Weekend Wings #39: South Africa’s “Franken-Mirages”, Part 1 of 3

I’m sure readers know of Mary Shelley’s famous novel ‘Frankenstein‘. Briefly, Dr. Victor Frankenstein assembles a monster in the form of a human being, using body parts from “the dissecting-room and the slaughter-house”. Since then, the first part of his name has become a byword to describe anything that resembles a known thing, but uses parts from other things. For example, in the shooting world, a ‘Franken-FAL’ is a FAL rifle (like this one, for example) that looks as if it came from the factory as a complete unit, but has in reality been assembled by the owner (or an unscrupulous gunshop) using parts from different countries where it was made under license, some of them to Imperial measurements, others to metric measurements. Its conventional appearance belies the fact that it’s a conglomeration of bits and pieces from many different sources. There’s also a ‘Franken-Ferrari’, an authentic Ferrari body with a different engine in it (like this one) or a Ferrari engine in a different, non-Ferrari body. The term ‘Franken-whatever’ has been used in various fields.

I use the term in this article to refer to the front-line combat aircraft of the South African Air Force during the 1980’s and 1990’s. They began life as various models of the Mirage fighter built by Dassault in France. However, they were upgraded to so great an extent, using parts and systems from other countries, that they became ‘Franken-Mirages’; resembling their parent aircraft to a certain extent, but in reality very different planes. Furthermore, an effort was made to produce an indigenous South African fighter, which at first drew heavily on the design of the Mirages that were so well known in that country. I was involved with one aspect of that program. However, none of these projects are very well-known outside South Africa, and even within that country there’s a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion about them.

I’d like to clarify the situation. This article will provide background information on the South African Air Force (SAAF), and discuss the Cheetah fighter upgrade program in some depth. Weekend Wings #40, to be published next weekend, will discuss the Carver indigenous fighter aircraft program. Weekend Wings #41, to follow a week later, will describe South Africa’s efforts to obtain more powerful engines for its fighters, and examine some of the weapons, electronic systems and other equipment developed by the South African armaments industry to support all these programs.

The South African Air Force

The SAAF is one of the oldest professional air arms in the world, its origins dating back to 1912. It was established as a separate armed service shortly after the First World War, only the second air force in the world to achieve this (Britain’s Royal Air Force [RAF] was the first – by comparison, the USAF was only established as a separate armed service in 1947!) The SAAF served alongside the RAF, USAF and allied forces during World War II, growing to 35 operational squadrons, over 500 combat aircraft and some 45,000 South African personnel (almost half of them serving in the RAF and other organizations) by the end of the war.

Martin B-26 Marauder of the SAAF during World War II

During the Korean War (1950-53), the SAAF sent its 2 Squadron to fly with the the USAF’s 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing, operating US-supplied F-51D Mustang and, later, F-86F Sabre fighter-bombers. (No, the F-51 isn’t a misprint: the P-51 Mustang was re-designated the F-51 by the US Air Force in 1948.)

SAAF F-51D Mustang in Korea. Note the contemporary ‘leaping springbok‘ national insignia.

2 Squadron flew over 12,000 sorties in Korea, losing 74 Mustangs and 4 Sabres to enemy action and accidents, along with 34 pilots and 2 ground crew. More detailed accounts of its activities may be read here and here. It was awarded the US Presidential Unit Citation for its service in Korea. (One of the squadron’s Mustang pilots, Dennis Earp, who was shot down and taken prisoner by North Korean forces, would rise to the rank of Lieutenant-General and command the SAAF during the hottest fighting of the Border War, from 1984-88.)

During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s the SAAF bought a total of 77 Vampire jet fighters from Britain, including 27 two-seat trainer aircraft. However, they proved inferior to the Sabres its pilots had flown in combat in Korea. The Vampires were soon relegated to a support and advanced training role.

A restored SAAF Vampire T Mk. 55

Based on its Korean experience, the SAAF bought 34 Canadair Sabre Mk. 6 aircraft (probably the ultimate development of the F-86 Sabre) in the mid-1950’s to equip its front-line combat squadrons.

SAAF Canadair Sabre Mk. 6 in 1950’s color scheme

During the 1960’s, it was further expanded and modernized with several dozen French Dassault Mirage III fighter-bombers of five different sub-types (B/C/D/E/R), 16 British Blackburn Buccaneer S.50 maritime strike aircraft and 9 English Electric Canberra bombers. All of these aircraft types are shown in the photograph below.

SAAF combat aircraft of the 1960’s (click the image for a larger view).
Front row (on left): Mirage IIICZ interceptors.
Rear row (on right): from bottom, two Sabre Mk. 6’s, a Buccaneer S.50,
a Canberra, then more of the same types of aircraft.
Top row (facing camera): two Canberras and a Mirage IIICZ.

In the 1970’s these were joined by 48 Dassault Mirage F1 aircraft, 16 interceptors (the F1CZ) and 32 strike aircraft (the F1AZ, a model designed to South Africa’s requirements).

SAAF Mirage F1CZ interceptors

The license-manufactured Aermacchi MB.326 two-seat jet trainer aircraft (known locally as the Impala Mk. I) was also produced in a single-seat light strike version (dubbed the Impala Mk. II). 150 of the former and 100 of the latter were taken into service, making South Africa the world’s largest operator of the type. The Mk. II’s proved extremely effective in combat during the Border War, making many strikes against ground targets and shooting down at least six enemy helicopters (2 Mil Mi-17‘s and 4 Mi-24 gunships).

SAAF Impala Mk I two-seat training aircraft

SAAF Impala Mk II single-seat light strike aircraft

A number of other types of aircraft were taken into service, too numerous to list here. None were front-line combat planes.

From an aviation enthusiast’s point of view, it’s worth mentioning that for many years the SAAF was the world’s largest operator of the Douglas C-47 transport (known as the ‘Dakota’ in South Africa), with about 50 in service right through the 1980’s.

SAAF C-47 ‘Dakota’

I flew many thousands of miles aboard those C-47’s, including one whose logbooks recorded that it had dropped US paratroopers during Operation Market Garden in 1944! The SAAF still has about 20 of the upgraded ‘Turbodak‘ in service, with turboprop engines and an extended fuselage. There’s even a specialized maritime patrol variant of this aircraft.

SAAF ‘Turbodak’

The SAAF also operated many North American T-6 Texan training aircraft of various types, including Canadian-produced variants. They were known as the ‘Harvard’ in South African service. Some 550 were on strength at the end of World War II, although more than half were returned to the USA in terms of the ‘Lend-Lease‘ program. A further 95 refurbished examples were bought from the USA during the 1950’s.

SAAF Harvard training aircraft(T-6 Texan)

I’ve written more extensively about the T-6 in South African service here (with many more pictures). They were replaced by Pilatus PC-7 trainers during the 1990’s. Most of the surviving Harvards were sold on the civilian market, producing a flood of interest from US warbird enthusiasts, who bought many of them. Some were reportedly still in the manufacturers’ crates, having never been assembled! Needless to say, those particular examples were much sought after.

Purchases of new combat aircraft from abroad for the SAAF became almost impossible after the imposition of a mandatory United Nations arms embargo in 1977, due to South Africa’s racist apartheid policies. This led to serious problems during the 1980’s, when South Africa’s front-line Mirage fighter-bombers became outclassed in terms of speed, electronics and armament by variable-geometry aircraft such as the updated Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 and its derivative, the Mig-27, as well as Sukhoi Su-20/22‘s, that were being provided by the Soviet Union to Angola, with which South Africa was embroiled in a long-standing conflict over what was then South West Africa (today Namibia). For example, there were several incidents where Angolan MiG-23’s flew reconnaissance missions over northern Namibia, flying too high and too fast for the SAAF’s aircraft to intercept them.

Angolan Air Force MiG-23UB

Angolan Air Force Su-22

Furthermore, the Soviet Union supplied Angola and its surrogate Cuban forces in that country with one of the most extensive air defense systems in the world (indeed, some authorities claim it was the most extensive outside the Warsaw Pact, although I have my doubts about this). It included different models of air search and guidance radars, various models of surface-to-air missiles and cannon, and an integrated aircraft control and direction system to guide Angolan Air Force aircraft to intercept SAAF intruders. Notwithstanding these defenses, the SAAF did very well in the Angolan war. However, the distances involved, and the growing threat from more capable Soviet-supplied aircraft (often flown by Cuban or East German pilots, who were far more skilled and competent than those of the Angolan Air Force), meant that over time the SAAF’s combat role became more and more limited compared to that of South Africa’s ground forces.

(As an aside, one of the unforeseen consequences of its massive arms shipments to Angola was that the Soviet Union inadvertently became one of the largest arms suppliers to South Africa and its UNITA allies. For example, the South African Defence Force [SADF] captured so many Soviet anti-aircraft guns during the course of the war [e.g. ZPU-1/2/4 14.5mm. heavy machine-guns, ZSU-23-2 23mm. cannon, etc.] that at one time no less than three of its AA units were equipped with them, and the RPG-7 became [and remains to this day] its standard-issue rocket-launcher. South African industry produced new and improved ammunition for these and other Soviet weapons. UNITA’s tanks, artillery, trucks and other heavy equipment were all captured from Angolan and Cuban forces, and pressed into service against their former owners. Faced with the loss of air superiority over Angola, South Africa also developed innovative very-long-range artillery systems such as the world-famous G5 [towed] and G6 [self-propelled] 155mm. cannon, and copied [and improved upon] the Soviet BM-21 artillery rocket launcher to produce its Valkiri system.

G6 155mm. self-propelled howitzer

These artillery systems would prove vitally important in the 1987/88 campaigns in southern Angola, being able to take the place of tactical air support on many occasions. They were also widely exported. For example, Iraq bought 100 G5’s, almost all of which were captured or destroyed during the First and Second Gulf Wars. Fortunately for Coalition and US forces, the Iraqis proved much less capable of using them effectively than did the SADF!)

The SAAF was able to acquire a number of non-combat aircraft by various means, even after the arms embargo was enacted. For example, it had 7 C-130B Hercules and 9 C-160 Transall medium transport aircraft. It wanted more C-130’s, but from the early 1970’s the USA refused to sell any more of them to South Africa. However, Lockheed had produced several civilian models of the Hercules under the L-100 designation. A civilian airline, Safair, was quickly set up, and rapidly became the world’s largest operator of L-100 Hercules variants. (At one time I think it had 17 of them on its books.) Needless to say, much of its business came from the SAAF! This can’t possibly have been unknown to the US government (photographs exist of multiple Safair L-100’s on military airbases in Namibia, and US satellites surely saw them there), but as far as I know, nothing was ever said about it – at least, not officially.

Safair ‘civilian’ L-100 Hercules offloading troops and equipment

The civilian-model Hercules weren’t used to drop paratroops or supplies in combat zones (if any had been shot down, it would have been difficult to explain officially how civilian transports had become military casualties, and might have embarrassed the USA). On the other hand, they could (and did) take over much of the routine cargo and personnel transport work of the SAAF, thereby freeing its military C-130B’s and C-160’s for combat transport duties (at which they excelled, flying hundreds of missions into Angola during Operations Modular, Hooper and Packer in 1987/88 alone). Safair still exists today, and still has half a dozen L-100’s on its books, among other aircraft. It’s flown many missions for the United Nations in Africa, where the expertise of its military-trained pilots in rough-field operations is greatly appreciated.

The SAAF had to acquire more modern combat aircraft and systems to respond to the threat posed by Soviet equipment. However, as noted above, the arms embargo made it extremely difficult to obtain them from abroad. (Aircraft can be readily identified by any observer with an interest in aviation, so it would have been very difficult to conceal the type [and hence the origin] of new aircraft for very long. This would inevitably have led to international pressure, if not retaliation, against the supplier nation.) South Africa did not, at that time, have the industrial and technological capability to design and build its own modern fighter aircraft, so initially the SAAF’s only option was to upgrade its existing planes.

(The arms embargo, and other international political and economic opposition, explains South Africa’s paranoia about concealing the origin and type of its military equipment – a paranoia which continues in some official circles there to this day. The identity and quantity of armaments in service were concealed, details of their operations were not provided, and anyone asking what were deemed to be awkward questions – the sort of things that seem as natural as breathing to military and aviation enthusiasts in other countries – would probably face interrogation by utterly humorless security police. Those working in arms-related industries were relentlessly nagged about security. Foreign equipment, even if readily identifiable to the naked eye [e.g. South Africa’s standard-issue assault rifle, the Israeli Galil, manufactured under license as the R4], was renamed and declared to be a native South African product. Even if an observer produced proof positive [such as photographs, technical descriptions, or foreign newspaper articles confirming the purchase] that it was not a local product, he could be imprisoned for contradicting the ‘official line’. It was a ridiculous policy, but one had no choice but to observe it – or else!)

Notwithstanding the arms embargo, technological assistance was available to South Africa from other countries. The country was too important a strategic partner in the Cold War to be left completely isolated by Western nations. (I can recall a South African military command center which, even at the height of the arms embargo, had an entire room filled wall-to-wall with communications terminals linked 24/7/365 to the armed forces of every NATO country, and a few others besides. Operational intelligence and information of mutual interest – including details of military technology – was exchanged on a routine basis. The politicians in those countries were probably never informed.)

Almost anything could be had, for a price, from nations who needed South African raw materials, or wanted access to Soviet technology brought back from Angola. For example, South Africa was the first pro-Western nation to capture a complete SA-8 system, and the first SA-16 ‘Stingerski’ man-portable ground-to-air missiles, as well as the first examples of the AGS-17 automatic grenade launcher.

Soviet SA-8 radar vehicle at Rundu, in northern Namibia,
after being captured by the SADF in Angola in October 1987

Foreign intelligence agencies were happy to offer sophisticated technology to South Africa in return for access to, or in exchange for, such captured equipment. In addition, companies in countries such as Israel and West Germany were actively (and very profitably) involved in assisting the South African defense industry to upgrade older equipment and develop new, modern replacements, such as tanks (the Olifant upgrade to the Centurion), armored cars (the Rooikat), missiles (the V3B and V3C air-to-air missiles, the ZT3 laser-guided anti-tank missile, and others), and precision-guided air-launched weapons. Some of these systems have been continuously developed, and have maintained leading positions in their fields to this day. Finally, a worldwide clandestine network was set up to smuggle designs, components and information to South Africa for use in its weapons programs. Elements of this network were occasionally exposed, leading to incidents such as the Coventry Four, but the network as a whole was never seriously inconvenienced.

Three fighter aircraft programs were undertaken by South Africa to address the needs of the SAAF. The first was the ‘Cheetah’ modernization project, discussed below. A second, the Atlas ‘Carver’ (sometimes misspelt CAVA), sought to design a new-production fighter based on the technologies available to South Africa at the time. A third program, the ‘Super Mirage F1’, would seek to upgrade the SAAF’s fighters with more modern engines and weapons. Finally, a number of projects were undertaken to develop technologies, systems and weapons for these aircraft. The latter programs will be discussed in Weekend Wings #40 and #41.

The Cheetah program

In the early 1980’s, faced with modern Soviet aircraft and weapons in Angola and handicapped by the arms embargo, the SAAF had to act quickly to improve its capabilities. If it lost aircraft in combat it could not replace them, thanks to the embargo; therefore, it had to keep its combat planes as up-to-date as possible, to ensure they did not become so obsolescent that they risked being shot down in large numbers by more advanced enemy aircraft. Furthermore, it didn’t have a large number of combat aircraft to spare. It had only about forty combat-ready 1970’s-vintage Mirage F1’s. If it took them out of service to upgrade them, it had nothing with which to replace them except even older, 1960’s-vintage Mirage III’s, which were shorter-ranged, had less powerful engines and obsolescent combat systems, and could carry less ordnance. That meant any upgrade would have to be applied first to the older Mirage III’s, as they were the only aircraft that could be spared from combat operations for that purpose.

Fortunately, this wasn’t a bad choice at all. Two major aircraft programs had demonstrated what could be done by building on the foundation of the Mirage III. First, Dassault Aviation was by then producing the successor to the Mirage F1, the Mirage 2000, which returned to the delta-wing format of the Mirage III.

Dassault Mirage 2000-5F of the French Air Force

It had a considerably more powerful and more economical engine, greatly improved avionics and weapons systems, and a fly-by-wire control system, which together rendered it far superior to the Mirage III from which it stemmed. (It’s generally accepted that the Mirage 2000 is roughly comparable, in terms of its overall capability, to contemporary models of the US F-16 Fighting Falcon or the Soviet MiG-29.) The SAAF reasoned that if Dassault could develop the Mirage III into a fully modern warplane, they could do likewise. This was aided by the fact that in the 1970’s, South Africa had purchased a license to manufacture the Mirage III and F1, as well as the latter’s Atar 09K-50 turbojet engine. All the necessary plans were thus on hand.

Furthermore, Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), together with several other companies in that country’s defense industry, had produced a series of Mirage derivatives. Israel had purchased Mirage III aircraft from France prior to the Six-Day War of 1967, and had ordered a further 50 Mirage 5‘s (a simplified version of the Mirage III). However, these were embargoed by France after the conflict. Undaunted, Israel stole the plans to the Mirage III from Switzerland, which was license-manufacturing the aircraft (a Swiss engineer, the late Alfred Frauenknecht, would later be sentenced to 4½ years imprisonment for his assistance to Israel in that regard).

Israel used the stolen plans to develop its own fighters. The first of these was the Nesher, almost an exact copy of the Mirage 5 (indeed, it’s so exact that some sources suggest IAI actually assembled Mirages, clandestinely supplied in kit form by France, rather than manufactured the Neshers itself; but this is unproven). A total of about 60 Neshers appear to have been made, most of which were sold to Argentina at the end of the 1970’s under the name of Dagger (where they confronted British forces during the Falklands War). IAI went on to produce the Kfir, a considerably upgraded Mirage derivative with Israeli electronics and a US J79 turbojet engine (the same used on the F-4 Phantom II fighter-bomber, also operated by Israel).

IAI Kfir, in US Navy colors under the designation F-21A,
where it served as an adversary aircraft for Dissimilar Air Combat Training

South Africa had very friendly ties with Israel, particularly in the military field. Indeed, I was informed by authoritative local sources that the so-called ‘Vela incident‘ involved the test (with South African assistance) of an Israeli nuclear initiator device – i.e. a small, low-kiloton-range nuclear fission weapon, designed to ignite a much more powerful thermonuclear fusion weapon. Israeli-South African co-operation on this test was also alleged by convicted Soviet spy Dieter Gerhardt, who was certainly in a position to learn the facts of the matter. Furthermore, South African technological institutions such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and local defense companies such as Kentron (today Denel Dynamics), Reutech and others, were developing advanced radar and electro-optical detection and guidance systems. The latter companies in particular often collaborated with their Israeli counterparts (up to and including producing Israeli components and systems under license in South Africa). It would therefore be entirely feasible for the advanced combat systems of the Kfir to be ‘transplanted’ into the Mirage III’s of the SAAF, including local assembly and partial production if necessary.

Israel agreed to supply the necessary systems and components, and the go-ahead for the Cheetah project was given in the early 1980’s. However, in order to provide at least a measure of diplomatic and political ‘cover’ for Israel, it was decided (as with so many South African weapons projects) to pretend that it was an entirely indigenous development. Despite all external similarities between the Israeli Kfir and the South African Cheetah, officials in South Africa would steadfastly deny that the two aircraft had anything in common. Of course, this didn’t fool anyone with even the slightest degree of awareness for even a moment – which seemed to puzzle some of the officials concerned, who ‘bought into’ their own propaganda so completely that they regarded any dissenting voice as being guilty of high treason!

The SAAF made available a two-seat Mirage IIID as the prototype airframe, which was sent to Israel for conversion. There it was stripped down completely and ‘zero-houred’ – in other words, all components subject to metal fatigue or stress were replaced, effectively returning the airframe to a brand-new condition. An extended nosecone was fitted, derived from the Kfir TC.2 model, to house advanced electronic systems, and small canard wings were fitted above the air intakes to improve low-speed handling and angle of attack. (The canards on the D and E model Cheetahs were smaller than those used on the later Cheetah C’s, reportedly because it was too difficult to reinforce the fuselage frames in the engine intake area to accommodate the larger units. The Cheetah C’s used the same full-size canards as the Kfir; but their airframes were supplied by Israel, as noted below. Presumably they weren’t subject to the same limitations as the French-airframe-based Cheetah D’s and E’s.)

Here’s the only photograph I’ve been able to find of the Cheetah D prototype in Israel. It was probably taken in 1984/85. The conversion is still in progress – hence the incomplete paint job. Note the Israeli Air Force “Star of David” low-visibility roundel behind the canard wings on the air intake. The number on the tail doesn’t correspond to any SAAF Cheetah, and is presumably a false serial number to deceive unwitting (and unwanted) observers. (Please excuse the weird watermark obscuring some of the details on the photograph. It was on the picture as sent to me by a contact in South Africa.)

Given that the Cheetah prototype was converted in Israel, it’s very interesting to note the proposed IAI Nammer aircraft of the late 1980’s. Wikipedia says of it:

The IAI Nammer (“Leopard”, but frequently mistranslated “Tiger”) was a fighter aircraft developed in Israel in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a modernised version of the Kfir for the export market. Although a prototype was built and flown, buyers were not forthcoming and development was ceased without any further examples being constructed. The avionics of the Nammer were to have taken advantage of the work undertaken for the cancelled Lavi project.

As initially announced, the Nammer was to be an upgrade package for existing Mirage III and Mirage 5 airframes. Customers would be offered a choice of two configurations, one based around re-engining the aircraft with a General Electric F404, the other around retaining the Mirage’s SNECMA Atar engine but integrating the Elta EL/M-2011 or EL/M-2032 fire-control radar. The first of these options maximised performance and range, the second maximised the aircraft’s air-to-air targeting capabilities. As development progressed, the Nammer came to be advertised as a new-build aircraft with the EL/M-2032 an integral part of the package, and customers able to choose their preferred engine out of the F404 (or its Volvo derivative, the RM-12), the SNECMA M53, or the Pratt & Whitney PW1120. The design strongly resembled the Kfir C-7,but was easily distinguished by its longer nose and lack of a dorsal air scoop under the tail fin.

There’s more at the link. Wikipedia also provides this line drawing of the aircraft:

I can’t help but notice that, with the exception of the engine exhaust and a few related rear fuselage details, the line drawing above is virtually identical to the pictures of the Cheetah C and Kfir 2000 shown below. I also note that the translation of ‘Nammer’ (i.e. ‘Leopard’ or ‘Tiger’) is the name of a big cat . . . reminiscent of a ‘Cheetah’, perhaps? I’m willing to bet that Nammer and Cheetah were very closely related projects. (In fact, I wonder whether the ‘sole prototype’ of the Nammer might not have been the prototype SAAF Cheetah C (described below)? It would certainly have been a good cover story to disguise IAI’s involvement with the latter program. I can’t locate any photographs of the Nammer prototype online; but if any reader has access to some, I’d love to see them, in an attempt to clarify this possible link.)

Details of the weapon and control systems fitted to the Cheetah have never been publicly revealed by the SAAF, but it can be safely assumed they were identical to those found on various models of the Kfir. IAI lists them as including, in the latest Kfir version:

  • Pilot friendly advanced “Glass” Cockpit;
  • Hands On Throttle And Stick (HOTAS) operation;
  • Advanced multi-mode Fire Control Radar (FCR) with SAR;
  • State-of-the-art weapons delivery, including Beyond Visual Range missiles;
  • Digital Moving Map (DMM);
  • Electronic Warfare (EW) Suite.

I have observed such elements in SAAF Cheetah cockpits. I understand the radar used in the Cheetah D and E models (and in the Kfir C.7) was the simple Elta EL/M-2001B unit. I’m informed that the Cheetah C, the ultimate development of this project, used the much more advanced Elta EL/M-2032 . I don’t know whether this was later retrofitted to the Cheetah D’s, or whether they retained their less capable radar installation. Overall, the Cheetah C’s electronic systems were probably on a par with those of the F-16C/D Block 30/32 fighter-bombers of the USAF, as originally equipped (with the exception of a datalink [e.g. Link 16], which was not fitted to any of the Cheetahs).

The Israeli lineage of the Cheetah is clearly demonstrated by comparing the aircraft side-by-side. Here, for example, is the Cheetah D, the initial two-seat version of the aircraft.

Here’s a Kfir TC.2 of the Israeli Air Force.

Note the identical extended and slightly downward-sloping nose cones, to house the electronics; the canard wings above the engine air intakes; and the strakes midway along the nose cone. Note, too, the curved objects (strakes? fairings?) running from the base of the nosecone down and back along the bottom of the fuselage. The Cheetah has an air refueling probe on the starboard side of the cockpit, which is absent from the Kfir TC.2, but an identical probe may be seen on other Kfir models, as shown below. The rear fuselage is different, of course, as the Cheetah uses a French Atar engine, while the Kfir uses a US turbojet; but from the engine forward, there’s virtually no difference.

The intermediate single-seat Cheetah E model is shown below:

Here, for comparison, is the single-seat Kfir C.7:

Note that both have small strakes at the tip of the nose cone, identical instrument probes beneath it, and an in-flight refueling probe that goes to the starboard air intake, rather than behind the cockpit, as in the later Cheetah C. The Cheetah E also incorporates the Kfir C.7’s additional two weapons stations beneath the air intakes. I therefore consider the Cheetah E and the Kfir C.7 to be essentially identical from the engine forward.

Here’s the final iteration of the Cheetah, the ‘C’ model:

and here’s an IAI publicity photograph of their Kfir 2000 offering (link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format):

The refueling probes are different, but the noses of the two aircraft are, again, almost identical. (Note, too, their similarity to the IAI Nammer mentioned above.) Therefore, as far as its weapons and electronic systems are concerned, I consider the Cheetah C to be the functional equivalent of the Kfir 2000 (also known as the Kfir C.10: an interesting and very detailed analysis of this aircraft, which probably also applies almost word-for-word to the Cheetah C, may be found here).

The SAAF’s two-seat Mirage IIID variants were the first to be converted. This was probably for two reasons. First, and most pragmatically, the two-seat airframes could be most easily spared from operational duties. Second, they were probably urgently needed to replace the worn-out two-seat Buccaneer aircraft in the nuclear strike role (South Africa had six nuclear weapons, developed at the height of its political isolation and military struggle, which were dismantled in the early 1990’s). The Buccaneers had not been updated with modern strike systems, which limited their usefulness; so the upgraded Cheetah D’s would have been extremely welcome in this role.

Sixteen two-seat Cheetah D’s were produced, as well as 16 single-seat Cheetah E’s, the latter mostly converted from Mirage IIIEZ airframes (although some were reportedly converted from airframes supplied by Israel, due to a shortage of suitable South African Mirages). All had been delivered by 1991. Finally, 38 Cheetah C’s were produced under the auspices of ‘Project Tunny’. We’ll talk more about the background to that project in Weekend Wings #40, next week, as part of our discussion of the Carver program.

The Cheetah C’s were reportedly based on zero-houred Kfir airframes supplied by Israel, modified to accept the French Atar engine rather than the US J79. I think this must be correct, for two reasons:

  1. Most of the SAAF’s Mirage III’s had been delivered during the 1960’s. Some had reached the end of their fatigue lives, and were thus unsuitable for conversion. Others had been lost in accidents, and the Cheetah E conversions had absorbed many of the remainder.
  2. The first sixteen Mirage III’s supplied to the SAAF were ‘C’ model interceptors, with a shorter fuselage than subsequent models – too short to be converted into Cheetah C’s, which have a longer fuselage. They could not have been lengthened without a reconstruction so extensive (and expensive) that it would have effectively meant producing a new airframe.

Given these two facts, there would not have been enough usable single-seat Mirage III airframes left in the SAAF inventory to produce 38 Cheetah C’s. I therefore believe the reports that say Israel supplied the fuselages for the latter. Apart from the prototype Cheetah D, most of the conversions were carried out in South Africa by Atlas Aircraft Corporation (today part of Denel Aviation), with Israeli technical assistance (which decreased as local industry gained experience and competence).

The C models were delivered from 1993-1995, replacing the Cheetah E’s, which were retired. Some of the two-seat Cheetah D’s were retained in service as lead-in trainers for the C versions, and to provide a specialist strike function if required. A single experimental Cheetah R version was produced, using a Mirage IIIR2Z airframe, but no other reconnaissance versions were converted, and the Cheetah R did not enter squadron service, being retired soon afterwards. The reconnaissance function was taken over by Cheetah C’s fitted with pod-mounted cameras.

Vinten Vicon 18 Series 601 reconnaissance pod mounted beneath a Cheetah C

Some of the Cheetah D aircraft had been converted from Mirage IIID2Z airframes, which had been delivered with Atar 09K-50 engines in the 1970’s. Naturally, they retained these more powerful engines in their Cheetah guise. The remainder of the D’s, and the Cheetah E models converted from Mirage IIIE’s, retained their 1960’s-vintage Atar 09C turbojet engine, as local production of the more powerful Atar 09K-50 (used in the Mirage F1) had proved economically unfeasible – South Africa’s technological base was insufficiently advanced to manufacture all of the required components. In any event, due to changing circumstances (discussed below), the lower-powered Cheetah models would all be retired within a few years.

Efforts were mounted to obtain additional 9K-50 engines to equip the Cheetah C models. The Mirage F1 was operated by a number of other countries, including Jordan, Iraq, Morocco and Qatar, all of whom also purchased armaments from South Africa. I understand that one or more of those nations made Atar 9K-50 engines available to South Africa in return for arms shipments. (I suspect the most likely candidate is Iraq. It bought over 80 Mirage F-1’s from France, and, as mentioned above, obtained 100 G5 cannon from South Africa. Iraq was engaged in a war with Iran from 1980-1988. Since combat operations would naturally impose greatly increased wear on the engines of its aircraft, it could order large numbers of replacement engines without arousing suspicion. I have little doubt that some of these replacements were swapped for South African artillery and/or ammunition – probably at a very favorable ‘rate of exchange’, because South Africa needed the engines very badly.)

The retirement of the SAAF’s Mirage F1 fleet in the 1990’s was partly (although by no means exclusively) caused by the need to transplant at least some of their engines into the Cheetah fleet. The surviving F1CZ interceptors were retired in 1992. Some of their engines went into the Cheetah C program. The Cheetah D and E versions (which had all entered service by 1992) took over from them until the Cheetah C’s were ready. The last of the Mirage F1AZ’s were retired in 1997, after all the Cheetah C’s had entered service.

If the Cheetah aircraft could be said to have a major weakness, it was their engines. The Atar 9C engines used by Mirage III’s were rated at a maximum of 13,240 pounds static thrust with afterburner. The Atar 9K-50 engine of the Mirage F1 was rated at 15,873 pounds static thrust with afterburner, an increase in power of almost 20%. However, the core technology of both these engines was based on the German BMW 003 axial-flow turbojet developed during World War II. Technology that old simply couldn’t keep pace with more modern developments. The Atar 9-series turbojet engines weren’t nearly as powerful (or as economical) as the turbofan engines installed in more modern military aircraft such as the F-16 (later models of which use the General Electric F110, rated at up to 32,500 pounds static thrust with afterburner), or the MiG-29 (using two Klimov RD-33 turbofans, each rated at 18,285 pounds static thrust with afterburner – we’ll hear more about this engine in Weekend Wings #41). However, such engines weren’t available to South Africa at the time the Cheetah program was developed, so the SAAF had to make do with what it could get.

The Cheetahs used an upgraded wing, offering improved aerodynamic qualities compared to that originally fitted to the Mirage III. The wing design from the Carver program was experimentally adapted to fit the Cheetahs as the Advanced Combat Wing, or ACW. The line drawing below shows how more advanced Cheetah wings evolved, from the initial production variant to a final design with missile stations on the wingtips. The ACW was flight-tested, but never entered service. (Purists please note: the drawings are not to scale, and are not precise. I’m afraid I don’t have the space to post engineering blueprints!)

The ACW had a fixed, drooped leading edge. An early iteration (Version 2 as shown above) had a simple notch in the leading edge at mid-span, while a later model (Version 3 above) had a much wider slot. This permitted underwing mounting of the SAAF’s standard 500-liter (about 132 US gallon) drop tanks, which would otherwise have struck the lowered leading edge. Additional fuel tanks were incorporated into the drooped leading edge, which were claimed to improve the Cheetah’s radius of action by almost 100 kilometers (just over 60 miles).

The first ACW prototype was tested on the only Cheetah R, and a more evolved model was tested on a two-seat Cheetah D. The latter improved the Cheetah’s sustained turn rate by 14%, and permitted maximum takeoff weight to be increased by well over half a ton. It also permitted angles of attack up to 33 degrees at low speeds, with much greater stability, at the expense of a reduction of approximately 5% in the aircraft’s maximum supersonic speed. However, for budgetary reasons the SAAF declined to upgrade their Cheetahs with the ACW, and it was never put into production.

I have more detailed drawings of the ACW designs, as well as photographs of the trial versions, but I won’t reproduce them here for reasons of space. Here’s a contemporary computer rendering of what a version of the ACW with wingtip launchrail might have looked like if installed on a Cheetah C.

Official and unofficial South African sources claim that the Cheetahs were very successful, and popular with their pilots. Compared to the earlier Mirage III’s and F1’s, I’m sure this is true. Certainly, the Cheetah C’s were an order of magnitude more capable than anything preceding them in the SAAF inventory. I think that in terms of their electronics and weapons systems, they could certainly have matched the 1980’s-vintage MiG-23’s and -27’s, and Sukhoi Su-20/22’s, that the SAAF encountered in Angola. However, due to the lower power of their engines, I don’t believe they could have matched the Soviet aircraft in acceleration or top speed. Similarly, I don’t believe claims from some South African sources that the Cheetah C was comparable in ACM performance to the US F-15 Eagle. I’ve had the opportunity to discuss those claims with some of the USAF personnel involved. Let’s just say that their version of events differs from the South African perspective! I also note that visiting pilots from several foreign air forces, whilst praising the quality of SAAF pilots – who, at least during my time in that country, were world-class by anyone’s standards – have nevertheless reported that the Cheetahs could not gain or maintain dominance over true fourth generation fighter aircraft. (See, for example, this account by a Russian pilot – scroll down the page to the relevant section.)

SAAF Cheetah C flying over USS Forrest Sherman off Cape Town in 2007
(Click the image for a larger view)

Overall, given its inherent limitations, I think the Cheetah program was a success, albeit at a very high price indeed. Including all research, development, tooling, purchase and production expenses, and averaging them across the 71 aircraft produced (16 D’s, 16 E’s, 38 C’s and a single R – the latter not entering service), each Cheetah cost South Africa well over twice the price of a brand-new contemporary equivalent (e.g. the Mirage 2000) on the open market. However, in a sanctions environment, there was no alternative, so at the time, these costs were a necessary evil that had to be borne. The program updated obsolescent third-generation combat aircraft to fourth-generation standards as far as their weapons and electronic systems were concerned, and provided the SAAF with an aircraft capable of handling any regional threat at the time. Fortunately, with the end of the Angolan War in the late 1980’s, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, and the end of apartheid in 1994, no more sophisticated threats arose that would have required a more technologically advanced response.

Here’s a video clip of SAAF Cheetah C’s (filmed from a two-seat Cheetah D) shortly before the type was retired from service. I apologize for the musical soundtrack . . . some people never know when to post a video ‘as is’ and leave out the crappy music!

During the 1990’s the SAAF found itself in a budgetary crisis. Not surprisingly, the first democratically-elected post-apartheid government prioritized restoring balance to political, economic and social structures warped by decades of institutionalized racial discrimination. Funding was directed largely to such efforts. Furthermore, the military threats facing the country had almost completely evaporated, compared to the days of the Border War and international sanctions, which had driven the Cheetah program from its inception. There was no longer a pressing need for combat aircraft, but a very great need to conserve the SAAF’s much more restricted budget. The number of front-line aircraft was therefore slashed. Only one squadron was retained, operating 28 Cheetahs (a mixture of single-seat C’s and two-seat D’s, all powered by Atar 09K50 engines). The remainder of the Cheetah fleet was retired from SAAF service. A couple were used as development aircraft, but most were placed in storage. Some were later sold to other nations. The last Cheetahs were retired in 2008, and are presently being replaced by 26 Saab Gripen multi-role fighters.

SAAF Saab Gripen fighter over Cape Town

Sadly, these reductions in force and budgetary constraints caused major problems for the SAAF in retaining the services of its highly qualified and skilled pilots. Many of them saw no future for themselves in the new climate of politically correct restructuring, and resigned to pursue more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. Some became mercenary pilots of combat aircraft for other nations and/or organizations, where their superior flying skills and combat experience were greatly appreciated and well compensated. (One of them, reported by some sources to be a former SAAF Colonel, made international headlines at the turn of the century during the conflict in Sierra Leone.)

The SAAF’s budgetary and personnel problems have not abated with the advent of a new century. It was reported last year that the service had only 8 trained pilots for its Saab Gripen fighters, down from 30 pilots in 2005 and 20 in 2008. The SAAF is presently in the midst of a crisis as far as trained personnel are concerned . . . a very sad situation for a service that only two decades ago boasted pilots equal to, if not better than, those of most first-class air forces, including the USAF. I personally doubt whether the SAAF will ever regain the very high standards it had attained by the end of the Border War in the 1980’s.

Next week, in Weekend Wings #40, I’ll examine the Atlas Carver project to develop an indigenous South African fighter aircraft. The following week, in Weekend Wings #41, I’ll discuss efforts to re-engine the SAAF’s Mirages and Cheetahs, and look at related weapons and systems developed by South Africa’s armaments industry. All of them are very interesting from an aviation perspective. Some of the weapons systems in particular are now in the hands of powers who are not exactly well disposed towards the West. As such, they’re of direct and immediate concern to the United States’ armed forces, who may find themselves confronting them one day.



  1. A first-rate post and fascinating read. Obviously the result of a great deal of hard work. Thanks much.

  2. Great post Peter, I actually remember seeing an Avro-Shackleton in Jo-berg in 1975 when we were down there. If I remember correctly, THAT was the maritime patrol aircraft they used. I key point you covered very well is the cross/co-development with the Israelis, they have done a LOT of this stuff with a number of different airframes! thanks!

  3. @Old NFO: Yes, the SAAF used Avro Shackleton's until the early 1980's, when they had to be retired due to reaching the end of their fatigue life. (Their wings had already been re-sparred once, and it wasn't economical to do it again.) Thereafter the long-range, armed maritime patrol mission was over for the SAAF. It used Piaggio P-166's and modified C-47's, as mentioned, to perform coastal patrols, but abandoned airborne anti-shipping and ASW missions.

  4. Hello,
    Generally a good review but contains a few inaccuracies. The canards used in the Cheetah are different to the Kfir.
    There are other differences not mentioned / realised – the Cheetah has a 58cm plug added between the air intake and cockpit to house EW systems and other avionics(easily visible when compring the Cheetah and the Kfri C10). This extra half meter addition to the length of te jet changed the centre of balance hence the different canard design.
    As such it has for example a major advantage over say the F16 which has to use an external pod to carry EW systems because the Cheetah's EW system is internal. Therefore comparing it to a Block 30 F16 is perhaps a poor comparison.
    A good reference is: http://img.ipmssa.za.org/index.php/knowledge-base-mainmenu-28/aircraft-mainmenu-69/153-denel-aviation-cheetah?start=1)

    Secondly it is entirely feesible that the Cheetah could defeat the F15 in ACM as the SAAF were using a helmet mounted sight for their missiles since the 1970's (the first air force in the world to use it operationally I believe – although the USAF had tested previously). At the time no USAF aircarft used a helmet mounted sight (as far as I know) so it would have been like taking a knife to gun fight (despite the disadvantage of the Cheetah engines).

  5. @ Anonymous on 5/26/2012 at 12.09 p.m.: Interesting points, but I don't agree.

    The internal EW installation on the Cheetah C was also a feature of the Israeli Nammer design, as can be verified from the line drawing of the latter above. Since the Cheetah C's were based on Kfir airframes, modified in Israel, I presume the latest-model Kfirs would have had a similar fuselage extension. You're right, however, that earlier model Kfirs did not have such an extension.

    Second, the helmet-mounted sight (discussed in Weekend Wings #41) worked only with the visual-range V-series missiles, not with longer-ranged weapons such as Sparrow and AMRAAM used by USAF F-15's. I'm informed that the latter missiles, particularly when coupled with the F-15's vastly more capable radar system, were invariably successful in 'downing' (for exercise purposes) the SAAF Cheetahs. On the other hand, when the USAF F-15's were deliberately handicapped by being restricted to a visual-range-only combat scenario, that took away their long-range advantage. Even so, their AIM-9X Sidewinders were vastly more capable than the SAAF V-series missiles, and would probably have dominated in a real fight where exercise rules and restrictions are moot.

  6. Peter, great writing…

    I have a question for you…do you know anything about the SA/IAI effort of modifying a Boeing 707 into a refueling tanker for the SAAF? Timeframe was the late 70's and used refueling pods initially used by SAAF Buccaneer aircraft.

  7. No, this was the forerunner to that effort, or should I say, the initial prototype development effort. It involved a single 707 airframe and used the British pods from the SAAF Buccaneer aircraft. It was in the mid-to-late 70's. The end result was the supply of the newer 707s with IAI-produced US pods.

  8. I'd not heard of that program, I'm afraid – but then, in the 1970's I wasn't involved in aviation programs at all. Interesting to hear about it, though. I'll see if I can find out anything more.

  9. Cheetah c are now part of tue Ecuadorian air force,we are proud of them,We have kfir c-10,also,they are about the same,but I prefer Cheetahs.greetings.

  10. Don't mean to be picky, but no one flew alongside the USAF in WWII, because it didn't exist (you even noted that earlier, saying it formed in '47). It was the Army Air Corps during WWII. My father was a 21 year old B-17 pilot, flying out of Eye Airfield in England, bombing Germany (mostly) during the day (the Brits bombed during the night). After the war, he flew B-47s and then B-52s for the USAF, in the Strategic Air Command (SAC).

    As a civilian (I can't recall if they re-activated his commission as a captain when he flew B-52s before), he flew missions over Cuba with the USAF out of MacDill AFB in Tampa, FL just prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The company he worked for (as a pilot), Sperry Rand Corp., had a division that specialized in aerial infra-red photography. My father had experience flying that equipment, so the Air Force used him to fly missions over Cuba, filming the missile sites through cloud cover and (IIRC) at night, as the missile sites did not cool as quickly as the surrounding terrain.

    Just before the embargo and crisis, he had us (mother and four kids) move back up to New York, in case MacDill was attacked by those missiles.

  11. I loved this series of posts- it's a fascinating look into a period and place most Americans dismiss as "bad."

    And today, I came across some interesting news: Cheetahs may be coming to America to fly!


    Interestingly, at War is Boring writer Robert Beckhausen says "It’s not clear whether any Cheetahs saw combat — and available sources indicate they didn’t." but he does not specify whether that was in the air-to-air or strike role.

    More information here at this blog, too: http://thebadpilotsblog.blogspot.com/2015/07/rare-aircraft-atlas-cheetah.html

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