The current planes operated by 23 Wing will reach the end of their life in 2028

The options that the Spanish Air Force could consider to replace its already veteran F-5M

This week there has been news again about the replacement of the already veteran Northrop F-5M Freedom Fighter used by the 23rd Wing of the Spanish Air Force.

The government will drastically reduce the fleet of basic trainers of the Spanish Air Force
The defenders of the skies of Spain: this is the fleet of aircraft of the Spanish Air Force

The useful life of the Spanish F-5M will come to an end in 2028

On April 6 of last year, the parliamentary group of the Popular Party in the Senate registered a question to the government about the alternatives it is considering to replace the aforementioned fighter and attack training aircraft. Let's remember that the first SF-5Bs (as they were called then) they began to arrive at the Morón Air Base in January 1970, 53 years ago. To this day, the F-5M are the oldest combat-capable aircraft in the Air Force. Despite this, and although it may seem disconcerting, at this point the government still hasn't has decided which aircraft will replace the F-5M.

Two SF-5B of the 731 Squadron of Wing 73 (today 231 Squadron of Wing 23) with the metallic appearance with which they arrived in Spain. The photo was taken at the Torrejón Air Base in May 1976 (Source: The Northrop F-5 Enthusiast).

This Tuesday, February 28, the Secretary of State for Defense, María Amparo Valcarce, appeared before the Senate Defense Commission to answer that question (you can see the video here). Valcarce pointed out that the Talavera La Real Air Base, where the 23rd Wing is located, is "essential" for the Air Force, and that "many years ahead of him will be working in the training of our fighter and attack pilots", noting that an investment of 25 million euros is contemplated in 2023 and 2024 for the maintenance of the F-5M, a investment that will focus on avionics and engines.

The government has not yet decided who his replacement will be.

Valcarce pointed out that they are working on obtaining a replacement, pointing out that the F-5M decommissioning date will be in 2028. He also pointed out that a document of General Staff requirements for the substitute for the F-5M, called "Integrated advanced flight training system for the fighter and attack specialty, substitute for the AE-09", the Spanish military name for the F-5M. Valcarce pointed out that the stage of defining the alternative is already underway. The PP replied to the Secretary of State that her intervention is "very good words, but what has been said tells us leads to continuing to have tremendous uncertainty", noting that with the current deadlines, the replacement could not be found by 2028 "not even with a miracle".

An SF-5B (A.9-018/21-73) at the Talavera la Real Air Base on October 8, 1990, with its old camouflage scheme (Photo: Lucio Alfieri / The Northrop F-5 Enthusiast).

In her response, the Secretary of State did not explain what alternatives the government and the Air Force are considering to replace the F-5M , and pointed out that "the Government's commitment is that it will be completed by the end of 2023, consequently, in 2024 we will have the issue mature in order to guarantee that in 2028 the new aircraft will be in the country for the training of our fighter and attack pilots". In other words, the possible replacement will still be decided at the end of this year, leaving only four years to manufacture and deliver the planes. Of course, we are talking about a more than insufficient period of time and that could leave Ala 23 without activity or at medium performance in 2028.

The AFJT, proposed by Airbus in October 2020 to replace the Spanish C-101 and F-5M with an aircraft that could be built in Spain. The Spanish Air Force showed interest in the project, but the government did not provide funds for its development and it has hardly been talked about again (Image: Airbus Defence).

AFJT: the Airbus model that has not been talked about again

Faced with the challenge of replacing the F-5M, it is worth asking what alternatives are on the market. The truth is that there are not many. We have already seen them here on occasion and today we are going to review them. There are four of them: the Italian M-346, the South Korean T-50, the Czech L-159 and the American T-7 (the Russian Yakovlev Yak-130, very similar to the M -346 and that in fact it started in a joint program with that model). It should now be ruled out the AFJT proposed by Airbus in October 2020, a project in which the Air Force showed great interest but the government did not , since it did not allocate funds for its development; now, almost two and a half years later, it would be too late to start developing such an aircraft from scratch. So, let's see what the four indicated planes are like.

Two M-346 of the Polish Air Force (Photo:

Aermacchi M-346 Master

It made its first flight in 2004, it is an excellent twin-engine aircraft and is one of the favorites to replace the F-5M. In 2020, and as pointed out by Infodefensa, a report by the San Javier University Defense Center pointed to the M-346 as the best option to replace the F-5 (the other two options considered were the T-50 and the YAK-130). The Master has in its favor that it is an aircraft manufactured in Europe, specifically in Italy. It has already been purchased by the air forces of Italy, Greece, Poland, Israel, Singapore, Egypt, Qatar, Azerbaijan, Nigeria and Turkmenistan. It can also serve as a light attack aircraft. It is a slightly smaller plane than the F-5M, at 11.5 meters long, but with a larger wingspan: 9.7 meters.

Regarding its performance, it can reach a speed of 1,066 km/h (it is subsonic) with a flight ceiling of 13,716 meters (in this it is lower than the F-5M) and has a range of 1,890 km, much more than the F-5M. It can be equipped with 12.7mm machine guns, a 20mm cannon, and can also carry conventional or laser-guided bombs and short- and medium-range air-to-air missiles. It has seven weapon mounts with a capacity of 3,000 kg (compared to the 5 mounts and 1,680 kg capacity of the F-5M). The price is about $25 million per plane.

A KAI T-50 Golden Eagle (Photo:

KAI T-50 Golden Eagle

It made its first flight in 2002. It is also an excellent aircraft. Unlike the M-346, it is single-engine. It has already been purchased by the air forces of South Korea, Poland, Indonesia, Iraq, the Philippines, and Thailand. Like the M-346, it can serve as a light attack aircraft as well as a light fighter: Poland has bought 48 to replace its MiG-29 fighters. Its fuselage is 13.1 meters long and its wingspan is 9.5 meters.

In terms of performance, it is faster than the F-5M: 1,837 km/h (Mach 1.5) and has a flight ceiling of 14,630 meters (in this it is lower than the F-5M). Its autonomy is 1,851 km , slightly less than the M-346. As for weapons, it carries a 20 mm cannon and has 7 weapon mounts with a capacity of 5,443 kg (more than the F-5M and M-346 combined). Price is about 21 million per plane, cheaper than the M-346.

An Aero L-159 ALCA of the Czech Air Force (Photo: Milan Nykodym).

Aero L-159 ALCA

An option that I have not indicated before and that I have not seen on other specialized websites either. The Aero L-159 ALCA is a Czech aircraft, derived from the Aero L-59 Super Albatros. It made its first flight in 1997. It has been bought by the Czech Republic and Iraq, and is also used by US and UK defense companies. Its fuselage measures 12.72 meters long and has a wingspan of 9.54 meters. It can be used as a light attack fighter aircraft.

In terms of performance,it has a maximum speed of 936 km/h (it is subsonic, like the M-346), a flight ceiling of 13,200 meters and a range of 1,570 km strong>. As for weapons, it can be equipped with two 20 mm cannons. Likewise, it has seven external supports with a 2,340 kg capacity (more than the F-5M) and can be armed with short and medium-range air-to-air missiles, rocket launchers, and conventional and laser-guided bombs. The price per plane is between 15 and 18 million dollars.

The Boeing-Saab T-7 Red Hawk (Photo: Boeing).

Boeing-Saab T-7 Red Hawk

It made its first flight in 2016, being the most modern of the applicants. It has been chosen by the United States Air Force (USAF) to replace its Northrop T-38 Talon , the aircraft from which the F-5 was derived and which serves as an advanced trainer there. It is a single engine twin drift aircraft. So far only the United States has bought it, although there is talk of potential sales to Australia and Serbia. Like the T-50, it can be used as a fighter and light attack aircraft. Its fuselage measures 14.3 meters long and has a wingspan of 9.32 meters, dimensions very similar to those of the F-5M.

Its performance isn't bad at all: it can reach a speed of 1,300 km/h (Mach 1.05) with a service ceiling of 15,240 meters and a range of 1,830 km. As for weapons, I have not been able to find much information. According to some sources, the plane carries a 23mm cannon and five external mounts, but other sources indicate that it does not carry weapons. If this is true, it would not be valid to replace the F-5M. The price per plane is $19.3 million.


Main photo: Ejército del Aire.

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