the F-5 example, but the only reason that the F-5 export fighter was so wildly successful is that the United States did not market it for sale so much as give it away to offset Soviet influence. The marketable export-only fighter is a unicorn: a creature that never existed and cannot be created without significant U.S. investment in time and money.
Figure 2: The Smithsonian’s Nieuport 28C.1 in the colors of the 94th Aero Squadron (now the 94th Fighter Squadron, flying the F-22). This aircraft was rejected by France in favor of the Spad XIII, but accepted by the United States, which had few alternatives. (Smithsonian Institution)
When the United States entered World War I, it had no fighter or bomber aircraft. France actually supplied 4,874 of the aircraft used by the Air Service, compared to only 1,213 American-built aircraft (the British supplied 258 and the Italians 19). About a quarter of this total were trainer aircraft. By the 1920s, though, U.S. aviation companies like Curtiss and Boeing were building fighter and attack aircraft that would be exported — all aircraft types that were produced in batches large enough to prove their worth in the U.S. military. The Curtiss Falcon, an attack aircraft, was used by the Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marine Corps and exported to eight foreign countries, some of which used the planes in combat. The Boeing P-12, a fighter, was also used by the Air Corps and the Navy, with about 30 exported to five countries, while slightly more than a dozen Curtiss P-1 Hawks were exported. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the United States would export fighter aircraft in larger numbers, among them the P-40 Warhawk (16 foreign users), the P-39 Aircobra (8 foreign users), F-4F Wildcat (5 foreign users) and even the P-38 Lightning, with a dozen foreign users. Many of these aircraft were provided under wartime pressures, under lend-lease or other arrangements.
Figure 3: The Kittyhawk Mk III was an export variant of the P-40K Warhawk supplied to the Royal Air Force (RAF) under lend-lease arrangements. Here a RAF Kittyhawk of No. 112 Squadron, Royal Air Force, taxis at Medenine, Tunisia in 1943. (Imperial War Museum)
The export stream did not stop after the war, but the way exports occurred changed. The post-war export control rules and foreign aid programs dictated how aircraft would be sold overseas, and to some extent they still do. Fighter aircraft were provided to foreign customers in three ways.
The first was outright provision of the aircraft by the United States through foreign aid packages of one kind or another. Congress passed the Mutual Defense Assistance Act in 1949, and similar laws in 1951 and 1961. These acts authorized the Mutual Defense Assistance Program, and later the Military Assistance Program. From 1950 to 1967, this program provided $33.3 billion dollars’ worth of arms and another $3.3 billion of surplus. For reference, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s request for defense spending in 1958 (midway between 1950 and 1967) was $38.5 billion. MAP and MDAP were succeeded by the foreign military assistance and foreign military sales programs, which persist in one form or another to this day. Examples of aircraft provided through the Mutual Defense Assistance Program include the A-1 Skyraider, A-37 Dragonfly, and both F-5 variants.
The second method was via a co-production or production agreement. These agreements were made between the U.S. manufacturer and overseas companies to build aircraft overseas for foreign use. The F-86, F-104, and F-16 were produced overseas in significant numbers. The third method was via foreign military sales, where foreign countries purchase the aircraft using their own funds. Government sales by the United States now fall under security cooperation efforts and its subset, security assistance. To date, these programs have largely been limited to high-end, front-line fighter aircraft like the F-4 and the F-16, although the F-5 was also sold through foreign military sales. Notably, the commercial sale of export fighter and attack aircraft (and not just American ones) has long been marked by unethical business practices, including outright bribery (in the cases of the F-104, A-29, and JAS.39 Gripen aircraft).
The history of direct sales to foreign militaries shows that foreign customers either required a deep U.S. commitment to the type (as with the F-16) or a clear demonstration of the effectiveness of the type (F-15), or both (F-4). Sometimes it takes a lot to demonstrate success. The F-4 did not find an export customer until more than 2,700 had been built and the aircraft had been used in combat for more than three years.
Some aircraft were acquired by all three methods—direct assistance, production agreement, and sales. The F-86 Sabre was provided under all three conditions, as was the F-104 Starfighter and the F-5E/F Tiger II. The F-16, the most modern example, was both sold under foreign military sales and co-produced.
The F-86 Sabre was a highly successful fighter, with numerous exports under the Military Assistance Program. First flown in 1947, foreign manufacture of F-86 began in 1949 in Canada, supplying both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the U.S. Air Force with Sabre Mk2, especially as demand spiked during the Korean War. Most exports were surplus U.S. Air Force aircraft, although some were new aircraft provided as military assistance. Some export customers re-exported the aircraft: Taiwanese-built aircraft went to the Philippines; Norwegian aircraft went to Saudi Arabia and Portugal. The F-86 established a demand for U.S.-built jet fighters that never abated.
The U.S. Air Force flew the F-104 Starfighter for a few years, but the primary users were foreign customers, many of whom built the aircraft domestically. First flown in 1956, the majority of F-104s were foreign-built and foreign-operated, with the first export sales in 1961. The Luftwaffe was the largest user, receiving a total of 915 Starfighters. The Starfighter exports were jump-started by the so-called “Deal of the Century” offered to Lockheed by Germany in 1958, which started the ball rolling for foreign manufacture. It was later revealed that Lockheed had paid $22 million in bribes to German officials, including the minister of defense, to close the deal. Similarly, Lockheed paid $1.1 million to Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands to assure sale of the F-104 to the Dutch, and another $1.5 million to Japanese officials. Ex-U.S. Air Force Starfighters were also provided to Germany, Pakistan, and Jordan.
The F-5A Freedom Fighter, derived from the Northrop N-156, was a true export aircraft. The F-5A wasn’t intended to be sold. Rather, it was intended to be provided gratis as part of a foreign aid program. The U.S. Air Force funded three prototypes specifically for a fighter that could be provided as part of the Military Assistance Program. On this basis Northrop engaged in overseas marketing (including overseas production options) in direct competition with the F-104. In April 1962, the Defense Department chose the N-156 as an export fighter funded under the Military Assistance Program, meaning that the United States would largely give them away to defend against and compete with Soviet MiGs. The F-5 had a hidden advantage: It had a great deal of commonality with the T-38 Talon, meaning that the logistics and parts infrastructure were well established in the Air Force — and could be leveraged by foreign partners.
The U.S. Air Force used the F-5C in combat (as the Skoshi Tiger) in Vietnam, but did not buy into the type as a front-line combat aircraft, and provided the ex-Skoshi Tiger aircraft to Vietnam in June 1967. Despite the fact that the Air Force did not employ the F-5 in combat after Skoshi Tiger, the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps used the aircraft as aggressor aircraft (the Marines still do), thereby ensuring a steady supply of experienced F-5 aviators. This supported an advisory effort that lasted from 1963 to 1989, whereby foreign F-5 operators received U.S.-provided training, including an F-5 Fighter Weapons Instructor Course for American pilots who would act in an advisory capacity.
Lightning struck twice for Northrop: The F-5E Tiger II was an improved variant of the F-5A and was entered by Northrop into the International Fighter Aircraft competition in 1970 alongside three other competitors. It won the competition and an order for up to 325 aircraft for $415.6 million. Notably, the Air Force paid for development of the aircraft using Military Assistance Service-Funded money, not the Air Force procurement budget. Aircraft were manufactured or assembled overseas in Switzerland, Korea, and Taiwan. The aircraft is still in service worldwide.
The F-16 killed the export fighter by becoming one. In terms of number of using countries, the F-16 is a wildly successful export, with over 2,000 aircraft delivered to foreign air forces and almost 1,000 built overseas. Because it was in front-line service with the U.S. Air Force, and bought in large numbers, it also ended the very idea of an export fighter, supplanting both the F-5 and the ill-fated F-20 Tigershark. General Dynamics, having just won the lightweight fighter competition with the prototype YF-16, pursued an early co-production strategy for European nations who were looking for a replacement for the F-104. To prime the pump, the Air Force announced a decision to buy 650 fighters in early 1975, specifically because the European Participation Group wanted a firm Air Force commitment prior to entering into a co-production agreement. The European Participation Group announced an intent to buy F-16s scant months later. Shortly thereafter, following the 1976 U.S. elections, foreign interest crashed because of a Carter administration policy not to sell front-line fighter aircraft overseas. The European Participation Group was grandfathered in and Israel excepted, and the United States started the FX program for a new export fighter, exemplified by Northrop’s F-20 and General Dynamics’ export-compliant F-16/79. The program didn’t last — FX died when the Reagan administration reversed the export limits on front-line fighters.
Figure 4: The ill-fated F-16/79 export variant. (U.S. Air Force)
In contrast to the earlier F-5 programs, the F-5G, renumbered as the F-20 Tigershark, was an unmitigated disaster for Northrop. While the Air Force funded the production of four prototype aircraft, Northrop invested around a billion dollars developing a single-engine, improved F-5 variant. The aircraft first flew in August 1982, and was marketed on the European airshow circuit in 1983 and 1984. It was believed that a U.S. Air Force order would be necessary to jump-start the market, and the U.S. Air Force was not in the market for a lightweight fighter, having instead chosen the F-16 in the lightweight fighter competition years before. There were two “almost-orders” by Bahrain and Jordan, but Bahrain’s request for four aircraft wasn’t worthwhile for Northrop and Jordan made its order contingent on a U.S. Air Force buy.
The Carter administration’s restrictions on the sale of front-line U.S. combat aircraft to foreign partners (excepting NATO members and Israel) led Northrop to believe there was a market for a fighter designed specifically for export. Those same conditions led General Dynamics to offer the F-16/79, a stripped-down F-16 powered by the F-4’s General Electric J-79 turbojet instead of the Pratt & Whitney F-100 turbofans powering U.S. Air Force F-16s. The 1980 election of Ronald Reagan resulted in the easing of the Carter-era export restrictions, ensuring that the market for both export fighters was limited. In 1984 and 1985, two of the three F-20 prototypes crashed during flight demonstrations, which further threatened the program. In 1985, Northrop offered the U.S. Air Force a deal — 396 F-20s for a cost of $15 million per unit, which was not accepted. The State Department denied a request to sell production tooling to Taiwan (already an F-5 user), and in 1986 Northrop terminated the program, having spent over a billion dollars.
Both the F-16/79 and the F-20 fell victim to the F-16, which, once approved for foreign sales, became one of the most successful fighter programs of all time. Had the F-20 aircraft been available years earlier to compete against the YF-16 and YF-17 prototypes for the lightweight fighter program, it might have remained competitive, but as a latecomer in an established market, the odds against its success were steep. The F-20 was a modern, capable aircraft with a long and successful ancestry behind it, but it was unattractive because the United States never intended to use it or provide it under the Military Assistance Program. The F-20 experience remains a cautionary tale for those who believe that the United States can sell fighters it does not operate.
The Export Battle
Often overlooked in the success of the F-5 export fighters is that these aircraft were often given away to low-tier air forces. Not only were they given away, but the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union ensured that foreign aid would often take the form of aircraft, and the F-5 was provided to partners on five continents. F-5Es were provided in large numbers to the South Vietnamese Air Force (and more than 100 were captured by the North Vietnamese Army). F-5 sales to Ethiopia in 1966 were provided as part of an aid package to ensure American access to the Kagnew electronic listening post — and to offset Soviet-supported Somalia. They were followed by more F-5s in 1975. When Ethiopia changed policy to favor the Soviets, F-5s were sold to neighboring Sudan. Libya got F-5s a year before the coup that brought Muammar Qaddafi to power. Kenya received F-5s shortly after neighboring Uganda received MiG-21s.
Apart from hardware, the provision of aircraft to small air forces is the beginning of a long process, not the end. Advisory efforts can take decades and may not bear fruit at all. The Air Force advisory effort in Iraq was a modest success, based as it was in a country that had long possessed an independent air force. The NATO effort in Afghanistan has been less successful, despite almost two decades of investment. There is no realistic possibility that the Afghan Air Force could stand on its own, as the country’s financial position remains dire. The advisory effort in Vietnam started with Operation Farm Gate in 1962 and didn’t end until Saigon was overrun. Advisory work was often of secondary importance to an effort that often served as cover for U.S. combat operations. Success or failure aside, the provision of combat aircraft requires a sustained, manpower-intensive and expensive effort to turn those aircraft into an effective fighting force, and success is not guaranteed. The United States has to be particularly cautious with what capabilities it offers to foreign air forces. American aviators can be prone to offering technologies they do not need as solutions for problems they do not have, using techniques they do not use.
From the standpoint of a partner nation, it’s not about the aircraft. Anyone who wants a light attack aircraft today can buy the A-29 Super Tucano from Brazil or the AT-6 from Textron. Indeed, Embraer has consistently sold one to two dozen aircraft per year for almost two decades. But it is the relationship that counts — countries find a partnership with the United States valuable, and U.S. military equipment comes with a long-term relationship in terms of advisory support, training, and logistics. That’s a two-way street, and is why the F-20 and F-16/79 failed — with no American military employment, the opportunity to build a relationship through training and other support was not realistically offered with the aircraft.
The evidence of almost a century of exporting combat aircraft strongly suggests that foreign sales of light attack aircraft will not happen without a significant and long-term commitment by U.S. conventional forces to those same aircraft — or an unlooked-for increase in the foreign aid budget. All of the historical examples in which American combat aircraft have been purchased by foreign customers involve aircraft that were in service in significant numbers by the United States, even in cases where foreign manufacturing agreements were in place. The export fighters, F-5A Freedom Fighter and F-5E Tiger II, were intended to be funded by security assistance monies provided by the United States. The two cases where a U.S.-developed aircraft was not supported by security assistance or a U.S. Air Force commitment are the F-20 Tigershark and the F-16/79, both of which failed. The F-20 case was a commercial disaster for Northrop, costing over a billion dollars in unrecouped costs, while the F-16 went on to success by fielding export variants that were substantially similar to the U.S. version, which was purchased in large numbers.
The evidence doesn’t support the supposition that the small Air Force purchase of OA-X aircraft allowed by current funding levels is enough to encourage foreign partners to purchase them. The historical record also suggests that foreign partners will be interested in purchasing a combat capability provided by conventional forces, and not a niche capability used by special operations. The conditions are changed only when the U.S. provides the aircraft as foreign assistance, which also seems unlikely in the case of the OA-X. Only the establishment of a real, credible and combat-effective OA-X capability can support the goal of expanding Air Force offerings to include an affordable, exportable combat aircraft.
Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently assigned to Air Combat Command.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.
Image: U.S. Air Force