Atlas Cheetah, South Africa’s forgotten fighter jet

Draken International

This article was originally published on January 23, 2022. 

Private military corporations, in their modern form, appeared fairly recently. They proliferated in the post-Cold War environment, taking advantage of the privatization and outsourcing of functions previously undertaken by governments across the globe. 

One of their specialisms is dissimilar air combat training, so-called ‘Red Air’. A concept familiar to anybody who has ever seen Top Gun (1986), it pits fighter pilots against adversaries using equipment and tactics similar to those employed in real combat. 

Currently, NATO buys most of its Red Air services from a handful of PMCs which operate old, heavily modified aircraft flown by ex-military pilots. Draken International is one of these companies. If possesses various kinds of jets, from light attack A-4s to ex-Soviet MiG-21s. In 2017, it underwent one of its largest upgrades yet, by purchasing a fleet of Mach 2 interceptors called Atlas Cheetah. 

For a layman, the aircraft was pretty obscure. It was a South African design, based on an Israeli design, based on a French design. How could that happen? 

The birth of the Cheetah 

The story of the development of the Cheetah is more interesting than its operational record. As with many similar projects, the aircraft was a stop-gap solution, and like numerous stop-gap solutions, it became a near-permanent one. 

Between the mid-1960s and the 1990s, South Africa was involved in the South African border war, a conflict mired in politics, ethnic tensions and controversy. By the early 1980s, South Africa, under the Apartheid regime, faced international sanctions and had no opportunity to purchase military assets from abroad. At the same time, it was squared off against the Angolan army, generously supplied with Soviet MiG-23 fighters. 

South Africa’s own air force was unprepared for this. It was primarily composed of older British and French aircraft, with a handful of Dassault Mirage IIIs and Mirage F1s serving as main fighter jets.  

Only F1s could be considered modern by that time. They were delivered between 1975 and 1977, just before the international arms embargo on South Africa went into effect. The plan was to procure more than 100 of the jets, completely replacing the ageing Mirage IIIs. Only 48 were delivered. 

The IIIs, delivered in the early 1960s, had neither the speed, the maneuverability, nor – crucially – the adequate weaponry and electronics to combat the MiG-23s. They performed well in ground attack duties, but that was not enough.  

So, South Africa had to either create and build a new fighter jet on its own, or upgrade an existing one to meet the challenge. It went for both. 

The country had some experience in manufacturing jet aircraft. Atlas Aircraft Corporation – a government-owned company – had been producing MB-326 trainers on license from Italian Aermacchi. It even bought a license for the Mirage F1, but that was revoked due to sanctions. 

So the Atlas Carver project was initiated, a plan to build a home-grown fourth-generation fighter jet that could rival competitors such as the MiG-29 and the F-16. 

But even with significant investment and the hiring of a number of foreign engineers, the new aircraft would be ready no earlier than the mid-1990s. Without a quick stop-gap solution, the South African Air Force would remain outmatched for nearly two decades. 

The only way forward was to upgrade one of the existing jets to a suitable level. Luckily, Mirage IIIs had a record of such upgrades. Mirage 5, IAI Nesher and IAI Kfir were three projects that took the airframe of the Mirage III and adapted it for various needs by replacing avionics, weaponry and other components. All three had one thing in common: they were produced for or by Israel. 

South Africa already had a history of military collaboration with Israel, up to and including trading aircraft parts. So, the assistance in the work on Mirages was only natural. A secret at first, the involvement of IAI engineers became a widely-acknowledged fact later on, and resulted in the Cheetah being a near-identical twin of the Israeli IAI Kfir.  

The transformation 

So, how were Cheetahs born? An often repeated, but difficult to source fact states that South Africa took its 1960s-vintage Mirage IIIs and replaced approximately 50% of their components.  

Dog-tooth extensions on the leading wing edge were added, improving resistance to stall. Canards – small wings in front of the main wing improved low-speed handling characteristics even further, as did new strakes on the nose. 

Said nose received the bulk of modifications, as now it housed a new radar, a vastly upgraded cockpit and cutting-edge avionics.  

Three variants of the Cheetah were made: the pre-production Cheetah E, the twin-seat trainer Cheetah D, and the final Cheetah C, the latter of which became the main fighter jet of the South African Air Force. Es and Ds used lightweight Elta EL-2001 radars, while the Cs were fitted with much more powerful Elbit EL/M-2032s – the same radars used on the Israeli F-16, Indian HAL Tejas, and multiple other contemporary fighter jets. 

Cheetah C also received an upgraded engine, Mirage F1’s Atar 9K50, which vastly improved the maximum take-off weight, allowing the aircraft to carry more fuel and armaments. 

Further improvements were made by adding a full-fledged electronic warfare suite and new countermeasures. The Cheetah even had a helmet-mounted sight (an incredibly advanced system for its time and something that some 5th generation fighter jets lack) 

How did all these improvements affect the aircraft? It’s difficult to tell. Despite the investment, South Africa never used its Cheetahs to their full extent. After production they were relegated to interceptor duties far away from the frontline, while combat missions continued to be performed by Mirage F1s, Blackburn Buccaneers and other older jets. 

Mirage IIIs gained the reputation of being almost supernaturally good at the so-called one-circle dogfights, situations where, after passing each other, pilots would turn in the same direction trying to aim at the enemy faster than the enemy. It is likely that Cheetah only improved on this metric. After all, its twin IAI Kfir certainly did 

However, other aspects may have suffered. Cheetah had neither very good thrust-to-weight ratio, nor range. According to some of the people who flew the jet, it wasn’t as stable or as easy to fly as the Mirage F1. 

Can the Cheetah be called a fourth-generation jet? Fighter jet generations are a marketing tactic but they offer an easy and comprehensible way to compare different aircraft. 

One of the selling points of the Kfir is that, despite the outdated airframe, in terms of avionics and electronics it is a true fourth-generation jet. The same can be said about Cheetah. While it may have been a one-trick pony in a close-range dogfight, its new radar, electronic warfare and weapon systems could rival newer fighters, and even at the end of the 1980s that was often the deciding factor in a fight. 

The Atlas Carver project eventually failed so, for a while, the Cheetah remained the most modern aircraft in South Africa’s possession. In the mid-1990s, sweeping political changes in the country allowed the sanctions to be lifted, and the South African Air Force began shopping for a true modern fighter jet. 

In 1999 its choice fell on the Swedish Saab JAS 39 Gripen. Cheetahs faced retirement and some of them were sold to Chile and Equador, to supplement their own fleets of Mirage 5 and F1 derivatives. But, as already mentioned, Cheetah’s stardom came in 2017. After picking up 12 of them, Draken International added its own upgrades. 

They were the most advanced jets in Draken‘s inventory until 2021 when the company announced the purchase of ex-Norwegian Air Force F-16s. Cheetahs became a workhorse, used in training NATO air forces’ personnel in how to deal with dissimilar opponents, performing mock combat against alliance’s newest fighters.  

So not completely gone and not completely forgotten.  

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