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F-X [1980]

A State Department report in late 1979 concluded that a new export fighter was absolutely necessary to stop more countries from turning to front-line aircraft. Also, the availability of such an aircraft would give the United States a more flexible foreign arms transfer policy to deal with friends and allies.

In January 1980, after months of interagency study, President Carter decided to waive part of his 1977 arms transfer policy to permit development of a new export fighter (FX). The new aircraft was to have capabilities between the F-5E and current U.S. front-line fighters such as the F-16A.

As conditions to this development effort, the government would not provide funding support, and the contractor would assume all financial and market risks. In addition, the aircraft could be sold only on a government-to-government basis through existing FMS procedures.

The fact that President Carter's policy restricted the effort of front-line aircraft seemed to assure a market for the FX. In contradiction with this assumption, however, was the guidance to all U.S. government representatives abroad that they could not initiate discussions on FX purchases (standard policy) but only respond to requests for information. This caveat should have been a good indicator of the limited government support for the FX program.

To meet the FX policy guidelines and be competitive in the FX arena, Northrop resurrected its dormant F-5G program. More guidance was received from the U.S. Air Force, which, in March 1980, was appointed by the Secretary of Defense as the executive agent to manage the FX program.27 The key factor in the developmental effort by Northrop was extensive research into newer avionics and engine technology, which was then used in the construction of the updated version of the F-5G. Totally financed by Northrop, this aircraft became the first major weapon system developed in more than half a century that was not directed and funded by the government.

On 8 July 1981, President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive No. 5, which superseded President Carter's arms transfer policy. Where President Carter preferred to view arms transfers as exceptional foreign policy implements, President Reagan chose to consider them an indispensable component of U.S. foreign policy and an essential element of our global defense posture. The FX policy was kept intact, and further development was even encouraged, with emphasis on less costly and sophisticated alternatives to front-line US fighters.

An additional indication of the Reagan administration's support for the FX concept was given by Under Secretary of State James L. Buckley during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July 1981. His statements explicitly supported the FX concept and encouraged production of the aircraft. For the first time, however, concern about the potential viability of the FX program was expressed in a congressional report to the same committee. Countries such as Pakistan were requesting front-line fighters to counter perceived Soviet threats, and a "momentous policy reversal" was seen as a possible result. Late in 1981, this latter perception was magnified when South Korea signed a letter of offer for thirty-six F-16s, with delivery to begin in 1986.

Encouraged by President Reagan's new FX policy, however, Northrop actively pursued the potential sales of F-5Gs to Taiwan, which, in conformance with Carter administration preferences, had not agreed to buy more F-5Es. This time, President Reagan rejected the proposed sale because of the improving U.S. relations with the People's Republic of China. Northrop was still not able to open up its production lines.

Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, in March 1982, directed the Air Force and Navy to select one of the two FX aircraft jointly for purchase by October 1982. (This direction was later rescinded.) The Special Defense Acquisition Fund (SDAF) was proposed to be used for the purchase. While both Northrop and General Dynamics were developing FX aircraft, Weinberger's selection criteria closely paralleled the design characteristics of the F-5G, leading to speculation that Northrop would soon be able to go into production. Even before the services could proceed very far with their selection process, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to preclude the use of SDAF funds for the FX. Once again, FX hopes dimmed.

Further complicating the support of both the FX and Northrop was an uncertainty within the government about its true role in the arms transfer arena. On one side was an effort to reduce the emphasis on exporting military aircraft. On the other side, Deputy Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci was encouraging more sales. In the summer of 1982, Carlucci sent a memorandum to the Air Force and Navy charging them to actively encourage potential foreign customers to procure FX aircraft.38 Then, only four months after the first memo, Carlucci sent a classified memo to the services abandoning the FX policy and opening the door for the sale of front-line fighters to other countries.

With these mixed signals coming from the Reagan administration, Northrop was obviously quite worried that its aircraft with the FX label would possibly have to compete with front-line fighters. In November 1982, Northrop requested that the F-5G be redesignated the F-20, reflecting the extensive changes since its inception and hoping to give it a new image.40 In December, Carlucci reversed himself again, after prompting from the White House, and directed the Air Force to fund a small number of F-20s in the fiscal year 1984 budget.41 This purchase was supposed to be enough to get the F-20 production line started while also displaying government backing for the aircraft.42 Once again, the FX was being pushed for export.



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Page last modified: 10-01-2016 20:01:37 ZULU