Swiss Cold War Tigers Going Home

Armed F-5A prototype, rough field trials

First flown in 1959, the Northrop F-5 became a popular “budget” air-superiority fighter in the Cold War, especially in its later F-5E Tiger variant. Essentially an upgrade of the T-38 Talon able to carry ordnance and mix it up, over 2,200 F-5s of all types were produced by the 1980s, going on to serve over 30 countries as diverse as the Mexican Air Force, the Republic of Vietnam Air Force and the Royal Libyan Air Force.

Starting in 1978, the Swiss Air Force bought 110 late-model F-5E/F Tigers to augment their locally made F+W Emmen Mirage IIIs and replace their older Hawker Hunter aircraft (and a few downright obsolete De Havilland Venoms), becoming the country’s primary fighter until license-produced F-18s were ordered from Emmen in 1996.

With the F-5 out of production since 1987, the numbers of Tigers hidden away in Swiss mountainside caverns dwindled until the type was phased out of front line operations by 2018.

Although a dozen or so airframes are still retained by the country’s version of the Thunderbirds, the Patrouille Suisse, and four birds have transferred to museums, Fighter Wings 11 and 14 out of Payerne still have 23 combat-ready F-5s in storage.

And it looks like those latter aircraft are headed back across the pond as 22 of the vintage planes will be bought by the Pentagon for $39.7 million to be used by the Navy’s aggressor squadrons.

An F-5E Tiger II aircraft assigned to the Saints of Fighter Squadron Composite (VFC) 13 taxis at Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West’s Boca Chica Field. NAS Key West is a state-of-the-art training facility for air-to-air combat fighter aircraft of all military services. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brian Morales/ Released)

The Swiss are reportedly happy to see them go:

“If the Americans want to take over the scrap iron, they should do it,” Beat Flach, a Green Liberal lawmaker, told SonntagsZeitung, which reported on the planned sale on Sunday. “It’s better than having the Tigers rot in a parking lot.”

Of course, other than the U.S. Navy’s OPFOR units, the largest F-5 operator in the world is the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, which has about 60 Tigers leftover from the Shah’s era and a few homebrewed Saeqeh and Azarakhsh fighters derived from the F-5’s design.

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