So just how much does a light fighter weigh? When does it cease to be a “light fighter”?
The Gnat F.1 weighed 4,800 lbs/2,175kg empty, had a maximum takeoff weight of 9,040 lbs/4,100kg and an engine putting out 4,705 lbf/20.9 kN maximum thrust.
The CF-5 weighed 8,681lbs/3,938kg empty, maximum takeoff weight was 20,390 lbs/9,249kg and maximum engine power with both engines at afterburner was 8,600 lbs/38.2 kN.
On the other hand, the original YF-16 had an empty weight of 13,600 lbs/6,170 kg, an all-up weight of around 37,500 lb/17,000 kg and engine thrust of 23,800 lbf /106 kN. By the time the latest Block 60 models were being produced those figures had risen to 23,800 lbf/106 kN empty, 46,000 lb/20,900 kg fully loaded and with an engine generating 32,500 lbf /145 kN of thrust.
What happened, and by what measure is an F-16 a light fighter?
The Lightweight Fighter (LWF) program was a U.S. Air Force technology evaluation program initiated in the 1960s. In part it was spurred by Major John Boyd's Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) theories of maneuverability. Boyd's design called for a small, lightweight aircraft, with a large, higher-lift wing to minimize wing loading, a high thrust-to-weight ratio, a gross weight of less than 20,000 pounds (9,100 kg) and high maneuverability.
Boyd and the “fighter mafia” were also concerned about the growth of weight and complexity of the modern fighter and saw the F-4 replacement, the F-15, as another step in the wrong direction. However, within the Air Force staff, there was a strong institutional bias against the LWF, which they perceived to be a threat to the F-15 program. To head off some of this suspicion, the program was renamed Air Combat Fighter (ACF) by the Defense Department.
It came to be a change of nature as much as a change of name. To meet the requirements of the Multi National Fighter Program Group (MFPG), a group of European nations looking for an F-104G replacement, as well as the U.S. Airforce the F-16 became more and more a middle-weight multi-purpose fighter. It has also been a hugely successful program, which has tended by its success to overshadow the market for a genuine light fighter.
The aircraft which most closely resemble a light fighter on the market today would be the Saab JAS 39 Gripen with an empty weight of 12,600lbs/6,800kg, max weight of 18,700lbs/8,500kg, and engine producing 18,100lbf/80.5kN of thrust and the HAL Tejas with empty weight around 14,300lbs/6,500kg, max weight of 29,100lbs/13,200kg and thrust of 19,000lbs/85kN. While they may seem light in comparison to a contemporary F-16 they are not in the category of a CF-5.
It can be argued that there are no real light fighters available in the Western market place. It is not because there is no place for them; rather it is that the place of the light fighter has been taken by other aircraft.
Countries that want a more affordable fighter can buy second hand F-16s. Those that want an advanced trainer can buy BAE Hawks, or if they want a trainer that costs more then a used F-16 they can look at the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master, or for even more capability, and cost, there is the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle. None of these, however, are light fighters.
Just what is the role of the light fighter? The Department of National Defence has outlined six scenarios, or vignettes, to prospective suppliers of fighter aircraft. Several of them could easily and economically be carried out by a light fighter. They could;
“Support a major international event in Canada, such as the 2010 Olympics. The CAF is being employed in support to a major international event being held in Canada. Canada's fighter assets are based in Deployed Operating Bases and/or civilian airfields that are closer to the expected area of operations. The Canadian fighter will be used to prevent disruption during a major international event held in Canada. Given an identified threat, the fighter will prosecute any potential land, maritime, and air threats. If an attack does materialize, the fighter, combined with other joint assets, will be used to maintain over watch and negate further attacks.”
“Deploy forces in response to crises elsewhere in the world for shorter periods (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief). Canada has offered CAF units to assist in response to an international, United Nations-led humanitarian crisis or disaster. Included in this response is a deployed expeditionary fighter unit, which will be based alongside of other assistance efforts. The Canadian fighter will contribute to stabilization and policing missions, in support of international aid efforts. Relief efforts are hampered by criminal activity and general lawlessness, which pose a threat to the successful execution of the relief assistance.”
Lieutenant-General Yvan Blondin, commander RCAF, has said that what he needs to integrate next generation fighters is a “a Hawk-like airplane, not necessarily with the radar systems but with emulators and a NGF cockpit, I could do my tactical training on that smaller platform and not have to do it on a more expensive NGF platform”. This is another role for the light fighter. (and a Snowbirds candidate as well)
Governments on all sides of the Atlantic have entered an era of austerity in defense spending. In Europe, nearly all of our major NATO allies have started cutting their defense budgets. In the United States, the Defense budget sequester is only the first step in across-the-board cuts in U.S. military expenditures. Financial and economic constraints on both continents could impede NATO's ability to provide security in the coming decade. Alliance members will have to find new ways to provide security with fewer resources. Canada will have to find new ways to reassure the US about the security of their northern border and to engage in the kind of coalition building which we seek.
A high-low mix of fighter-bombers would suit Canada’s needs and Canada’s budget. A basic aircraft in the 10,000lb/4,500kg to 20,000lb/9,000kg weight range with total engine thrust in the 10,000lbs/42kN to 15,000/65kN range, one which included in its design the concepts of low maintenance and low life-cycle costs would be an asset to the RCAF and a serious contender on the international market.