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.