Singapore Air Show

Thailand Shows Off Tiger Fighter Upgrade

 - February 10, 2020, 7:58 PM
Thailand’s F-5 Super Tigris fighters fly with 211 Squadron, part of 21 Wing at Ubon Ratchathani, close to the borders with Cambodia and Laos.

Making a debut appearance at the Singapore Airshow are a single-seat Northrop F-5TH and two-seat F-5THF fighters from the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF). The F-5 was once widespread throughout the Asia-Pacific region, including in Singapore itself, but numbers are dwindling. Thailand continues to fly a squadron equipped with the survivors of 40 F-5Es and six F-5Fs acquired in the 1970s. In order to prolong their usefulness and to maintain their combat viability, the aircraft have gone through the Super Tigris upgrade program, and they are expected to serve into the early 2030s.

Thailand acquired 40 F-5Es and six F-5Fs in the late 1970s, of which 12 single-seaters and a pair of two-seaters went through the F-5T/TF Tigris upgrade from 2003. Originally the RTAF planned to upgrade around 30 to equip two squadrons, but one of the units subsequently converted to the Saab Gripen C/D instead.

The current Super Tigris modernization goes further and brings them to a high equipment standard that the RTAF describes as a “4.5 generation fighter.” The upgrade of 10 aircraft was authorized in 2014 and another four in 2017. They serve with 211 Squadron at Ubon Ratchathani.

Both Tigris and Super Tigris upgrades are provided by Elbit Systems of Israel, drawing on the company’s experience with a number of other international F-5 update efforts, such as the Brazilian F-5EM/FM upgrade with Leonardo Grifo-F radar and Chile’s F-5 Tiger III Plus variant that has the Elta EL/M-2032 radar, both of which feature Israeli weapon options. Some years ago Singapore also upgraded its F-5E/Fs (as F-5S/Ts) with Grifo-F radar, Israeli missiles, and Elbit computers, but the fleet was retired in 2015.

The Super Tigris program has upgraded most elements of the F-5, including a structural life extension from 7,200 to 9,600 hours, giving them another 15 years of service, according to the RTAF. A revamped cockpit features two multifunction color displays, a new head-up display and upfront control panel, a new environmental control system, and a digital video recorder. The pilot is provided with Elbit’s DASH IV helmet-mounted sight.

In terms of communications the Super Tigris is equipped with ARC-164 Have Quick II jam-resistant radios and Thailand’s own Link-T datalink system. This allows the F-5s to be linked into the air defense command and control network that also includes the F-16s, Saab Gripen fighters of 701 Squadron, and Saab 340 AEW aircraft of 702 Squadron.

Super Tigris F-5s have a new radar that offers beyond-visual-range air-to-air capability and a synthetic aperture radar mode that produces high-resolution “patch maps” for accurate air-to-surface targeting. The radar type has not been disclosed but is widely believed to be the EL/M-2032. The Super Tigris aircraft can also carry the Rafael Litening III electro-optic/laser targeting pod and the Rafael Sky Shield jamming pod. Matching these new sensors are new weapons from Israel, including the Elbit Lizard laser-guided bomb. While the Rafael Python IV imaging infrared short-range air-to-air missile was introduced with the Tigris upgrade, the Super Tigris adds Python V and the active-radar Rafael Derby.

Thailand’s first Super Tigris was unveiled in a ceremony at Ubon Ratchathani by the RTAF commander, Air Chief Marshal Jom Roongsawang, on May 23, 2018. The occasion also marked the 40th anniversary of the F-5 in Thai service. During its career, the aircraft has seen action in border clashes with Cambodia in the 2000s, and in the 1980s clashes with Laos during the Baan Rom Klao conflict.