Credit: Roundels of the world
Continous tension with North Korea, erupting in an almost state of war, and the friendship with the United States of America influence heavily this country.
In 1964 the USA proposed to withdraw a Division stationed in Korea; to sweaten the matter to the Korean goverment it was proposed (among others) to supply the 6th Tactical Squadron with Northrop F-5A. The withdrawal was suspended.
A first tentative procurement of a new fighter to replace North Amrican F-86 Sabre started in 1965 with the plan to operate Lockheed F-104Gs starting from 1965 to counter North Korean MiG-19 and MiG-21, but complexity and USA military aid policy allowed only the supply of the Freedom Fighter, which was later introduced.
total of 88 Northrop F-5A and 20 Northrop F-5B were supplied under MAP
between 1965 and 1972, another 16 F-5B were bought directly.
Military Assistance Program (MAP) F-5As were granted in following US Fiscal Years: 1963 - 29; 1964 - 3; 1965 - 17; 1966 - 5; 1967 - 14; 1968 - 6; 1970 - 3; 1971 - 10; one is unaccounted. By mid-68 there were a total of 54 Northrop F-5s in the country.
Pilot training started during 1964 when 4 instructors were trained in the USA, while deliveries of F-5s Freedom Fighters began in 05 April 1965; they replaced North American F-86Fs.Transported to South Korea (fully fueled and armed, wrapped in plastic) by ship, a dozen each time, fully flyable and armed. They were disembarked at Pusan port and flown out from the local base.
Northrop F-5B 20447 in USA September 1973 without markings. Photo: Archive The Northrop F-5 Enthusiast
The Republic of Korea AF planned originally to buy
McDonnell RF-4E for
reconnaissance purposes, but the plan was abandoned and 8 Northrop
RF-5A were purchased in US Fiscal Year 1971; a former Republic
of Vietnam AF example was added when this contry collapsed.
The war in Vietnam brought on 28-10-72 an US request to transfer 48 Northrop F-5As to South Vietnam, under operation "Enhance Plus". These fighters were to be replaced by Northrop F-5Es as soon as they were to be available.
Korea did not agree to this and requested the delivery of 18 McDonnel F-4D in exchange for the Freedom Fighters. Finally, a compromise offer was submitted, either to lease of 18 McDonnel F-4D or to base 2 USAF McDonnel F-4 Squadrons locally for the air defence of the country. The first alternative was chosen by Korea; only 36 F-5A were transferred to South Vietnam, June 1972 saw the introduction of the reconnaissance Northrop RF-5A.
In June 1974 an oral request was made to the USA for direct purchase from Northrop (instead of co-production) of 54 single- and 6 double-seaters, 30 aircrafts to be delivered during calender year 1977, an written request to be sent shortly after. The additional Tigers were to be paid partially under Foreingn Military Fund and the rest by the country.
Interest was also shown for 21 "second hand" Tigers flown out of South Vietnam as add-on to the already scheduled 72 Northrop F-5Es to be delivered via MAP, scheduled to start in February 1976. These ex-Vietnamese Tigers might have reduced the number of new aircrafts needed (see above).
Also considered was the possibility to divert to Korea, instead to the Republic of China, 21 new aircrafts originally foreseen for S. Vietnam (which collapsed). The total of 42 (21 ex SVN/21 new) Northrop F-5Es might have caused maintenance and financing problems.
All three plans had no follow-onBy April 1976 there were following types on hand: 71 Northrop F-5A, 8 RF-5A, 26 F-5B, 48 F-5E; 2 additional F-5A and 1 RF-5A were foreseen for 1976 delivery (ex Vietnam) together with 8 F-5B bought under Project Peace Needle as well as 25 Northrop F-5E Tigers (of which 21 originally foreseen for Korea but diverted to China under Vietnam Project Enhance Plus). Foreseen to be delivered during the years 1977 and 1978 were each 27 F-5E and 3 F-5F (these last three under Project Peace Freedom).
to an official US list funding was provided for the Security Assistance
1976 (or previously) 2 Northrop RF-5A, 12 F-5A, 3 F-5B. Another source
states that 28 Northrop F-5A, 10 Northrop F-5B were funded.
Reports mention that altogether 21 (or 19) F-5A Freedom Fighter (including former Korean and other nations) used by the Vietnamese AF were returned at the end of the conflict (1975). Fourteen serials are known.
Withdrawal of the Northrop F-5A/F-5B Freedom Fighter was completed only during the year 2005.
Photo: R.o.Korea AF
Line-up of camouflaged Northrop F-5B (nearest) and Northrop F-5A (unfortunaley black-and-white photo)
Photo: R.o.Korea AF
Northrop F-5A 01386 seen towards of the end of its carrier, with new grey camouflage
Monument Northrop F-5A Freedom Tiger sitting in Cheoan in March 2020 with a fancy camouflage
US statics showed in 1982 a total strength of 254 Northrop F-5A/F-5B/F-5E/F-5F. The Air Force had a slight superiority over the People's Republic of Korea AF due to better fighters and pilots training but had shortages as only 7 days of operations, of ammunitions, fuel and spare parts were available. According to an US source there were, by 2004, a total of 260 aircrafts in service.
First Northrop built F-5F delivered, used as Target Tug with AIM-9 Sidewinders in 1990.
Northrop F-5E 50521 Sidewinders on wingtips, bombs underwing, tank underfuselage
Involvement of local Industry/Upgrade
A first attemptfor local production was made in 1974 when three US aircrafts companies competed for co-assembly/local production of a new fighter. The Korean government selected in 1975 the Northrop F-5E, (though the original request was for General Dynamics F-16 or Chance-Vought A-7, authorisation refused by the USA government) for anacquisition of 60 fighters; a Northrop team had confirmed in July-August 1974 the fully feasibility of Korean manufacture. First production roll-off was to be about September 1977, final aircraft produced by approximately March 1980. But any final decision was postponed.
On 08-02-75 a new move by the Korean Government showed its intention to assemble 60 Northrop F-5 and co-produce small portion of these. Planned first production roll.off about September 1977 and production completed in or about March 1980.
Following an enormous industrial development Korea was able to start building aircrafts under licence, taking over the costs of defence starting from FY 1977 through US Foreign Military Sales and commercial acquisitions.
At the 1st Defense Industry Promotion Expansion Conference held on August 26 1978 it was decided to produce a fighter locally. The "FX Planning Group” was formed and a request to build General Dynamics F-16 under licence was sent to the US Government in 1979. The authorisation was refused, offering instead co-production of Northrop F-5s with full logistic support and production tooling, training and technical assistance.
On 01-07-79 the government definitely selected the Northrop F-5 Tiger; a request to manufacture was sent to the US Government the same year and from September 1979 negotiations started with Northrop. On October 24, 1980, the U.S. government the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Republic of Korea and the USA was signed; on 14-11-80 a sales and license agreement was agreed between Northrop and the Korean Ministry of Defence.
Korean Air signed an aircraft delivery contract on 27-12-80 with the procurement headquarters of the Ministry of Defence (called Programm
Bridge). A team, including the "FX
Planning Group” and the project promotion Team worked for two years
(from September 1979 to October 1981) to prepare co-assembly/local
production of 40 Northrop F-5E and 20 Northrop F-5F, for the cost
of USD 140 millions. Aircraft equipment,
technical data and fixtures, which were difficult to produce in Korea,
were directly purchased by the government from Northrop. Visual
differences to the Northrop built aircrafts were: grey instead of black
radome and missing antenna on the tail.
Tigers heads painted under cockpit on all Northrop/KAI F-5E/F-5F
Works started in 1981, the first Korean built aircraft (F-5F serial 81-00594), locally named KF-5E/F Chegong-Ho/Skymaster, made its first flight at the Gimhae Plant at Pusan belonging to Hanjin Corporation (a Korean Air Lines company) on 09-09-82. Ther General Electric J-85 engines were assembled by Samsung Precision Industries, which had already overhauled them. The final aircraft/engine was delivered on 28-10-86 with a total of 23% of Korean participation. All these new aircrafts had modified RWR, manufacturing licence rights for the ALR-85 (V) Radar Warning Receiver system to be installed on F-5s had been already granted on 04-08-99.
In February 1982 Korea requested to modify the mix of versions to 48 KAI/Northrop F-5E single-/double-seaters and 20 KF-5F; this amendement to the contract was signed on 23-11-82. The final aircraft was delivered on 28-10-86.
Photo: Korean Air Lines
First Korean built aircraft Northrop KF-5F in Korean national colours on roll-out.
It received the standard geay camouflage on transfer to the Korean AF.
in an upgrade
of the Tigers to extend their operational life was shown
in 1986; the programm began with trial installation in 1988 of an
Honeywell H-423 laser INS and an GEC HUD/WAC on an F-5F. Included in
the specification were also a laser ranger, a data transfer system,
plus (possibly) a new radar. Only
space availability in the front was available and the project was
without follow-on; anyhow the ejection seat was replaced in 2011.
Three Northrop F-5As were sold in September 1996 to the Philippines (delivered by ship) for a friendly price of USD 100.00 each, five additional followed in October 1998. This was in order to facilitate the sale of the new KAI AF-50 attack aircraft/advanced trainer.
Paveway II and Paveway III laser guided bombs were bought to arm both the Northrop F-5E and MDonnell F-4s in 2003; improved air-to-air missiles AIM-9P were also bought.
Prototype of the A-50 (designation later dropped, at present designated KAI FA-50) accompanied by F-5E 50507 and 00890.After delivery of the first 8 KAI FA-50 a grounding order for all Tigers was issued due to the crash of one Northrop F-5E on 26-09-13. The order was lifted on 18-10-13; all 150 single- 34 double-seaters were returned to flight status on 21-10-13. The cause for the crash was found to be poor maintenanance.
Good use of the engines from withdrawn from Nothrop F-5s was found in a new air bases snow-plogging machine, called "Majinga", together with bigger McDonnell F-4s engines, called "Big Majinga".
In April 2015 the 50th anniversary of Korean Air Force operation of Northrop F-5 (all versions) was commemorated, contemporarely all Northrop built Tigers were withdrawn from use. A total of 11 Northrop F-5s have crashed between 2000 and 2010.
Units operating KAI/Northrop F-5s in November 2018
Suwon has two tenant Squadrons (101 Fighter Squadron and 201 Fighter Squadron) both operating Northrop KF-5E/F Jegpngho (translated as Sky master) produced under licence by Korean Air back in 80's; another Squadron (207th Squadron) flying with directly in USA manufactured aircrafts, disbanded due to its ageing fleet and subsequently replaced by an McDonnell F-4 Squadron in 2017. Visual difference between the Northrop and KAI built aircrafts are: the colour of the radome: KAI/Northrop KF-5 gray, Northrop F-5s black and the shape of the tail fin (no antenna on the Northrop F-5s).
50 KF-5E/KF-5F aircrafts remained in use by md-2020 with the 1st
Fighter Wing/206 Squadron.
Photo: Defense Media Agency/Korea
Front view of a fully laden fighter-bomber KAI/Northrop KF-5E
Photo: MND Defence Media Agency
KAI/Northrop F-5E accompanied by all fighters/attack aircrafts used by the Republic of Korea Air Force