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In 1970 Northrop won a competition for an improved International Fighter Aircraft (IFA) to replace the F-5A, with better air-to-air performance against aircraft like the Soviet MiG 21. The resultant aircraft, initially known as F-5A-21, subsequently became the F-5E. It had more powerful (5,000 lbf) General Electric J85-21 engines, and had a lengthened and enlarged fuselage, accommodating more fuel. Its wings were fitted with enlarged leading edge extensions, giving an increased wing area and improved manouverability. The aircraft's avionics were more sophisticated, crucially including a radar (initially the Emerson Electric AN/APQ-153) (the F-5A and B had no radar). It retained the gun armament of two M39 cannon, one on either side of the nose) of the F-5A. Various specific avionics fits could be accommodated at customer request, including an inertial navigation system, TACAN and ECM equipment. The first F-5E flew on 11 August 1972.
A two-seat combat-capable trainer, the F-5F, was offered, first flying on 25 September 1974, with a new, longer nose, which, unlike the F-5B which did not mount a gun, allowed it to retain a single M39 cannon, albeit with a reduced ammunition capacity. The two-seater was equipped with the Emerson AN/APQ-157 radar, which is a derivative of the AN/APQ-153 radar, with dual control and display systems to accommodate the two-men crew, and the radar has the same range of AN/APQ-153, around 10 nmi. A reconnaissance version, the RF-5E Tigereye, with a sensor package in the nose displacing the radar and one cannon, was also offered. The latest radar upgrade included the Emerson AN/APG-69, which was the successor of AN/APQ-159, incorporating mapping capability, however, most nations chose not to upgrade due to financial reasons, and the radar only saw very limited service in USAF aggressor squadrons and Swiss air force.
Official roll-out of first USAF F-5E Tiger-IIThe F-5E eventually received the official name Tiger II. The F-5E experienced numerous upgrades in its service life, with the most significant one being adopting a new planar array radar, Emerson AN/APQ-159 with a range of 20 nmi to replace the original AN/APQ-153. Similar radar upgrades were also proposed for F-5F, with the derivative of AN/APQ-159, the AN/APQ-167, to replace the AN/APQ-157, but was never carried out.
USAF F-5F with AIM-9J Sidewinder, AGM-65 Maverick missiles and auxiliary fuel tanks over Edwards Air Force Base, in September 1976.Northrop built 792 F-5Es, 140 F-5Fs and 12 RF-5Es. More were built under license overseas: 91 F-5Es and -Fs in Switzerland; 68 by Korean Air in South Korea, and 308 in Taiwan.
The F-5 proved to be a successful combat aircraft for US allies, but had only limited combat service with the US Air Force in Vietnam. The F-5E evolved into the single-engine F-5G, which was rebranded the F-20 Tigershark. It lost out on export sales to the F-16 in the 1980s.
Various F-5 versions remain in service with many nations. Singapore has approximately 49 modernized and re-designated F-5S (single-seat) and F-5T (two-seat) aircraft. Upgrades include new FIAR Grifo-F X-band radar from Galileo Avionica (similar in performance to the AN/APG-69), updated cockpits with multi-function displays, and compatibility with the AIM-120 AMRAAM and Rafael Python air-to-air missiles.
Similar programs have been carried out in Chile and Brazil with the help of Elbit. The Chilean upgrade, called the F-5 Tiger III Plus, incorporated a new Elta EL/M-2032 radar and other improvements. The Brazilian program, whose product is called the F-5M (Modernized), is armed with Python V coupled to the DASH helmet-mounted cue system, and new GRIFO radar, cockpit displays and navigation electronics. The Brazilian F-5M is also equipped with the Israeli Derby missile and can operate in a BVR environment. In the Cruzex 2006 multinational war games, a Brazilian F-5 made simulated kills on two French Dassault Mirage 2000N aircraft, which were supported by an E-3 Sentry and escorted by other two Mirage 2000C. This result was achieved by using the Derby and the information relayed by datalink from an AEW&C plane, the Embraer R-99, fitted with the Erieye AESA radar.