Cheetah Fighter of South Africa
In comparison with Dassault's successful Mirage series and other overseas derivatives, the Cheetah fighter is perhaps the least known. Unfamiliar to many, the Cheetah of the southern hemisphere was born in secrecy for political causes.
Caused by the long ongoing Apartheid policy, in November 1977, an international arms embargo, including combat aircraft and spare parts, was imposed against South Africa by the United Nations. Meanwhile, the increasing border conflicts posed to threaten South Africa's security, a mid-life upgrade of the survivors of 74 aging Mirage IIIs received during 1963-70 became SAAF's high priority.
Under embargo, the state-owned firm of Atlas Aviation (now Denel Aviation as an aerospace group division under Denel (Pty) Ltd.) was the sole answer to the ambitious programme, which aimed at extensively modifying the Mirage III into an efficient combat aircraft. Planned upgrades included a modified airframe, a new engine and better avionics.
Programmed launched with the assistance of Israel's IAI (officially denied) in 1984, as the Cheetah's strong resemblance of the IAI Kfir indicates possible Israeli involvement. First prototype redesignated "Cheetah" was rolled out in July 1986, it was a conversion of a Mirage III-D2Z two-seated trainer, and its initial flight took place in the same year. In the following summer, different conversions of varied Mirage IIIs became operational.
In addition to a longer nose, aerodynamic modifications feature Kfir-style small nose side-strakes to prevent yaw departure at high AoA, a pair of fixed delta canards on the upper parts of the air intakes, dog-tooth outboard leading-edge extensions, and short fences replacing leading-edge slots. Two-seaters also have curved strakes below the cockpit along the lower fuselage.
Structural modifications focus on increasing the minimum life of the wing main spar (originally set at 800 hours) have carried through several proposed progressive stages of modification with the intention of reducing fatigue problems and providing a life extension of up to 1,250 hours for a complete refurbishment with a newly manufactured main spar. About 50% of airframe has been renewed.
With the exceptions of two-seaters and R2Zs that are powered by a SNECMA Atar 9K50 turbojet engine (with a manufacturing license), the fact that other conversions retain SNECMA Atar 9C/9D turbojets is suggested by the absence of the large dorsal airscoop and smaller overfuselage airscoops of the Kfir (which is powered by the heavier, more powerful GE J79). Prior to the installation of the 9K50 in the two-seaters, the inlets and fuselage frames have to be modified. The installation of an IFR probe permits take-off with a lower fuel load and a relatively higher war-load. The probe is fixed to starboard side of the cockpit. Additionally, a single-point pressure refueling system is fitted, enabling times to be reduced (a maximum of five minutes for a clean aircraft).
Improvements in performance include reductions in specific fuel consumption (4%), take-off distance (10-20%), minimum speed (100 KIAS), time to climb and increase in specific excess power, sustained load factor and sustained turn rate (15%). The canards permit the maximum take-off weight to be increased by 700 kg for a penalty of fewer than 5% in level acceleration time and maximum level speed. The uprated engine also allows a possible increase in payload/fuel capability or MTOW.
The Cheetah's avionics upgrade may be based on the Elbit System 81 (or possibly upgraded System 82) weapons delivery and navigation system fitted to the Kfir C2 (or C7). The HUD, CTU and ADCP operate via a MIL-STD-1553B databus and allow for pre-flight programming and HOTAS pilot operation. The nav/attack system includes an inertial system and options include a helmet-mounted sight (of indigenous or Israeli origin) and a radar altimeter. The Kfir-type drooped nose houses an Elta ELM-2001B radar ranging unit which has look-down/shoot-down capability, but lacks the ability to fire long-range air-to-air missiles and a mapping mode. Similar to the Kfir, the Cheetah features a fuselage plug ahead of the windscreen to accommodate the extra avionics. Self-protection systems include an SPS-2000 RWR system with antennae in the nose and in the trailing edge of the fin and a possible jammer system in the former rocket motor fairing. A new ECS is also introduced to provide adequate cooling for the revised avionics.
Comparing to the Cheetah EZ, DZ differs mainly by having a longer nose, as that of the Kfir-T, with more obvious droop and containing avionics displaced from the spine. An undernose fairing directly aft of the pitot boom contains two radar warning antennae and a large cooling intake.
The Cheetah's fixed armament consists of two 30-mm DEFA cannon in fuselage underside. All armament of the Cheetah has been officially claimed to be of South African origin, including V3B Kukri/V3C Darter dogfight missiles, and potentially the newly developed medium and long-range AAMs such as the BVR-capable V4 R-Darter. Air-to-surface weapons include AS.30 ASM (possibly with an indigenous designator pod), cluster bombs, rockets and combined fuel/rocket pods. In addition to the five hardpoints inherited from the Mirage III, two more are fitted directly ahead of the wing/engine inlet trunking.
Eight Mirage III-D2Z trainers converted to two-seat Cheetah D standard made up the first conversions and became operational in October 1987. At least 20 Cheetah DZ trainers modified from the Mirage III-BZs, DZs and D2Zs had been produced. These DZs were formerly operated by No. 85 Combat Flying School at Pietersburg (now moved to Hoedspruit), and they played a pathfinder role for the single-seat Cheetah EZ fighter/bomber.
More than 26 Cheetah EZ/RZs converted from the Mirage III-EZs, RZs, and R2Zs were thought be built. These single-seat aircraft retain their original engines for economic reasons as the Mirage III-RZ and R2Z conversions retain their original recce configurations. Originally in service with No. 5 Squadron, the Cheetah EZs were then transferred to No. 2 Squadron "Flying Cheetahs" at Hoedspruit (now moved to Louis Trichardt) which Mirage III-CZs, BZs and RZs were considered inconvertible and were retired from service in October 1990.
By 1994, around 20 Cheetah DZs, EZs, RZs, and R2Zs were already retired and put up for sale. In order to fill the void, a programme to further upgrade the single-seat Cheetahs was revealed in April 1992, and a prototype based on a Mirage III-R2Z was built. This was the single-seat Cheetah C fighter, it features the advanced combat wing (ACW) which reduces supersonic drag and improves several aspects in performance. The ACW sports fixed wing leading-edge droop and an extended outer section of the wing to give greater tip chord. Other improvements include increased sustained turn rate by 14%, increased in-wing fuel capacity, increased MTOW and increased combat radius by 101 km. Wing-tip rails are added to mount two short-range AAMs for a weight penalty of 600 kg comparing to the Cheetah EZ.
A more powerful EL/M-2035 radar, a development of the Elta EL/M-2021B, was fitted with the Cheetah C. The radar enables the Cheetah C to be armed with the IR-guided U-Darter dogfight missile (that can be incorporated with HMS) and the R-Darter mid-range AAM. Thirty-eight of such type were produced between 1993 and 1995, converted from what rumored to be acquired from an undisclosed source (most possibly Israel). Furthermore, an engine upgrade for the aircraft has reportedly been undertaken with Russian help, which is to introduce the Klimov RD-33 turbofan engine that equips the MiG-29.
South Africa's withdrawal from Namibia in the late 80's of 20th century had eased the border tension with Angola, followed by the replacement of the Apartheid regime in 1994, which relatively had changed South Africa's defense standpoint and budget. As a result, the indigenous CAVA fighter program was dropped, as was the SAAF's requirement to acquire 32 advanced heavy fighters. However, the Cheetah's future looks gloomy as a new aircraft procurement, which included 28 advanced light fighters, was announced by the SAAF later. A deal to acquire 19 single-seat and 9 two-seat Gripens from the Saab-BAE Systems (now Gripen International) was signed in December 1999. The first two-seat Gripen is expected to be delivered in 2006 and all 19 single-seaters in 2010. Even though South Africa's policy of keeping a low profile on its military deployment has not been altered, but we can assure that Cheetahs' service in SAAF will ultimately come to an end by the time when a more capable fighter - Gripen leads the SAAF as the dominant regional air power in the first half of 21st century.
On 23 September 2009, the Ecuadorian Ministry of Defense announced that Ecuador had reached a decision to buy 10 ex-SAAF Cheetah C's and 2 Cheetah D's to replace its aging fleet of Mirage F.1JAs in one of the Ecuadorian Air Force's two operating supersonic fighter squadrons. After some delays, a contract was signed in December 2010. The three first aircraft arrived Ecuador on April 2011.
In 2003 Chile purchased five of the mothballed Cheetah Es and has also indicated its desire to purchase seven more aircraft, subject to the agreement of a suitable purchase price. The Chilean Air Force used the Cheetah E airframes as a source of spares for its similar ENAER Pantera. Chile retired its last Pantera (and closing of Grupo 4) from active service during 2007 following the retirement of their last Mirage Elkan on 2006
Cheetah C: a further upgrade of the single-seat Cheetahs; a new "Advanced Combat Wing" design for performance improvements; with a new EL/M-2035 radar and a new engine.
Cheetah D: two-seated trainer; conversion of the Mirage III-BZ, DZ and D2Z; longer fuselage and more delicate equipment; with a SNECMA Atar 9K-50 engine.
Cheetah E: single-seat interceptor/fighter bomber; conversion of the Mirage III-EZ; retains the original engine from the Mirage III; mostly retired or converted to C standard.
Cheetah R: reconnaissance fighter version; retains the recce configurations from the Mirage III-RZ and R2Z.
CHEETAH E/C SPECIFICATION:
Powerplant: one SNECMA Atar 9C rated at 41.97 kN dry and 60.8 kN with afterburning; or one SNECMA 9K-50 rated at 49.2 kN dry and 70.6 kN with afterburning
Fuel: internal fuel 2288 litres; external fuel up to two 1700-, 1300-, 1100- or 625-litre drop tanks
Performance: maximum level speed M2.2 (2338 km/h) at 12,000 m; maximum cruising speed 956 km/h at 11,000 m; service Ceiling 17000m