IAI Kfir (Lion Cub)
Multi-Role Combat Aircraft
The Israeli-originated Kfir multirole fighter aircraft was based on the French-made Dassault Mirage 5 series.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
The Kfir (translated to "Lion Cub") was a semi-indigenous Israeli fighter development designed to fulfill an IAF (Israeli Air Force) requirement for a ground strike fighter. While Israel had purchased and was awaiting delivery of some 50 new-build Dassault Mirage 5Js from France, an arms embargo all but cancelled deliveries. As is most often the case nowadays, Israel looked from within to find their solution and - through some inherent ingenuity coupled with a smattering of global espionage that would make James Bond proud - the Kfir was born.
In many ways, the Kfir became the ultimate development of the French Dassault Mirage III fighter line, though stocked with Israeli avionics and a myriad of airframe changes to differentiate the new aircraft form her French-based origins. Though commonly associated with the IAF, the Kfir has also seen operational service (albeit quantitatively limited) with Colombia, Ecuador, Sri Lanka and the United States of America (in the latter serving with both the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps).
Any nation with the relatively short military history of modern-day Israel knows a thing or two about what she needs to wage war. Essentially born into fighting for its sheer survival, Israel had long since relied on the purchases of foreign aircraft to fill the inventory of its Israeli Air Force and Israeli Defense Force. The country had already made good on the purchase of its first Mach 2-capable jet fighters in the Dassault Mirage III series, becoming the first such foreign customer of the French aircraft. The Mirage III was an all-weather delta-winged speedster that proved hugely successful on the open market with some 1,422 examples produced - no small feat in the post-World War 2 world. Israel operated the type throughout the 1960s and featured the aircraft prominently (with success) in the 1967 and 1973 Arab Wars as well as other less-intensive conflicts.
Such experience with the French system unveiled a few noticeable limitations when considering IAF needs. While a stellar air-to-air fighter, the particular Israeli Mirage IIICJs were not wholly-suited to the multirole requirements of the IAF. Additionally, the Mirage III was underpowered with her base engine and ill-suited for the required ranges in the types of sorties that the IAF would be partaking of in the near future. The Mirage III also required plenty of runway surface for its take-off and landing procedures. To top it all off, Israeli pilots had outgrown the usefulness of the original avionics suite.
Israel had begun receiving deliveries of Douglas A-4 Skyhawks and McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs by the end of the 1960s with both American-made aircraft proving quite capable in covering Israeli air defence/air superiority roles. Perhaps most important was the Israel right to license produce the excellent General Electric J79 turbojet engines that were powering its F-4 Phantoms - a fact that would come into play in the future development of the Kfir.
Initially teaming with the French firm Dassault Aviation, the two countries formulated a daytime ground strike version of the Mirage III airframe to be designated the Mirage 5 (original using the Roman "5" as in "Mirage V"). The Mirage 5 would feature a similar large surface delta-wing layout, a lightened maintenance load and an increased internal fuel capacity for improved range. Fifty examples of this new aircraft were made ready by 1968 but an arms embargo imposed by the French government against Israel the year before spelled doom for the deal. As such, no Mirage Vs were delivered to Israel but instead reallocated out to the French Air Force.
Undeterred, the Israelis set about fulfilling the IAF requirement through other avenues. This involved the brazen theft of some 250,000 Mirage-related documents from the offices of Luftech Corporation accomplished via the Israeli intelligence service. Luftech was subcontracted out by Sulzer Engineering Corporation in Switzerland, the latter itself signed on by Dassault to help in the license-production effort of French Mirages. Such covert actions proved a success and afforded the Israelis everything they needed to know about the French system.
Before time, a two-seat Mirage IIIBJ flew with its J79 turbojet engine in September of 1970. A two-seat Kfir prototype was made airborne on October 19th of that same year. An unlicensed copy of the Mirage V (known in Israel as the "Nesher") soon appeared and was re-engined with the J79, flying in September of 1971. The Kfir prototype was refined with new Israeli avionics, a reinforced undercarriage and a redesigned cockpit under the designation of Ra'am (or "Thunder"). This first flight took place in June 1973.
Engineering of the new system was accomplished in a relatively short length of time and, though a General Electric turbojet and Rolls-Royce turbofan were both considered for the new fighter, the finalized Kfir unsurprisingly fitted the proven GE J79. The Spey turbofan was of British origin and powered the British fleet of McDonnell Douglas F-4K Phantoms and Blackburn Buccaneers. As can be expected, the availability and local license-production of the J79E1 turbojet (regarded as the most powerful of the J79 engine line) in Israel made the decision that much easier. It did, however, force a stricter export policy for any future Kfir sales overseas - these requiring US State Department approval.
Selection of the J79 forced a complete redesign of the existing Mirage III airframe. The J79 was larger, shorter and provided for 11% more mass flow at the expense of higher operating temperatures than the original Mirage III powerplant. The fuselage was widened and shortened while the intakes were enlarged, the latter to profile increased airflow into the turbojet engine. The engine, in whole, was shielded with titanium and an airscoop was fitted to the leading edge base of the vertical tail fin to help with afterburner cooling. The added weight and expected field operations of the new aircraft were handled through a revised and reinforced undercarriage. A J79-engined Mirage IIIB served as another Kfir prototype, this time fitted with foreplane canards and strakes, and took to the air in 1974. When all was said and done, the Israelis had essentially gone ahead and produced an entirely new aircraft.
Production Kfirs began delivery to the IAF between 1974 and 1975, missing out on actions in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
The IAI Kfir sports a tail-less delta wing planform, basically defining it as an aircraft not featuring horizontal tail planes. The main wings, large in surface area and low-mounted onto the fuselage, dominate the design and provide the necessary lift and control surfaces. The wings themselves make up over half the length of the fuselage and feature noticeable sweep back along the leading edge ending in clipped wingtips and a tapered trailing edge with subtle sweep. The delta shape begins just aft of the side intakes and continue aft, stopping just forward of the exhaust port. The main wings are complimented (in most Kfir models) by a pair of smaller forward-mounted implements known as canards. Canards are used in aircraft to improve handling and provide additional lift at low-speeds usually supplying more inherent benefits than initially intended - sometimes none at all. The canards on the Kfir are mounted noticeably higher than the main wings and just ahead of the main wing components.
Part of the Kfirs identifying features include its slim nose cone leading up to the two-piece canopy covering the cockpit. The cockpit is situated well-forward in the fuselage and the sloping nose section aids in relatively unobstructed views both forward and down as well as above and side to side. The intakes are situated just aft of the cockpit to either side and are capped by internally-mounted inlet cones. The fuselage features a raised spine running from the rear of the cockpit to the base of the vertical tail fin. The tail fin is relatively large and sports sweep back along both the leading and trailing edges. The tail fin extends some length over the exhaust opening at rear. A thin ventral fin is apparent under engine exhaust port.
The undercarriage is fully retractable and of a conventional tricycle arrangement made up of two main single-wheeled landing gear legs and a single-wheeled nose leg. The nose leg retracts rearward under the cockpit floor while the main landing gear systems fold forward and toward the fuselage centerline.
Standard armament for the Kfir is a pair of 30mm Rafael DEFA 553-series cannons. Each gun is afforded between 120 and 140 rounds of ammunition that can be utilized to hit both the air-to-air or air-to-surface role with equal fervor. To compliment this armament, the Kfir can field various munitions along its five (or seven) external hardpoints with two at underwing positions and three hardpoints placed along the fuselage. The general benefits of the delta form allow for such increased payloads and internal fuel thanks to the added wing area when compared to that of traditional swept wing planforms.
For air-to-air sorties, the Kfir can sport the American-made AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missile as well as the Israeli-made Python family of missiles. Two of either missile can be carried aloft. For air-to-surface sorties involving ground targets, the Kfir is cleared for using the American AGM-65 Maverick missile. Combating radar installations is done through use of the Shrike anti-radiation missile. Rockets feature prominently into the Kfir arsenal and are made up of 19-shot launcher pods fielding 68mm unguided rockets. Laser-guided (Paveway) and conventional drop bombs (Mark 80, Matra Durandal) round out the air-to-surface toolbox of the Kfir. Hardpoints can also be utilized for "specialized" cargo depending on sortie type and include reconnaissance pods and drop tanks (the latter for increased range and loitering times).
The Kfir line has spawned into few known variants. While the original Kfir became 27 first-run production models, at least 25 five of these aircraft were leased to the United States between 1985 and 1989 for use with the USN and the USMC in the aggressor role. When in the US inventory, these Kfir's were designated as F-21A. American Kfirs differed in some respects with the most noteworthy item of note being the implementation of the forward canards for better handling, turning and lower speed control particularly during take-off. The success of the canards in these models proved promising enough that they were incorporated into the revised C.1 standard.
The Kfir C.2 was an improved form of the base C.1 production model, with the C.2 first flying in 1974 and deliveries beginning in 1976. She became the first official standard production Kfir with a host of aerodynamic changes. The leading wing edges now sported the familiar "dogtooth" design (dogtooth leading edges help in breaking up airflow over high speed wing airfoils and improve stall speeds some) while the forward canard's were part of the aircraft from the beginning and now featured a greater sweep. Strakes were added under the forward fuselage and her avionics suite was upgraded to fit an ELTA M-2001B ranging radar. The cockpit was also overhauled to include an MBT twin-computer flight control system, Elbit S-8600 multi-mode navigation and weapons delivery system, Taman central air data computer, an angle of attack sensor vane (fitted to the portside of the fuselage) and an Israel Electro-Optics HUD (Heads-Up Display).
The TC.2 became the two-seat trainer model based on the C.2. With the addition of the second rear cockpit (student and instructor sat in tandem), the fuselage was lengthened and the nose assembly lowered, the latter improving the front pilot's vision somewhat. In all, 185 C.2s/TC.2s were produced.
The C.2 was powered by a single IAI General Electric (license-built by Bedek) J-79-J1E turbojet engine. Dry thrust output was in the range of 11,890lbs while afterburner produced an output of 18,750lbs. Maximum speed was listed at 1,516 miles per hour with a range of 480 miles. The service ceiling was 58,000 feet with a rate-of-climb nearing 45,930 feet per minute.
The Kfir Tzniut was a dedicated reconnaissance platform of the C.2 production model.
The Kfir C.7 was a highly-developed form of the Kfir family line, becoming the new standard for all previous Kfirs and evolving the aircraft into more of a fighter-bomber mount. The C.7 incorporated a new and more powerful General Electric J79 afterburning turbojet engine providing better thrust output. Avionics were updated and improved and the cockpit was revised to incorporate HOTAS (Hands-On Throttle And Stick), the WDNS-391 weapons delivery and navigation system (for "smart" weapons delivery), Elbit 82 stores management system, video capability and an armament control display panel. In-flight refueling became standard fare (through probe or receptacle) and the maximum take-off weight (MTOW) was increased to 13,415lbs allowing for two additional hardpoints (bringing the total to seven) to be added under the fuselage near the intakes. An Elta E/L-8202 jamming pod could be fitted to the inboard portside wing pylon. An Elisra SPS-200 Rear Warning Radar became standard in later C.7 production models. The C.7 entered service in 1983, becoming the definitive Kfir in the group - not to mention perhaps the most potent evolution of the Dassault Mirage III family.
Performance specifications of the C.7 included a top speed of 1,515 miles per hour (roughly Mach 2.3) with a range of 548 miles. Service ceiling was listed at 58,000 feet with a rate-of-climb equaling 45,866 feet per minute.
The TC.7 was nothing more than a two-seat trainer version based on the C.7 production model. Nearly all C.2s were upgraded to the C.7 standard from 1983 through 1985 and included upgrading TC.2 trainers to the TC.7 trainer standard.
The C.10 was developed as an export version to rid overstock of C.2s and C.7s. The C.10 featured a new cockpit with two large multi-function displays, the in-flight refueling probe, Israeli Elta EL/M 2032 radar under a new nose cone and provisions for external drop tanks. Other remaining Kfir airframes were sold to South Africa to form the basis of their Denel Cheetah C fighters. Another export Kfir became the Kfir 2000 fitting Elbit radar, new avionics and a revised airframe.
The TC.10 proved to be the export trainer version of the C.10 and was essentially the export version of the TC.7 trainer. The Kfir C.12 became an upgraded export version of the C.7 production Kfirs and was generally similar to the C.10 sans the Elta radar suite. With US approval, 12 Kfir C.2s were sold to Ecuador in 1982. This delivery also netted a pair of TC.2 trainers. Similarly, 11 Kfir C.2s were sold to Columbia between 1988 and 1989 and included two TC.2 trainers. Sri Lanka became the final export customer of the Kfir with their purchase of eight aircraft.
Kfirs were first fielded in anger on November 9th, 1977, in a ground strike sortie against targets in Lebanon. Actions, once again in Lebanon, during the campaign of 1982 brought about more Kfir use in the ground attack role though the IAF claimed at least one air-to-air kill over a Syrian Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 "Fishbed" fighter, this made possible by a Kfir C.2.
Ecuadoran Kfirs were used against Peruvian forces in their 1995 territorial dispute, earning the aircraft three confirmed air-to-air kills. Ecuadoran Kfirs are primarily used in the interception and air defense roles but pilots are also trained in multi-role fashion and make up a multi-role air wing. Armament includes the standard pair of DEFA 553 30mm cannons with 125 rounds to a gun as well as the Rafael Shafrir infra-red homing air-to-air missiles. While these Kfirs do not feature the extra pair of hardpoints as found on the C.7, they are still potent enough and cleared for using a variety of conventional ordnance.
Sri Lanka has used their Kfirs against Tamil Tiger rebel targets to good effect.
With the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagles and General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons firmly entrenched in the Israeli inventory, the Kfir has since been withdrawn from active status with the IAF. Only some 230 or so Kfirs were believed to have been produced during her production run. Beyond its export use and global derivatives like the South African Denel Cheetah, the Kfir's footprint shrinks with each passing decade.
A common invalidated report concerning the Kfir involved J79 Mirage IIICJs with the name of Barak (or "Lightning") but this is thought to be nothing more than hearsay as no definitive evidence of such an aircraft has ever been uncovered. Other related reports place these particular aircraft in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 but, again, these are unsubstantiated claims at the moment.