The RF-5E Tigereye was a dedicated reconnaissance version of the F-5E Tiger II, and was originally developed by Northrop as a private venture.
Northrop had originally intended to provide only a limited reconnaissance capability for the F-5E by installing an RF-5A-type nose capable of carrying four KS-121A cameras. Such a nose was actually fitted to a few Saudi F-5Es, but the modification took 100 man-hours to perform and an even longer time to undo. By the mid-1970s, the nose of the F-5E was too small to carry the most modern reconnaissance equipment. In order to provide an up-to-date reconnaissance capability for the F-5E, Northrop decided to design a completely new nose section 8 inches longer than that of the F-5E fighter with 26 cubic feet of volume, nine times the amount of space available in the nose of the RF-5A. The intention was to produce a reconnaissance aircraft with the same capability as the RF-4E Phantom but in a much smaller, cheaper airframe. The intended market included those existing F-5E operators who could not afford to procure a separate dedicated type for the reconnaissance mission.
The test vehicle was F-5E 74-1420, which had been leased back from the USAF. It was fitted with a new ten-inch longer nose that provided 26 cubic feet of space for cameras. A KS-87B camera could be mounted in the extreme nose, which had an optically-flat viewing window. The twin 20-mm cannon armament was retained. 74-1420 took to the air for the first time on January 29, 1979, piloted by Darrell Cornell. Flight evaluation took place at Edwards AFB. Following the completion of flight testing, the aircraft was converted back into standard F-5E configuration and sold to Brazil.
While it was in principle possible to retrofit the TigerEye nose onto a F-5E fighter, this required the strengthening of several fuselage keel beams and was not a cost-effective option.
Northrop anticipated a worldwide market for between 100 and 150 RF-5E TigerEyes, but only a few were actually ordered. The first customer was Malaysia, which ordered two. Saudia Arabia bought ten. As a result, only 12 RF-5Es were built. Singapore converted eight of its own F-5Es to RF-5E configuration. The disappointing sales were partly a result of the cost of the RF-5E, which was 50 percent greater than that of a standard F-5E fighter.
80-333/334 Northrop RF-5E Tigereye to Malaysia as M29-19 and 20 84-194/203 Northrop RF-5E Tigereye for Saudi Arabia