04 September 2009

F-20 Redux

I'm not going to pretend I understand the Iraqi Air Force's operational needs better than they do, but I have to admit I think they might be heading in the wrong direction when it comes to fighter jets.

A recent Danger Room post says the Iraqi's are not terribly interested in the inexpensive and simple light-weight fighters that have been getting so much buzz in FISTy circles lately. Instead, they want F-16's. I have to wonder whether this preference is based on a solid assessment of their actual operational needs and maintenance capabilities, or whether it's based on a desire to have the same shiney jets that the big boys fly.

Something similar happened in the late 70's & early 80's - ironically, also involving the F-16. Northrop developed the F-20 Tigershark as a low-cost export fighter. It was basically an advanced F-5, and was supposed to be easy to maintain, lower cost, etc. The idea was to sell it to countries who didn't really need or couldn't afford all the capabilities of the F-15 Eagle or F-16 Falcon, but still wanted a solid fighter jet. The F-20 cost $8M, compared to $15M for the F-16 or $30M for the F-15.

Under the Carter administration, foreign sales of Falcons and Eagles were not allowed anyway, so the market for the F-20 looked good. But then President Reagan changed the policy, and suddenly other countries had the option of buying F-15's and -16's. Northrop never sold a single F-20.

Sure, there's a lot more to the story, but the gist is that even though the F-16 cost twice as much, was more expensive & difficult to operate and maintain, and was frankly more aircraft than many of our allies really needed... that's the jet they wanted.

Here we are nearly 30 years later, and when faced with the possibility of buying a FISTy fighter that will do everything they need it to do, we see an ally apparently buying into the idea that complexity is a sign of sophistication, that more expensive equals better, etc. I might be wrong here, but the similarities are striking.

And interestingly, the US Air Force is also looking at using these Light Attack fighters. Maybe that'll help lend some credibility to the thing...

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