Marines Want More Second-Hand F-5 Aggressors And A Light Attack Aircraft

The USMC’s 11 F-5Ns and single F-5F just won’t do it anymore when it comes to providing fleet adversary support for dozens of Marine fast-jet squadrons. Now the Corps wants to procure more second-hand F-5s from around the globe to bolster its aggressor ranks, and to set up F-5 detachments at three other bases in addition to VMFT-401 “Snipers'” home base at MCAS Yuma in Arizona. In addition, the Marine Corps master aviation plan also calls for adding a light attack turboprop aircraft to its tactical training fleet, such as the AT-6C Coyote or A-29 Super Tucano. 

The Marine’s call for more adversary support capacity has been a long time coming—I have written extensively on the subject dating back many years. The introduction of the F-35 in particular will continue to grow adversary support demand based on cost concerns alone. The Joint Strike Fighter will cost at best a third more to operate than the majority of aircraft it replaces, and that number is likely going to be much larger in reality. Then there is the fact that training depletes airframe life, which is a given, but when the aircraft an F-35 is training against could just as easily be a F-5, it makes little sense to use another F-35, or a tired legacy Hornet for that matter. When the jet, in this case  the F-35B, costs $120 million and has a service life of 8,000 hours, $15,000 is being depreciated off the aircraft every hour it flies. 


The Navy and the Pentagon have learned the hard way what a depleted tactical air force looks like, as all three services struggle with aging fighters that have had near-literally their wings flown off over a 16 years of perpetual warfare. Even the young F-22 fleet has largely been augmented by incorporating T-38 aggressors at a squadron level. This is not only to better challenge the F-22, which has a huge capacity for chewing through enemy targets, but it is also to save precious F-22 airframe life and save money on operating the expensive Raptors in the process. In essence, when a fast group of aerial targets is needed, using other F-22s to provide this has been deemed a waste. 

Keeping this in mind, burning hours on advanced fighters in training where much less expensive aircraft could adequately fill the role may not just make sense, but it may be a fiscal necessity, too. The services are already struggling to afford to fly the fighter fleets they have, yet alone ones dominated by expensive 5th generation stealth fighters in the future. 

The USMC makes sums up its case for more F-5s, stating:

The F-5 fleet consistently meets readiness goals while supporting as many MAGTF adversary commitments as possible based on limited structure. USMC adversary requirements have grown significantly over the past thirteen years of combat operations. Today, the adversary capacity gap is growing, with VMFAT-501 (F-35B FRS) requiring more than 1,500 per year and MAWTS-1 requiring more than 420 annually from VMFT-401. Some of the additional requirements that have increased adversary demands are:

1) FY10 MAWTS-1 reconstitutes Marine Division Tactics Course for the F/A-18 fleet

2) FY13 AV-8B training and readiness manual increases focus on additional air defense


3) FY15 Continued transition of legacy TACAIR to F-35

4) TBD VMFAT-502 (2nd F-35 FRS) stand-up at MCAS Beaufort


The Marines’ reasoning for wanting more F-5s makes sense. In recent years, the AV-8B+ in particular, with its relatively new AIM-120 AMRAAM capability, has put an extra strain on the USMC’s adversary support capabilities. Now with the F-35B standing up on a grand scale, and the establishment of a “graduate level” tactics course tailored to the legacy Hornet community, the demand for the F-5’s services has skyrocketed even higher. But the USMC’s justification does not clearly identify the aforementioned underlining issue that flying an F-35 against another F-35 for many air-to-air training tasks is a massive waste of money and airframe life, and it is likely unsustainable as a whole. 

The USMC aviation plan describes the F-5’s effectiveness and future:

“The F-5 fleet is funded for life limited components of upper cockpit longerons, wings, horizontal stabilator pairs, and vertical stabilators that will enable the F-5 to achieve its 8,000 hour life. This extends the Department of the Navy’s 44 F-5airframes to 2025 and at least 12 aircraft to approximately 2028 in support of fleet training… The current configuration of the F-5 meets all MAGTF requirements except for F-35 and F/A-18. Upgrades to provide improved beyond visual range situational awareness, as well as passive weapon systems are being studied. Advanced electronic attack capabilities will continue to be fielded… Current USMC inventory is 12 F-5s assigned to VMFT-401 at MCAS Yuma. Based on the low cost per flight hour and ease of maintenance of the F-5, plans to expand the adversary capacity and capability while improving accessibility are being sought.”


The plan continues to lay out how the F-5s should be redistributed:

“Further desired expansion of the F-5 program, to potentially include a permanent footprint at MCAS Beaufort in FY18, and conceptual plans for adversary elements at MCASs Miramar, Yuma, and Cherry Point are being explored. Efficiently colocating adversary support with the operational forces generates the most readiness for our operational forces at the least cost. Composite training squadrons beneath 4th MAW will also leverage on extensive TACAIR experience and contribute to enhanced Reserve integration across aviation… Procurement of numerous F-5s with significant service life remaining would allow the USMC to meet, with organic assets, most requirements for adversary training. The first phase of expanded adversary capacity will be to establish a detachment on the East Coast in support of VMFAT-501 at MCAS Beaufort, S.C. for F-35 pilot production requirements.”


In addition to wanting more F-5s spread across key locations, the USMC also wants to procure a light air support aircraft for training purposes. These aircraft could work not just in concert with an expanded F-5 adversary corps, but also for training Joint Terminal Air Controllers (JTACS), airborne forward air controllers, and providing a basic airborne surveillance and fire support platform for other training purposes. This would all be part of a greater shift in tactical air training strategy called the Composite Training Squadron Concept. 

The report states:

“USMC fixed wing adversary and fleet Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) and ForwardAir Controller (Airborne) (FAC(A)) training requirements will persist, and likely grow. Headquarters Marine Corps Aviation is examining alternatives and solutions for these high demand/low density adversary and CAS training platforms.The Marine Corps composite training squadron concept could address those needs. This squadron, likely in 4th MAW, would provide low cost, regionally distributed adversary and light attack-capable fixed-wing airframes to support fleet aviation and TACP/FAC(A) production, while improving readiness across the MAGTF… Research is ongoing to examine low-cost turbo-propeller aircraft alternatives to employ alongside the F-5. Marine aviation is examining options to purchase and/or lease contractor-owned and maintained airframes that could be operated by USMC aviators from the composite training squadron and local flying units… An ordnance-employing light attack turbo prop airframe with variable communication and sensor suites would help support all air and ground terminal attack control training requirements. Procurement of additional F-5s with significant service life remaining along with leasing or procuring a light ordnance capable turbo prop could allow the USMC to meet, with a combination of organic assets and contracted solutions, most of the requirements for adversary training and appropriately augment close air support for TACP and FAC(A) training

Procuring a light attack aircraft like the USAF’s A-29 Super Tucano or the AT-6C Coyote would bring a cost effective, organic, fixed-wing aerial training asset to the USMC that can do a lot of things for many different critical players in the force. It could also potentially lead to fielding a similar aircraft in a combat role, something the USMC has not had for decades, with the OV-10 Bronco being the last platform with a similar mission. 

After flying the life out of their tactical fast-jet fleet, the USAF has finally come to the conclusion that it needs an aircraft like this, and the USMC may arguably have a greater need for it than any other service. Reading between the lines, fielding a light air support aircraft for USMC training could be a backdoor way of potentially introducing the concept back into the front-line force.

As you can see below, it seems the USMC wants to roughly double its F-5 fleet, from 12 to 24, and then add an additional 24 light attack aircraft to go along with them at four key bases around the US. 


All this is all good and well, but what’s missing is the contractor option. There is a growing list of adversary support companies that provide solutions for all these mission sets, including JTAC training, “red air” services, and the like. By using a contractor to expand its aerial training capacity instead of doing it organically could provide the USMC with a cheaper and more elastic solution. As the F-35 matures and hundreds of the 5th generation fighters fill the USMC’s ranks, outsourcing adversary support will be necessary anyways. 

On the other hand, the Marine’s F-5 fleet, with its private contractor support, is a cost effective supersonic-capable adversary. And adding a light air support aircraft to the USMC’s inventory could have positive “springboard” effects as we discussed earlier and it can work with the F-5s or alone to fulfill lower-end aggressor commitments. But still, a heavier reliance on contractor adversary support should be a part of the Marines’ master air plan going forward, especially since firms like the Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC) have already successfully  supplied thousands of hours of “red air” training for the USMC and US Navy. In other words, the model is well proven.

The A-29 is a purpose-built light attack platform is already in limited service with the USAF., USAF

Also clearly mentioned in the USMC’s master air plan is that the F-5 cannot provide all the USMC’s adversary support needs, and this is nothing new. Although the F-5 is dissimilar to existing USMC tactical fixed-wing aircraft, and remains a highly maneuverable and hard-to-spot foe, it can’t replicate 4th generation fighter threats adequately. Primarily, it lacks a capable radar system, and although some modular radar options exist for the jet, their range is limited due to the size of the array that can fit in the F-5N’s platypus nose. Also, it is not capable of maneuverability that reflects that of Flanker or Fulcrum performance, among other potential enemy aircraft. This role is provided by F/A-18s from the USMC, as well as NSAWC F-16s and fleet fighters from external services like the US Navy, and to a lesser degree, the USAF. 

Still, the F-5 has room for enhancement. In addition to a radar upgrade, the jets could make use of a helmet mounted display and a high-off boresight air-to-air missile. Many off the shelf solutions exist for this capability, including those from Israeli and European manufacturers. Additionally, Navy and USMC F-5Ns have already received an internal electronic warfare suite in recent years, with its emitters placed where the aircraft’s 20mm gun barrels once were. But this system is somewhat rudimentary and it could also be upgraded, or foreign jamming pods, like the Elta EL 8222 self-escort jammer, could be procured to better replicate a capable electronic warfare threat. Although these upgrades would not give the F-5 a full 4th generation fighter capability, combined with its small size, it would be one hell of an adversary. 

There is nothing to say that this 4th generation threat presentation requirement cannot be outsourced to the private sector. Draken International currently flies A-4K Skyhawks that pack a modified version of the APG-66 radar found on the F-16A/B. These aircraft have been put under contract by the USAF to support aggressor activities alongside the 64th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis AFB. Supposedly their performance has been quite appreciated.  Draken’s L159 fighter-trainers also pack the compact Selex Galileo “Grifo” pulse-doppler radar. But these aircraft do not possess the raw performance of a true 4th generation fighter. With this in mind, some adversary support providers are looking towards more modern aircraft, such as the F-16, to provide a robust, 9G-capable threat presentation to customer air forces. 

ATAC flies the supersonic F-21 Kfir, Hawker Hunter, and L-39 in support of NAVAIR training. , Tyler Rogoway/author

In the end, no matter how the USMC acquires it, it is good news to hear they are looking to invest more heavily in fleet adversary support as well as opening up to procuring a light attack aircraft laden with advanced sensors and avionics, even if it’s just for training—at least for now. And who knows, the USMC’s hunt for more low-time F-5s may have already begun. The need for more adversary F-5s, and possibly extensive upgrades to go along with them, also serves as yet another reminder of how it is too bad Northrop’s ultimate F-5 evolution—the F-20 Tigershark—never made it into production, yet alone the aggressor fleet

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