FLIGHTS OF FANTASY: What if the F-20 Tigershark went into production?

Sentinel Chicken

American 71 Heavy, contact departure 126.47
17 January 2006
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One of my favorite jet fighters is the Northrop F-20 Tigershark. Originally conceived as the ultimate development of the F-5 (which started in the late 1950s as the F-5A Freedom Fighter, transformed in the early 1970s into the improved F-5E Tiger II and also shares a lineage with the first supersonic trainer in the world, the T-38 Talon), it was small, light, but powerful with a GE F404 engine replacing the two small J85s on previous marks. It was like the high performance roadster of fighter jets and to me always cool thanks to its rakish looks and cool name "Tigershark".

For a good concise history of what started out as the F-5G and later became the F-20 Tigershark, I recommend Joe Baugher's article here.

So suppose the F-20 Tigershark went into production in the mid-1980s and was procured large-scale for the US Air National Guard to fly the air defense mission? (This ultimately fell to what some believe was the less-suitable F-16A ADF variant- Air Defense Fighter) What would we have seen?


^Of course we have to lead off with a Texas ANG unit, what was in the 1980s and 1990s designated the 147th FIG (now as the 147th Fighter Group, operate F-16s out of Ellington Field south of Houston). Technically full-color markings were reserved for the commander's aircraft, but this illustration blends those flamboyant markings with otherwise standard unit markings. The 147th FIG moved to EFD in 1956 and has long been an ANG interceptor unit, operating F-80Cs, F-86D/Ls, F-102As (when George W. Bush served with the unit), F-101B/Fs, and F-4C/Ds. Many pilots in the ANG who would fly the F-101 and F-102 trained with the 147th FIG before moving on to their assigned units. The unit is heavily tasked in flying anti-drug missions to this day.

I've added a few features to delineate these as hypothetical production Tigersharks- primarily the air-refuelling receptacle on the spine aft of the cockpit and the distinctive AIFF (advanced identification friend or foe) antenna array just forward of the windscreen.

Camouflage is based on what the F-16s wore when they entered USAF service in the 1980s.


^This Oregon ANG unit has some of the coolest squadron markings around (today they're actually an F-16 unit based in Klamath Falls, Oregon, at Kingsley Field). In the 1980s they were established there as the 114th TFTS with the task of training ANG pilots to fly the air defense mission. Initially using F-4Cs, the 114th TFTS (today redesignated as the 114th Fighter Squadron) transitioned to the F-16A ADF 1988-1989. So had the F-20A entered service with the Air National Guard, this unit would have been one of the first operators of the Tigershark.


^Now here's a fantasy of a fantasy- there were no official proposals for a two-seat combat trainer version of the F-20 Tigershark, given that its predecessors the F-5A and F-5E both had fully combat capable two seaters (the F-5B and F-5F respectively), it was only natural to envision an F-20B variant. This illustration shows the hypothetical twin seater in the colors of the 162nd TFG of the Arizona ANG which in reality has served as the primary training unit for ANG F-16 pilots at its base at TUS. The 162nd trained ANG pilots in the F-100 and then the A-7D before transitioning to the F-16 1986-1991. Had the Tigershark entered service, the 162nd (today redesignated as the 162nd Fighter Group) would have been the RTU for the Guard (replacement training unit).

Markings have the Arizona flag in the tail flash with "Arizona" in script below. This one has a different variant of Sidewinder missile on the wingtip stations and an AN/ALQ-119 ECM pod on the centerline station.


^In 1987 the 184th TFG of the Kansas ANG was selected to be a second training unit for the ANG F-16 force, the "Jayhawks" having previously been the ANG's F-105D training unit in the 1970s and the ANG's F-4 training unit in the 1980s, operating F-4Ds. The unit transitioned to the F-16 from 1987-1990 and had the Tigershark been ordered for the ANG, it's likely it would have been one of the RTUs for the Guard's Tigershark force. This one wears low-vis markings on the tail of the flamboyant Jayhawks markings but the service markings and stencils are now a lower-vis version of what the previous three F-20s above are wearing- about this time was when the F-16 force was transitioning to gray service/warning markings.

This F-20B is shown with AIM-7 Sparrow medium range BVR (beyond visual range) missiles underwing- that was something that the actual Tigershark prototypes were capable of, firing BVR missiles while at the time, the F-16 could not do so operationally. Some believe the F-16A ADF/Sparrow integration went less than smoothly and cost more than it should have and that the F-20 would have been a superior choice for air defense.

Enjoy! More Tigersharks coming, both ANG and other countries that might have operated the F-20A/B!
What a beatiful drawings!

The F-20 is a very nice aircraft. I think it would have been a better Continental US air defence fighter than the F-16. I agree with your theory.

What a paradox!, from 1937 to the 70's designs tasked with CONUS Air Defence task evolved bigger and faster from generation to generation until the Lockheed F-12B. The environment changed (no more Nuclear fast bomber targeting USA) and designs toke the opposite path to the F-16, F-20 and the HDI in the latest years.

I love to study metal birds evolution because Darwinian rules work the same as with flesh birds.
By the way, Sentinel, I think all F-5 family had external refuelling probe. The dorsal refuelling receptacle was to be present in the F-20?
The addition of a dorsal refuelling receptacle was my own idea to keep in line with standard USAF practice.

In some respects the F-20 would have been superior to what the ANG ended up getting, the F-16 ADF.
More Air National Guard air defense units:


^The 119th TFS (now designated 119th FS) is famous as the last operational user of the Convair F-106 Delta Dart, which were retired from service in August of 1988 when the unit transitioned to the F-16. They then "upgraded" (or downgraded depending on your point of view:D) to the F-16 ADF in 1991 and are one of the few ANG units that regularly intercepted Russian aircraft as they frequently tracked Tu-95s/Tu-142s that passed off the Eastern Seaboard on their way to Cuba. Markings are standard for what the 119th wore on their F-16s and they would have been a natural choice for the Tigershark had it entered service.


^The 159th has been a long time air defense unit stretching back to 1952 and is still active in air defense with the F-15 Eagle. In 1986 it became the first ANG air defense unit to transition from the F-106 Delta Dart to the F-16 (completed in 1988). The prominent fin band with the lightning bolt is the hallmark of the markings of the 159th and unique among USAF units repeats the last two of the serial number in larger size on the rear fuselage. They did this with their F-16s so it was a natural choice for this illustration.
More Tigersharks!


^Another air defense-roled ANG unit was the 148th FIG (later redesignated just 148th FG) of the Minnesota ANG. Based at Duluth since 1948, the unit flew the air defense mission except for period from 1975 to 1983 when the unit flew recon Phantoms in the form of the RF-4C before returning to the air defense mission with F-4Ds. In 1990 the unit began the transition to the F-16A ADF, so perhaps they'd have been an F-20 Tigershark user had it entered ANG service.

The tail markings echo the Little Dipper constellation and the North Star, Polaris, reflecting the northward-facing air defense tasks of the unit. The state name is carried on the fuselage spine (in reality on the F-16A ADFs it was carried on the aft fuselage below the fin).


^One of the coolest tail markings in the US military have to belong to the 144th Fighter Wing of Fresno, California. Prior to the early 1990s they were designated the 144th FIW in reflection of their air defense tasking which the unit had been tasked with since its formation in 1955. The stylized eagle markings are some of the most striking in regular squadron use anywhere and quite possibly by any unit. The 144th FIW maintained a detachment at George AFB in Victorville, CA until 1992 when Detachment 1 was transferred to March AFB (now March ARB) in Riverside, California, outside of Los Angeles.


^Here's something different- since the F-20B would have been a fully combat capable twin seater, it might have made a useful LIFT aircraft (Lead-In Fighter Trainer) to train pilots in tactics and methods for lower cost than to use up airframe life in front-line combat types- similar to what the RAF did with it's Hawk trainers that were assigned to the Tactical Weapons Units in the 1980s.

So, here's a "Tigershark T.1" in the same colors that the Hawks wore with No. 79 Squadron when they were part of the TWU at RAF Brawdy. And in times of crisis, the Tigershark T.1s could have augmented the RAF's air defense units. Since these aircraft would have been used in the tactical training role by the RAF, they wouldn't need the AIFF antenna array ahead of the windscreen or the spine mounted air refuelling receptacle. Instead, a simple fixed probe on the right side of the nose is installed.

^In the months following Desert Storm, Turkey's assistance in the use of its bases during the air campaign is repaid with F-20A Tigersharks at cut-rate prices to replace the elderly F-5A fleet (most of which was second hand from the Dutch and Canadians). As part of a high-low mix in the THK's fighter force, the F-16s form the high end and the F-20s (flying primarily ground attack roles as opposed to the air defense tasking of the F-20s in the US Air National Guard) form the low end, but a not-too-shabby low end at that!

This one has the SEA three tone camouflage with light gray undersides as worn by many of Turkey's F-5As and even F-4s. Beats shades of gray!
From Kiwi Aircraft Images:

Approval for Project Kahu was given in 1983 after a Defence Review recommended upgrade rather than replacement of the Skyhawks, and registrations of interest were called in May 1984. In March 1986 Lear Sieglar were contracted for the design development and Smith's Industries (of Grand Rapids, Michigan) were appointed as prime contractors. Considerable local input was included in the contract specifications. The first two aircraft (NZ6254 and NZ6205) were rebuilt by Smiths and the RNZAF at Woodbourne - the remainder of the work being carried out at Safe Air at Woodbourne in groups of six aircraft.

The first of the updated aircraft was rolled out for testing in June 1988, while the last returned to service in March 1991. The updated installation provides HOTAS and a 'glass' cockpit (2 large CRT screens), new HUD, APG-66 radar aquisition and tracking (as per the F16), and a ring laser gyro inertial navigation system, as well as upgraded VOR/ILS equipment and the provision of chaff/flare dispensers. Parts of the wings were reskinned and some structural elements rebuilt, and the aircraft wiring replaced. The weapons capability now includes AIM-9G/L and AGM-65B. Live test firings of the Maverick were carried out by both Kahu prototypes on the Waiouru range on April 13 1989.

The most obvious external change was the removal of the dorsal avionics 'hump' from the single seat aircraft - which had in fact never been used. More subtle changes can also be seen in the aerials (such as the disappearance of the Tacan blade under the nose, and the appearance of ILS blades on the tail). NZ6205 and NZ6254 were the prototype 'Kahu' aircraft, and all the aircraft have subsequently been upgraded. This includes the A-4G aircraft which were converted to the A-4K standard. The upgrade has been described as making the RNZAF aircraft comparable with the F-16A/B at one sixth of the cost.
Suppose instead of proceeding with Project Kahu the RNZAF decides to get the F-20 Tigershark with not only gives the capabilities of what Project Kahu did for the A-4 Skyhawk, but a whole lot more in terms of performance:


^This shows an F-20A Tigershark in the Kahu colors that were used on the upgraded A-4Ks of the RNZAF. This version differs from my USAF version of a production Tigershark with the deletion of the air-refuelling receptacle on the spine and the installment of a refuelling probe on the starboard side of the nose similar to my previous RAF LIFT (lead-in fighter trainer) version.

The Kahu birds were orginally delivered in SE Asia camouflage (two tone green, tan, and light gray undersides) and when the went through the upgrade, the tan was replaced by dark gray (FS36081, I think) and the upper surface camouflage wrapped around to the undersides as well. The roundels and fin flash were also toned down, removing the white from both. The above illustration depicts the F-20 in those same Kahu colors of No. 75 Squadron, the main user of the A-4K in reality (the "hei tiki" emblem of the No. 75 with the crossed hammers from the New Zealand coat of arms can be seen on tail in black).


^In 1997 a new scheme was introduced to the A-4K fleet and it consisted of an overall medium green with black low-visibility markings-the above illustration reflects the final colors of the Kahu fleet before the controversial decision by the New Zealand government to disband its fighter aircraft arm. As above, the "hei tiki" squadron emblem is on the tail with the relocated RNZAF serial number (which on the real A-4Ks was moved from the aft fuselage to the fin with the repaint in overall medium green).

Enjoy these Kiwi Tigersharks!
There was a proposal for a recon nose version of the Tigershark and it appears to have drawn much from the RF-5E Tigereye variant that was built for some of the customers of the F-5E Tiger II (such as Malaysia or Saudi Arabia). The above illustration mates a Tigereye-style nose section to the F-20 Tigershark airframe and the colors on this one are that of the Luftwaffe reconaissance unit AKG52 with the "Norm 87" camoflauge scheme that was applied to the Luftwaffe's Tornado IDS's and the last F-104Gs.

In reality, AKG52 (and its Panther head badge seen on the Tigershark intake) operated the RF-4E Phantom II along with its sister unit AKG51. In 1993 the German Ministry of Defence announced budget cuts that resulted in the disbanding of AKG52 and AKG51- however it was quickly realized that fast jet recon capability in the Baltic was still a valuable asset and a new unit, AG51, was stood up that combined the traditions and assets of both AKG51 and AKG52.

Loadout in this illustration has AIM-9L Sidewinders on the wingtip stations for self-defense, two 150 gallon external tanks under each wing, and an AN/ALQ-119 electronic warfare pod on the centerline station.


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Given the extraordinary expense the Japanese spent to develop and field the F-2A gives one moment to pause to think if there wasn't a more cost-effective route (like using an advanced Block F-16C instead). But suppose they used Tigersharks?

This illustration has a hypothetical F-20J wearing the distinctive two-tone blue camoflauge used by the F-2A. The squadron markings are for the 3 Kokudan/3 Hikotai at Misawa AB in northern Japan with its distinctive samurai logo on the tail.

Loadout is for air defense, with an AN/ALQ-119 jamming pod centerline with two 150 gallon external tanks and four AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles.


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Back to more USAF Air National Guard Tigersharks- this time I used the Compass Ghost Gray camoflauge scheme used by the F-15 Eagle and it looks pretty sharp on the sleek lines of the F-20.....

It makes for an interesting comparison with the F-16 style camoflauge scheme I used at the top of the thread several months back. The markings are what were used by the 102d FIW at the time they transitioned from the F-106 Delta Dart to their current real-world mount, the F-15 Eagle. Markings on the tail are more what would have been seen on the Delta Darts in their twilight years rather than the more subdued markings seen on their F-15s today.

On the intake is the characteristic seagull badge of the 101st FS (around 1993 or so "Interceptor" was dropped from the squadron/wing designations of the ANG units that were tasked with air sovereignty missions.


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This is another Compass Ghost Gray Tigershark, this time in the colors of the 142d Fighter Wing that in reality uses F-15 Eagles out of Portland International Airport, Oregon. The red tail band has the squadron nickname "Redhawks" and I used a full color redhawk tail marking instead of the customary low-viz version in use today. On the intake is the wing badge for the 142d FW.

Loadout on both of these illustrations is a single large centerline fuel tank with four AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles, two on each wing.


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One more for now- this one wears the camoflauge scheme known as "Mod Eagle" as it uses the same pattern of countershading as the Compass Ghost scheme but uses a set of darker and slightly bluer grays. It looks good on the sleek lines of the Tigershark- this one wears the unit colors for the DC ANG's 121st Fighter Squadron based at Andrews AFB- given the need for rapid response in the Washington ADIZ, I could imagine the Tigershark getting assigned to the capital area for air defense.

In reality, the 121st FS is an F-16 operator, having previously used the F-4 Phantom.


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Sentinel Chicken said:
From Kiwi Aircraft Images:

^This shows an F-20A Tigershark in the Kahu colors that were used on the upgraded A-4Ks of the RNZAF. This version differs from my USAF version of a production Tigershark with the deletion of the air-refuelling receptacle on the spine and the installment of a refuelling probe on the starboard side of the nose similar to my previous RAF LIFT (lead-in fighter trainer) version.

These are beautiful drawings! In reality, the F-20 offered air refueling capability as an option. It involved a probe very similar to what you have drawn except it was on the centerline, not the starboard side. Also, it retracted forward to lie flush with the noseline, the actual front of the probe tucking in right behind the radar antenna.

No F-20 flew with the option installed, it wasn't required for the demonstration and development process. Even today, most people don't realize how good the F-20 was. It was not a "low end" part of a mix if one counts the F-16 as a "high end". Except in payload/range at altitude and sustained turn (the "big" version of the wing was needed for that), it matched or exceeded F-16s of the day.
Really cute drawings Chicken!!!!

I think that you should add, at least, even an F 20 with Italian markings, because AMI (Italian Air Force) shown more than a serious interesting for the Northrop fighter.
So much that, still in 1985, I could see a brochure prepared by Aeritalia (now Alenia Aeronautica) showing the possibility to have a production license for the Tigershark (as in '60s happened for Starfighter).

I know that one reason for the failed Italian Tigershark production was due to the poor interest shown by USAF, an other that lead Italy to have a refurbished version of the Starfighter, known as F 104S-ASA (Aggiornamenti Sistemi D'Arma - Weapon Systems' Update).

Anyway it could be really nice to see Tigershark in Italian colours (and for sure it could be still in service today, skipping the needing for the actual Italian F 16, taken in leasing by USAF).
My 2 cents worth:

Design patent for the F-20 tigershark:
F-20 and its GE F404-GE-100 powerplant posing for the camera

Source: Supersonic Fighter Development. Roy Braybrook. Ed Haynes. 1987 ISBN 0-85429-582-8


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KJ_Lesnick said:
It was really that impressive of a fighter?

More speed, (possibly) more range and higher rate of climb from the runway. Yes, it would have been a better fighter.
On the other hand, the one F404 engine of the Tigershark might have cost more than 2 ea. J-85's? Then there would have been a downside to that issue, but not if the J-85 was discontinued from production.
If the manufacturer quit making the J-85, the F404 would have been the better choice.
Broadly, it was designed as an export-only follow up to the F-5. As the USAF wasn't interested, preferring the F-16 there was a sense among the potential customers that they were getting an inferior product.

Kim Margosein
Kim is also right. The F-16 could carry more of everything with its bigger engine and the F-20 was downselected for that reason, mostly.
The F-16 was considered by the military to be the better buy.
Lee said:
Kim is also right. The F-16 could carry more of everything with its bigger engine and the F-20 was downselected for that reason, mostly.
The F-16 was considered by the military to be the better buy.

Remember, we are talking comparisons of the early-mid 1980s version of the aircraft in question.

Except in gross lifting capability, payload/range at altitude (it actually had greater range with the same payload at low altitude), and sustained turn (the "big" version of the wing was needed for that), the F-20 matched or exceeded F-16s of the day in most areas. Its avionics were noticeably more advanced, it could be programmed for more types of weapons, it could launch in a fraction of the time of the F-16 if the situation required. From a cold-start, it could be above 10,000 feet, all systems up, while the F-16 was starting to taxi. The F-20 also had better air conditioning (very important when you're sitting in the hot sun with the canopy down).

It was easier to fly, more reliable, required far less maintenance and spare parts and was cheaper to buy and operate. Although it had less thrust, it had a much better engine than the F-16. The F-16 did have a better gun, for what that's worth.

As to why the F-16 "beat" it in USAF's ADF competition, you've got to keep in mind that USAF had a vested interest in the F-16 both from a logistical point of view (logical) and a "pride" issue (it was "their" plane). So, they came up with the US Air Defense Fighter requirement, a role for which neither aircraft was suited. Both companies were to propose their aircraft for new production to fill this role. The results of the cost/capability analysis have never been released to my knowledge, but it's interesting that in the middle of the competition USAF suddenly announced that it would buy no new production aircraft and instead the requirement would be modified so as to be filled by modified existing F-16s. This would not make GD as much money as new production, but it can be argued that it wasn't as important that the F-16 "won" as much as it was that the F-20 "lost", because that effectively killed the program. It is perhaps telling that although delivery of the F-16ADF only started in 1989, USAF started retiring them in 1994
Well, I hadn't heard of the performance comparisons of both planes, especially the F-20.
But I agree in principal to the military politics that analysts have set forth on the subject in hindsight. The F-20 was probably more efficient and could be improved further. The F-16 manufacturer saved face by not have to admit that when their plane was selected over the Tigershark. Northrup spent a lot of money and got little in return.
Excellent Mark Wade's side show on Tigershark
Flateric's posted 'Web link is, as he says, excellent in its description. Unfortunately, unless politics would have changed drastically in Washington, the F-20 wouldn't have ever been viable in the Gov't eyes.
Dear Sentinel Chicken, your drawing is really great!

But I though the real potential customers of F-20 was Taiwan (ROC), Bahrain South Korea. And not RAF, JASDF and RNZAF.

Darth Panda
Dear Sentinel Chicken,

How much is that to commision a drawing of F-20 in Taiwan Air force marking?
and how big is the print?

Darth Panda
Kim Margosein said:
Broadly, it was designed as an export-only follow up to the F-5. As the USAF wasn't interested, preferring the F-16 there was a sense among the potential customers that they were getting an inferior product.

Kim Margosein

More specifically, the F-20 was designed in the Carter-era political climate. Taiwan wanted to replace its F-5's, but Carter Admin policy was that we wouldn't export anything that's just as good as what the USAF was currently flying (in this case, the F-16.) So instead of offering up the F-16's that Taiwan wanted, Northrop had to come up with an F-5 variant that could carry Sparrow AAM's. Sparrow was too draggy for the F-5E, so the solution was to increase the thrust with the F404.

As the political winds shifted in Washington, so did the fortunes of the F-20. The Reagan Administration, seeking closer ties with China, told Taiwan that they wouldn't even be getting the F-20, let alone the F-16's they wanted in the first place. Deals with India and the Republic of Korea for F-20 sales came close to fruition, but ultimately collapsed. The biggest irony is that by 1992, Bush 41 decided that Taiwan would get the F-16's after all.
I did these as prints earlier in the year and just now got around to getting some test prints done:


This particular print depicts two Tigersharks in the colors of the Arkansas ANG's 188th Fighter Wing "Flying Razorbacks" based at Fort Smith Municipal Airport. In the real world, the 188th FW has recently transitioned from the F-16 to the A-10. Markings on both are based on tail markings used on the 188th's own F-16s before the transition to the Warthog.

This print (same size as the Flying Razorbacks print) represents the Tigershark in the colors of the 150th Fighter Wing "The Tacos" (also nicknamed the Enchilada Air Force) based at Kirtland in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Again, one boss bird and one line bird, I've always thought the roadrunner tail markings of the 150th to be very striking, even in its low-viz version.
Here it is a complete 3-views drawing.



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Just found that diagram on a tread at the ARC ... seems as if the proposed twin-seater was different to a simple F-5F + F-20A.



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Oh man, the boys in the 147th Fighter Wing got shafted. Well, sort of. They're flying UAVs now. I guess they could have been BRAC'd out of existence, but the 301st Fighter Wing with the AFRES in Fort Worth picked up a bunch of their guys, so did the F-16 unit in San Antonio. To quote the Dos Gringos song "Jeremiah Weed":

Now if you drive the Eagle then you drink it all for show
And if you drive the Hog then you gotta drink it slow
And if you drive the Viper then you gotta drink it fast
'Cause this ain't a time to loiter and we ain't got the gas.
Now if you drive the Stinkbug then drink it on your own
And if you drive the Mudhen then you can't drink it alone
And if you're stuck in UAVs then my advice to you
Is to drink the f**king bottle, man, there's nothing left to do!

Ever had a shot of Jeremiah Weed? Damns, I felt like I'd just swallowed a mouthful of Skydrol. But I digress.

I've always liked the Texas-styled lighting bolt on the tails of the 147th's aircraft through history. The F-101 Voodoos and the F-4C/Ds that the 147th operated had the same markings, not sure if any of the 147th's previous equipment had that same cool lightning flash.

This print shows the full-color boss bird on the bottom and a low-viz line bird above. Once I get the test prints from the printer and they pass muster, I'll be offering this one for *hopefully* rabid consumption.

Stay tuned, there will be some Compass Ghost and Mod Eagle-colored Tigersharks coming!

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