HINDSIGHT 2020: The CF-116 Freedom Fighter


Welcome to Hindsight 2020!  For this series we will be taking a look at Canada's past fighter purchases and asking a simple question:  "Did we make the right decision?"

We will look at the aircraft itself, compare it to the alternatives available at the time, and determine whether or not Canada picked the right aircraft.  

The CF-116 Freedom Fighter (also known as the CF-5) was the last fighter aircraft built on Canadian soil...  A situation Saab would very much like to change.  From 1968 to 1995, 240 CF-5s were built.  Many more than were required by the RCAF.  That led to export sales to other nations, both as new builds and surplus.

Initially developed by Northrop as a cheap, easily maintained point-defence fighter, the original F-5 Freedom Fighter did not get much love from its nation of origin; the USA.  While the USAF did utilize the  F-5 in the skies over Vietnam, it did so sparingly; preferring more expensive platforms like he F-4 Phantom and F-105 Thunderchief.  This was only a small setback for the F-5 however.  The platform made it an excellent candidate for a supersonic trainer (in the form of the T-38 Talon), which still sees use today.  

In fighter form, the F-5 found success under the Pentagon's International Fighter Aircraft Competition.  The intent of this program was to provide affordable fighters to American allies without the economic or political means to procure higher-end fighters.  The F-5 offered similar performance to the Soviet MiG-21, which made the Freedom Fighter popular among air forces on a budget and as use an "aggressor" craft.  

The CF-5 seemed an odd choice for the RCAF, however.  Originally meant to supplement Canada's (already obsolete) fleet of CF-101s and CF-104s, the CF-5 seemed like a step backwards for what was once considered a top-tier air force.

While it was fine point defense day fighter, the F-5 lacks the range or all-weather capability of a good interceptor.  This disqualified it from replacing the CF-101 Voodoo.  Nor does it have the payload capabilities for a ground attack role beyond close air support.  It was also not nuclear capable, so it could not replace the CF-104 Starfighter in the role the RCAF would rather not talk about.  The CF-5 was such an ill fit for Canada that when it was introduced, an entire squadron was immediately put into storage.  

The CF-5 was not without its uses, however.  As already mentioned, it made for an excellent aggressor aircraft for combat training.  Its affordable flying cost also allowed pilots to keep up their flying hours in a high performance aircraft.  It also allowed for Canada to maintain its NATO commitment by providing additional fighters to any potential war effort.  The Freedom Fighter would also prove to be a slight economic boon to Canada, as we produced far more than we needed and ended up exporting many to other nations.  

With the introduction of the CF-18 and the end of the Cold War, there was little reason to continue flying the CF-116 Freedom Fighter.  Canada had enough Hornets to meet its NATO requirements.  The CF-18 was capable of doing anything the CF-5 could, usually better.  Also, while the CF-5 had a lower operating cost, it was found that the additional costs associated with flying a mixed fighter fleet had absorbed any of these savings.  The platform was retired from the RCAF in 1995, even though it still flies in other nations all over the world.  

The Competion:

F-4 Phantom II

Let's be honest here.

If you are a modern western air force looking for a new fighter in the 1960s then the F-4 Phantom II HAS to be on your list.  You could be forgiven if it was the only fighter on your list.  Fast, well armed, and extremely capable; the F-4 was one of the most prolific fighters of its day...  For good reason.  

Unlike the F-5 Freedom Fighter, the F-4 was more than capable of replacing both the F-101 and F-104.  It was faster and had a longer range than the CF-101, making it a better interceptor.  It had a much higher payload and was much more suitable in the attack role than the CF-104.  Although not a true multi-role fighter like the F/A-18, the F-4 was available in both interceptor and fighter-bomber (among other) variants.  

The F-4 is not without its (well publicized) faults, however.  Big, heavy, and expensive, the Phantom did not live up to its promise over the skies over Vietnam.  Intended to act as a BVR fighter before that strategy was viable, the F-4 was ill-equipped to deal with smaller and more maneuverable fighters like the MiG-21.  Tactics and later variants (like the gun equipped F-4E) would mitigate this somewhat.

While the RCAF definitely would have preferred the F-4 Phantom II, it was deemed too expensive by the government of the time.  The same fate that would befall the F-15 years later.  

Like the F-5, the Phantom is still being flown to this day.  A testament to how good this fighter is that it has outlived some of the aircraft intended to replace it.  

Douglas A-4 Skyhawk

While the F-4 Phantom II could be considered the "high-end" alternative to the F-5 Freedom Fighter, the A-4 Skyhawk could be considered the more "basic" alternative.  

Unlike the F-5, the A-4 is not capable of supersonic flight.  Nowhere near as sleek as the F-5, the A-4 was intended to be a simple ground attack aircraft, acting as a light bomber with nuclear capability if required. When viewed against modern multi-role fighters, or even some of its contemporaries, the A-4 seems rather unimpressive.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the "Scooter", however.  

The Skyhawk endeared itself to both its pilots and the USN.  Nicknamed "Heinemann's Hot-Rod" after its designer, the A-4 was engineered with the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) mantra.  Instead of requiring folding wings like most naval aircraft, the A-4 relies on a simple small delta wing and compact shape.  Early models reportedly cost $860,000 (not a typo) each.  Adjusting for inflation, you could buy 10 A-4s for the cost of your typical modern fighter.  

Cheap does not mean incapable, however.  

The A-4 had both a comparable range and payload to the F-5...  And by comparable I mean "slightly better".  It was also nuclear capable, a fact that likely kept many Soviet military planners up at night as them imagined hundreds of A-4s, each equipped with its own atomic warhead, entering Soviet airspace.  

While lacking supersonic speed, the A-4 was still extremely nimble.  It found use as both an advanced jet trainer as well as an aggressor aircraft.  It also saw plenty of export sales.  It was even briefly considered to replace the F2H-3 Banshee on the deck of Canada's HMCS Bonaventure.  

Did Canada make the right choice?

No.  Not really...

It pains me to say this as I have always been a fan of the CF-5.  It is a sleek, affordable little fighter, much in the same way as the modern-day Gripen.  Unlike the Gripen, however, the CF-5 lacked capabilities found in larger aircraft.  It offered little that could not already be found in the RCAF at the time.  While it was a fine fighter for the price, it was ill-suited for Canada's needs other than "filling out" the number of fighters Canada had in its inventory.  

Perhaps the CF-5's greatest legacy was allowing Canada to remain in the fighter-building business after the cancellation of the CF-105 Avro Arrow (more on that later...).

In retrospect, Canada seemed to have a rather odd mish-mash of fighters during this time period.  Neither the Voodoo nor the Starfighter were exemplary in their respective roles, and the addition of the CF-5 added very little to that equation.  

But what was the alternative?

In a "cost-no-object" world, the F-4 Phantom is the obvious choice.  It would have immediately rendered the CF-101 Voodoo and CF-104 obsolete.  It would have also cemented the RCAF's position as a top-tier air force.  This may have even led to Canada preferring the F-15 over the F/A-18 at a later date.  Unfortunately, acquiring a substantial number of F-4s may have been simply too costly for Canada's economic means at the time.  

On the other hand, the A-4 would have been even more affordable than the CF-5.  It also offered a superior ground attack and close-air-support platform.  The trainer version, the TA-4, may have offered a tempting alternative to the CT-114 Tutor (sacrilege, I know).

Perhaps if Canada had adopted the A-4, it could have taken some of the ground-attack mission away from the CF-104, allowing the Starfighter to return to its interceptor roots.  

Now imagine a world in which Canada had made the decision to procure and license build the A-4.  While it may lack the "sexiness" of the sleek CF-5, there has alway been a market for affordable light-attack aircraft.  This niche has pretty much been abandoned by the American defence contractors hungry in favor of trillion-dollar mega-projects.  One has to wonder how well a modernized A-4 would be received as both a light attack aircraft and trainer.  

Ideally, Canada would have made the hard decision to not just supplement, but phase out its rapidly aging fleet of CF-101s and CF-104s.  This would have been a good time to adopt a "high -low" strategy with small numbers of a top-tier fighter like the F-4 supplemented by a large number of A-4s.  This would allow the F-4 to handle air-superiority duties while the Scooter acts as a workhorse ground attack platform.  This mixed-fleet of two very different, very capable, aircraft may have given Canada a different perspective when it came time to buy a new fighter in the late 70s.  Perhaps we would have been more inclined to purchase a higher-end fighter like the F-15, especially if we had a modernized CA-4 boosting up the ranks.  

Looking back, the CF-116 (F-5) was...  Fine.  It just was not the best fit for Canada.  

The F-5 was a fantastic fighter for air forces of limited means tasked with defending a small nation.  Conversely, Canada did have the means to purchase superior fighters, combined with the need to defend the second largest land mass.  This resulted in an affordable fighter that, oddly enough, was not worth the money we spent on it.  


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