The Mirage III supersonic fighter line proved a popular product throughout the Cold War decades where Mach 2-travel was an important quality of many aircraft. Over 1,400 of the type was eventually produced in France and overseas and many subvariants and test platforms were born from the same sound original design. The delta-wing performer was a ground-breaking system for its time and made evermore popular by its combat performance in Israeli hands during the 1967 Six Day War. While retired from most major air powers of the world, the Mirage III still maintains a small footprint in inventories of a few select air forces today (2013).
Founded in 1929 by Marcel Dassault (born as Marcel Bloch) and based in Paris, France, the Dassault Aviation concern emerged from the devastation of World War 2 (1939-1935) to become one of the leading aviation companies of Europe. In 1952, the French government required a new, lightweight supersonic interceptor to counter the threat posed by Soviet nuclear-capable bombers and fighters. Dassault responded with their "Mystere-Delta 550" (M.D.550) concept which utilized a single-seat, twin-engine, delta-wing planform with single vertical tail fin. Power for the aircraft was served through 2 x British Armstrong Siddeley MD30R Viper afterburning turbojet engines backed by a rocket thruster. The M.D.550 achieved first flight on June 25th, 1955.
The M.D.550 product then evolved to become the "Mirage I" concept with a revised wing surface. This model achieved first flight in November of 1956 and set a maximum speed mark of Mach 1.6. While promising from a performance stand point, the Mirage I was not a realistic military-minded product which was intended to carry internal cannon, a useful fuel store, onboard interception radar and external missiles. As such Dassault moved on the slightly larger "Mirage II" concept though this was eventually given up for good with the dimensionally larger "Mirage III" design being furthered.
Based on the wartime German BMW 003 series turbojet, French manufacturer SNECMA developed its in-house Atar 101G-1 turbojet and a single installation of this system would power the new Mirage III airframe. The airframe retained the delta-wing planform seen in earlier prototypes and the single vertical tail fin with seating for one pilot. The fuselage was very slim and dart-like in its design approach, making maximum use of aerodynamics to achieve the projected Mach 2 speeds for the French interceptor. The Atar engine developed some 9,700lbs of thrust and offered afterburning for short bursts of concentrated speed. First flight of a Mirage III prototype was claimed on November 17th, 1956 while a tenth test flight netted a maximum speed of Mach 1.5. Testing indicated turbulent airflow along the two half-moon intakes aspirating the Atar engine so adjustable shock cones were added to each opening. In this revised configuration, the Mirage III reached a speed of Mach 1.8.
Impressed with the new Dassault product, the French government moved on ordering the type for service and this begat the "Mirage IIIA" preproduction designation. Aircraft would be outfitted with the SNECMA Atar 09B turbojet engine of 13,228lbs thrust. The fuselage was extended slightly to house the Thomson Cyrano air intercept radar system and a drag chute was added to reduce runway roll upon landing. First flight of a Mirage IIIA aircraft was in May of 1958 and the model eventually clocked a maximum speed of Mach 2.2 - fulfilling the French government's high speed request while also becoming the first European aircraft to exceed Mach 2 in level flight.
Following the limited batch of preproduction Mirage IIIAs was the combat-capable "Mirage IIIC". This was a single-seat, all-weather interceptor which first flew in prototype form during October of 1960 and was armed with 2 x 30mm DEFA internal cannons, outfitted with the Cyrano interception radar and provision for air-to-air missiles. The French Air Force ordered these in number and supplemented the type through the "Mirage IIIB" two-seat trainer. Mirage IIIB models included a second cockpit for the instructor, lacked the radar installation and internal cannons and sported a lengthened fuselage. Deliveries of Mirage IIIC interceptors to French units occurred in July of 1961 with orders also placed by Israel (Mirage IIICJ) and South Africa (Mirage IIICZ) by this time. Mirage IIIB trainers were also in use with the forces of Israel, Lebanon, South Africa and Switzerland.
Even as the Mirage IIIC interceptor mount was becoming entrenched in French air service, Dassault promoted a long-range, all-weather air defense/strike fighter (multirole) variant of the design as the "Mirage IIIE". The prototype first flew on April 1st, 1961 and included a lengthened fuselage with increased avionics and fuel, a Marconi navigation radar, Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) and Cyrano II series air-ground radar. The Mirage IIIE was outfitted with the SNECMA Atar 09C series afterburning turbojet engine and a total of three prototypes furthered the endeavor prior to production. After adoption by the French Air Force, the IIIE was also licensed-produced in the countries of Australia, Belgium and Switzerland while fielded by the forces of Argentina, Brazil, Lebanon, Pakistan, South Africa, Spain and Venezuela under various export designations. To the Mirage IIIE model was added the requisite Mirage IIID two-seat trainer form which was also purchased by Pakistan, Spain, South Africa, Switzerland and Venezuela. French Air Force Mirage IIIE models were cleared for nuclear ordnance.
As with other interceptor aircraft of the period, a dedicated reconnaissance-minded form soon emerged as the "Mirage IIIR". This variant offered the ground attack frames of the Mirage IIIE models with the avionics suite of the Mirage IIIC interceptor. They lacked radar under the nose cone and housed multiple cameras for photo-reconnaissance sorties instead. The Mirage IIIR was then improved through the "Mirage IIIRD" initiative. Reconnaissance types were adopted outside of France by the forces of Israel, Pakistan, South Africa and Switzerland.
The Mirage 5 was a related Mirage IIIE series offshoot and developed by Dassault to fulfill a clear-weather/ground attack requirement for Israel. The prototype went airborne on May 19th, 1967 with its lengthened nose cone (housing a simplified radar installation) as a single-seat, all-weather dedicated strike platform. Ultimately, 582 of the type were produced and examples fielded by France, Belgium, Egypt, Pakistan and several others. Due to French politics blocking the Mirage 5 to Israel, Israeli Mirage IIIs were evolved in-house into the excellent "Kfir". In French Air Force service, the Mirage 5 was the Mirage 5F. Belgian Mirage 5s were locally-produced and many Mirage 5 customers eventually saw modernized avionics introduced.
The Mirage 50 became a multi-role variant outfitted with the SNECMA Atar 9K-50 engine while reconstituting the Mirage 5 airframe. A prototype went airborne in 1979 and proved the design sound. Key to the model was its integration of a Head-Up Display (HUD), advanced radar system and improved flight dynamics (such as use of canards). The series was offered in a modernized form through the Mirage 50M designation.
The Mirage IIIV was another Mirage III form developed as a heavily revised variant to serve as a Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) fighter for NATO. However, the type was never adopted into NATO service and two manufactured, the first flying in February of 1965.
Current Mirage III operators include Argentina and Pakistan. Countries such as France, Australia, Egypt and Venezuela have since given up the Mirage III in favor of more modern alternatives or due to forced budget cuts. South Africa developed the French design into the Atlas Denel "Cheetah". Belgian Mirage IIIs were known as SABCA "Elkan".
One of the primary reasons for the global success of the Mirage III line was its use by Israeli forces during the 1967 Six Day War where it became a certified combat platform. Israeli success against enemy MiGs was much-publicized and solidified the type's standing on the global market, driving sales for Dassault in turn. While the type's delta-wing configuration made her slow in turning, the fighter excelled in other key areas that made them priceless commodities in the Israeli Air Force inventory of the period.