F-5/T-38 the Focus of Multiple International Upgrade Programs

Swiss F-5.  Photo: Swiss Air Force

The 1,275 F-5/T-38 aircraft in the worldwide fleet have, on average, been in service for more than 41 years. Although these aircraft would not logically appear to be top contenders for upgrades owing to their age, nations such as Brazil, Honduras, Iran, Thailand, and Tunisia have moved forward to upgrade them. At the same time, the fleet includes 575 aircraft averaging 30-40 years of service that could soon require upgrades as well.

As of 2018, T-38 Talons had trained 72,000 USAF pilots. Many airframes have lasted up to 20,000 hours of high-g supersonic flight.

The U.S. Air Force’s 505 T-38s are on average over 51 years old and are in their third service life, with five T-38Cs pending removal. Although the USAF is planning to replace the T-38s with 350 T-X trainers, upgrades will continue for some time. A replacement has yet to be chosen.

The USAF plans to operate its T-38 trainers until at least 2029, and continues to fund the fleet so that it can bridge the gap.

The USAF is in the midst of an $855 million contract with Boeing to maintain the fleet’s avionics, cockpit displays, and communications and control panels, and to upgrade 37 aircrew training devices.

The Pacer Classic III Service Life Extension Program looks to last through 2026, which would likely push at least a portion of the fleet well into the 2030s. Combined with the money already put into the SLEP, and how long the U.S. military likes to keep platforms in service, an operational life into the 2030s starts looking more realistic

The Navy’s fleet of 44 F-5 adversary aircraft is set to increase by 21 aircraft with fourth-generation capabilities. The original 44 are set to retire in 2025, although the retirement date will likely be extended. With new fourth-generation capabilities and an additional inventory, budget expenditures will likely increase.

Thailand, Indonesia, Bahrain, Taiwan, and Botswana have all recently announced plans to retire their aircraft in the near future. Malaysia will either retire its fleet, or launch an $8-$12 million upgrade program that will include an airframe SLEP, new electronics, and new armament.

Iran is upgrading its F-5 fleet. And although Thailand has indicated that it expects to retire its fleet by 2020, expenditures on its current upgrade program indicate otherwise.

Switzerland is looking to halt a complete retirement of its F-5 fleet, and may continue to operate some of the fleet beyond 2019. Still, the fleet will be reduced to 26 aircraft, from 35.

Despite the age of the worldwide fleet, it is declining relatively slowly, partially due to upgrades that have extended the lives of the aircraft. The worldwide fleet will continue to see modest activity from 2019-2028.