Lockheed F-13 Starblazer
The Lockheed F-104 was a great economic success, but its poor reliability record – over 400 crashes with the Luftwaffe and the RCAF alone – left it with such a bad press that planned sales to several Southern European countries in the mid-1960s – Italy, Greece and Turkey – were cancelled under heavy public pressure not to invest in the notorious widowmaker. The second-hand F-102s delivered by the USA were poor substitutes and only a stopgap solution, and late in the decade, the three air forces mentioned were looking for an advanced successor. Dassault was developing the excellent Mirage F.1 at that time, and Lockheed needed to react quickly if they did not want to lose the market to the French. They took the basic Starfighter, lengthened it somewhat and developed a new, significantly larger wing, which was installed higher than previously. The T-shaped tailfin/stabilizer arrangement was replaced with a conventional one, and the J79 engine was replaced by a more powerful and fuel-efficient TF-30 Turbofan. These changes addressed range (almost twice as long as before), maneuverability, low-level handling characteristics, runway length (barely more half of what was needed for a Starfighter) and payload (half again as much as with the F-104). The resulting plane was dubbed CL-1200 Lancer by Lockheed and flew for the first time late in 1969.
Although the Lancer was all the Starfighter could not be, the type still looked too much like the original to arouse much interest. A further improved version with an uprated engine, new air intakes and a larger tailfin, providing further improved maneuverability and more speed (Mach 2,5 was attainable, and the F-104s climb rate was now finally exceeded), was proposed in 1970 and marketed aggressively in Europe, as the USAF was still unimpressed.
By that time, the Italians and Turks were desperate to replace their decrepit F-102s and – after having been bribed appropriately, always a Lockheed specialty – asked Lockheed to install digital avionics and an integrated fire-control system with the latest air intercept radar in the Lancer. This resulted in a reshaped forward fuselage, and the resulting design finally impressed the USAF enough to order two for evaluation purposes in 1971. The plane received the designation F-13 and the new name Starblazer (‘Lancer’ was reserved for the upcoming supersonic bomber project).
One single-seat and one twin-seat machine were delivered to the USAF in 1972 and tested till early 1974; they were rated excellent fighters, but lacking air-to ground capability.
Even before the USAF had received its prototypes, Italy and Turkey early in 1971 ordered 165 and 105 machines, respectively, straight from the drawing board, to be first assembled and then license-produced by Aeritalia. Deliveries started late in 1973; by early 1978, all Italian Starblazers were delivered. The Italians used their F-13s as air superiority fighters only; they could carry four Sidewinder and four Aspide missiles.
The wingtips were usually reserved for Sidewinders; only the Turkish machines could fit the same wingtip tanks as the Starfighter, which however were found to adversely impact maneuverability and handling, and soon retired. The Turkish order of 105 Starblazers was completely delivered in 1977. They also were air superiority fighters pure and simple.
While Aeritalia geared up production of the F-13, more orders came in. Portugal, which never had operated as much as a transonic aircraft type, purchased 35 Starblazers to equip two squadrons in 1973. They also were built by Aeritalia, but unlike the Turkish and Italian machines, the Portuguese had limited air-to-ground capabilities. They were delivered in 1975/6.
In the same year, a major order over 80 Starblazers was placed by Taiwan. They were single-role fighters with US armament. Deliveries commenced 1975 and were complete in 1977.
Together with a Danish order for 55 Starblazers placed in 1974 – replacing the F-100 in Danish service, using Swedish-produced Skyflash missiles and offering improved multirole capabilities including the ability to fire Bullpup missiles and drop guided bombs – the Taiwanese order was enough to make production in the USA worthwhile, which started in 1975. The Danish order was completed in 1978.
The type was also chosen by the South Vietnamese Air Force, which ordered an initial batch of 40 (with full air-to-ground capability) early in 1974, at a time when the demise of South Vietnam was already imminent. Lockheed nevertheless built the planes, which were sold on to Turkey in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, increasing Turkey’s inventory to 145 by 1978 and making the THK the only customer to employ both the air-superiority and the strike version of the Starblazer.
South Korea ordered an initial batch of 50 in 1976, to be delivered whole from the USA; in 1978, another batch of 50 to be assembled in South Korea followed, and a third batch of 60 to be license-produced there was ordered in 1980. Deliveries started in 1978 and were complete in 1983. All South Korean Starblazers were pure fighters; unlike Denmark and Portugal, the ROKAF had enough Phantoms and F-5s for the strike role and used the Starblazer only in the role it was best at.
Pakistan bought 120 US-built air-superiority Starblazers in two batches in 1977 and 1981, deliveries being complete in 1984. The last Pakistani Starblazer was the last-ever machine of this type to be delivered to a customer.
Production at Lockheed, Alitalia and KAI yielded a total of 760 F-13s. Further marketing efforts were made, but Germany, Spain, Belgium and Greece preferred Mirages (Germany F.8, the other three nations F.1), while Koko and Iran ordered F-14s. The F-13 took part in the 1974 Fighter competition for the USAF together with the F-16, the F-17, the Vought V-1600 and a Boeing project, but finished fourth out of five competitors. Although the USAF wanted the F-16, procurement was deferred till 1978 because the government insisted on a joint Air Force/Navy project and the Navy insisted on two engines, which only the F-17 offered, which was eventually developed into the F/A-18 for both services. After the land version of that plane was sold to Canada, Spain, the Netherlands and Norway, and Japan ordered the F-15, Lockheed ceased to market the F-13 in 1985.
Although sales remained behind expectations, the F-13 was a popular plane with its users, offering low operating cost and an excellent availability rate, requiring little maintenance. The TF-30 was however no ideal engine for dogfights, as it reacted quirky to abrupt changes of throttle, and safety limitations were imposed which limited their performance envelope, which in theory was equal to that of the F-15. Proposals to exchange the TF-30 for a F-101 or F-110 were not followed through for budget reasons. During NATO exercises, the F-13 was usually outflown by the F-15, the Tempest, the Mirage F.8 and the Mirage 2000; it was however a superior dogfighter compared to the F-14, the F-18, the Hurricane, the Mirage F.1 and the F-4.
During their service lives, the F-13 received only few modernizations; externally they remained mostly unchanged. Most machines received at least one comprehensive avionics and electronics upgrade including a new radar and a glass cockpit; they also had their engines modified or replaced by an improved version of the TF-30, which however never satisfactorily addressed the flameout issues during dogfights. As new armament options became available, they were retrofitted to fire AMRAAM or Idra BVRAAMS, Maverick ASMs, and TV-, laser- or GPS-guided bombs.
The Italian Air Force employed the F-13 for an average of 27 years; between 1999 and 2006, they were replaced by JF-90s (which were dubbed C-90 Strale by the AMI).
The Turkish Air Force retired the last F-13 in 2010 after an exceptionally long average service life of 32 years; replacement with JF-90s commenced in 2004.
The Portuguese F-13s served even longer; at nearly 40 years, they hold the record among F-13 users, because Portugal was in a deep financial crisis during most of the 2000s and could not afford a replacement. As late as 2001, two dozen used Italian machines were acquired to be cannibalized to keep the decrepit F-13s aloft. The Portuguese finally accepted a lower performance airplane to succeed the Starblazer and acquired the Mako C from 2012, with the last F-13 retired in 2015.
The Taiwanese replaced the F-13 with Israeli-built F-21 Lavis from 2000; financial restrictions made for a low annual delivery rate, and the last F-13 was retired in 2010.
The Danes flew the Starblazer till 2006; replacement with JF-90 commenced in 2003.
The ROKAF started to retire its F-13s in 1997 already, after 18 years of service, in favour of the F-21 Lion (KAI license-built).
40 Ex-ROKAF machines were delivered to the Royal Thai Air Force in 2000/2001 after a thorough refurbishment job, with another 20 airframes donated for free to be cannibalized. 35 remain in service as of 2019, but an invitation to tender a replacement has already been issued in 2016.
The Pakistani Air Force also racked up an impressively long service record; they acquired 30 used ROKAF airframes in 2002 for cannibalization. As of 2019, 70 F-13 remain in service, upgraded with the latest Chinese AAMs, but the type is progressively being replaced by Chengdu J-10s since 2014, with the last machines scheduled for retirement in 2022.