After a fifteen-year effort Brazil has completed its modernization program for its 1960s era F-5 jet fighters. As of 2020 all 41 of the surviving F-5s have been upgraded to the F-5EM standard. The upgrades included structural repairs and replacement of worn components. As with all jet fighters, the jet engines had to be replaced periodically. This was not difficult for the F-5 which used two F85 engines that turned out to be one of the most popular and long-used jet engines ever designed. The G-85 was developed in the 1950s and is expected to continue in active use until the 2040s. One reason the F-85 is still around and continually upgraded is because there were commercial users and it became a popular choice for jet trainers. Over 12,000 F-85s were built before production ended in 1988. Since then thousands have been rebuilt to like-new condition for military and civilian users.
The modernization program began in earnest a decade ago when Brazil purchased an F-5 flight simulator and concluded that an F-5 with modern electronics made it capable of using long range air-to-air missiles, like the Israeli radar guided Derby, in addition to the short-range heat-seeking version of Derby. A look-and-shoot helmet is also part of the upgrade, along with a much more effective fire-control system. The original F-5 had less tech and could only handle unguided bombs and rockets. The modernized F-5 has only one 20mm autocannon along with the ability to use guided missiles and smart bombs.
The F-5 has been the primary Brazilian jet fighter for over 40 years. Brazil bought 42 F-5Bs in 1975 and 22 F-5Es in 1988. Most of the Brazilian F-5s were second-hand models which Brazil took good care of. With this major upgrade complete the F-5s will serve another decade or two and will be gradually replaced with 28 or more Swedish Gripen fighters.
The F-5s is a 12-ton fighter roughly similar to the 1950s era MiG-21, and is a contemporary of that Russian fighter. The F-5 was built mainly for export to nations that could not afford the top-line Western fighters, but did not want the MiG-21s. The F-5 is normally armed with two 20mm cannon, and three tons of heat seeking air-to-air missiles, rockets and bombs. Over 2,300 F-5s were built and they continue in active service with the Iranian Air Force and, in small numbers, with a few other nations.
Only Brazil did a major upgrade of their F-5s, which came in two basic models. There were 847 of the original F-5A/C aircraft built until production ended in 1972. In 1975 the slightly larger and much upgraded F-5E/F entered service. Production of these ended in 1987 with 1,399 built.
The Brazilian Air Force has long been the largest in South America. Currently Brazil bas about 200 combat aircraft and 300 trainers, transports and other support planes and helicopters. The F-5 work refurbishment was largely done by local aircraft firm Embraer and the Brazilian subsidiary of Israeli firm Elbit. This type of refurbishment has been popular with older aircraft, as it turns an aging airplane into one that can fight at long range, and is able to take on much more recent warplanes. Many of Brazils neighbors have some more modern Russian jet fighters. Currently northern neighbor Venezuela is threatening Brazil over territorial and other issues. In addition to some Russia Su-30s, Venezuela also has 21 elderly F-16s. Brazil, with more experienced pilots and F-5s equipped to take on more modern fighters using long-range missiles, is not intimidated.