Home » Switzerland begins turning over retired F-5 fighters to USA

Switzerland begins turning over retired F-5 fighters to USA

Switzerland begins turning over retired F-5 fighters to USA

The Swiss air force has begun the process of transferring 22 retired Northrop F-5 Tiger II fighters to the US Marine Corps (USMC) and US Navy (USN).

An official with the service confirmed to FlightGlobal on 20 March that USMC personnel arrived in Switzerland on 15 March to begin transporting the first jet back to the USA. Each service will ultimately receive 11 aircraft.

The initial F-5 was shipped via a USMC Lockheed Martin KC-130J transport. The USMC did not provide an expected timeline for completing the handover of all 22 aircraft.

Officials from the USN, which administratively oversees the marine corps, have been discussing an acquisition of the fighter aircraft with Swiss counterparts as far back as 2019. A deal was finalised in 2020, according to the navy, with a reported value of $32.4 million. 

Switzerland originally procured 98 F-5Es and 12 F-5F fighters, first placing the type in service in 1976, according to Bern. The country still has 18 F-5Es and five F-5Fs still in service, according to Cirium data.

Roughly half of the Swiss air force’s still-active F-5s are operated by the Patrouille Suisse flight demonstration team, which has said it plans to continue flying the third-generation fighter into 2027.

Both the USMC and the USN operate the legacy twin-engined jet as an adversary air platform.

“The F-5 aircraft serve in an aggressor-training role with simulation capabilities of current threat aircraft in fighter-combat mode,” according to the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), which manages the F-5 programme for both services.

Newer, single-seat F-5N Tiger IIs are operated alongside the older F-5F two-seat models for air combat training and testing pilots against adversary tactics. The navy fleet consists of 30 F-5Ns and two F-5Fs, while the USMC operates 11 F-5Ns and a single F-5F, according to NAVAIR.

Manufacturer Northrop describes the F-5 as a “highly manoeuvrable, reliable supersonic fighter, combining advanced aerodynamic design, engine performance and low operating costs”.

More than 2,600 of the twin-engined jets were produced, with the final delivery in 1989, according to information on the Northrop website.

“Approximately two-thirds of the original production F-5s remain operational in 26 countries, including the United States,” Northrop says.

US Navy Northrop F-5N+

The F-5 is a popular choice for the aggressor role, as it is cheap to operate and relieves frontline fighters from training duty. Services including the USN and US Air Force report a deficit of fourth-generation fighters to meet ongoing operational needs, with adversary missions being an additional resource burden.

Fifth-generation fighters are significantly more expensive to operate and maintain, and defence officials are often reluctant to remove them from frontline availability.

The Pentagon contracts out some adversary air service to private contractors, including Montreal-headquartered Top Aces, which operates the world’s only private fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters.

Although Northrop still provides sustainment support to the global F-5 fleet, including service-life extension support, the aircraft is no longer in production – forcing operators to get creative when it comes to fleet expansion.

This is not the first time the USA has acquired F-5s from Switzerland. The USN in 2006 acquired a number of low-hour F-5E/Fs from Bern to replace some older Tiger airframes.

That first tranche of Swiss Tigers were updated to the newer F-5N standard with modernised avionics and other improved systems, according to the navy.

Updated on 22 March with additional information about the distribution of F-5s between the US Navy and US Marine Corps.