Israel’s Elbit Systems announced yesterday that it was awarded contracts from an Asian country in a total amount of approximately $85 million; the majority of the amount will be for an avionic upgrade of F-5 aircraft, to be performed over a three year period. The balance is for the supply of electro-optic and communications systems.
While the name of the customer air force was not mentioned, Asian media sources have indicated the program is a follow-on phase of the F-5E Tigris – the modernized version of the Northrop F-5E operated with 211 squadron of the Royal Thai Air Force. Elbit Systems has already performed a modernization of part of the Thai F-5E fleet, and the current contract is likely to follow-on introducing complimentary capabilities that were not included in the original program that was limited by funding cuts.
“We are proud to have been selected to perform this aircraft upgrade program, building on our vast know-how and experience in F-5 avionics modernization projects.” Bezhalel (Butzi) Machlis, President and CEO of Elbit Systems commented, ”Asia-Pacific is a very important market for Elbit Systems, and we are pleased to be awarded further programs in the region, which programs benefit from the synergies across the various parts of our organization. We have witnessed a growing demand for upgrades of this nature, and we trust that further customers will follow, benefiting from a mature aircraft upgraded with market leading technologies”.
Elbit Systems has performed various F-5 upgrades in the past. The most comprehensive plan is the ongoing F-5EM/FM in Brazil, where 46 aircraft have been upgraded with SELEX Grifo F radars, INS/GPS-based navigation, Python IV and Derby air-to-air missiles, advanced electronic warfare systems, targeting pods etc. The program also extended the aircraft life span for 15 years. Among the avionics upgrades were mission computers, advanced glass cockpits featuring 3-color displays, DASH IV Helmet mounted display sight, weapon delivery and navigation systems, etc.
Under the F-5T Tigris program launched in 2003 Elbit Systems performed upgrades to 12 single seat and two twin-seat F-5E/F fighters. The Thai configuration is similar to the Brazilian, differing in the type of radar used – as the F-5T uses the Israeli Elta ELM2032. The aircraft were also equipped with Rafael’s Python IV missiles and are likely carrying Litening targeting pods on ground attack missions.
RTAF planned to upgrade 31 aircraft operated by 701 and 211 squadrons, but lack of funds reduced the amount to 15. With the introduction of JAS-39 Gripen with 701 squadron, the F-5T now operational only with 211 squadron are to remain in service at RTAF Airbase in Ubon, least until the early 2020.
Thailand is one of the last remaining air forces in Asia operating the F-5 jet fighter. Once considered the mainstay of the South Vietnamese, South Korean, Singapore and Taiwan air forces, these fighters are now being retired, replaced with versions of locally produced fighter/trainers such as AIDC (a locally built F-5 variant) in Taiwan and F/A-50 in South Korea. Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam are also maintaining some F-5Es in storage but the operational capability of these aircraft is unknown. In Singapore, the F-5s were replaced mostly with F-16s and F-15SG, leaving few of the aircraft to be used for operational training.