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Denel (Atlas) Cheetah - South Africa, 1986

Detailing the development and operational history of the Denel (Atlas) Cheetah Strike Fighter Aircraft.

 Entry last updated on 12/14/2017; Authored by Staff Writer; Content ¬©

  Denel (Atlas) Cheetah  
Picture of Denel (Atlas) Cheetah

When introduced in 1986, the South African Atlas-Denel Cheetah represented the most comprehensive upgrade of the earlier French Mirage III series fighters.

The Denel (formally Atlas) Cheetah came about from a South African Air Force requirement to update or replace its series of aging frontline fighters as its bordering neighbors were receiving updated Soviet Bloc aircraft at the time. Unfortunately for South Africa, a blanket Western arms embargo limited the options available and, as such, the decision was made to modify existing SAAF Mirage III series aircraft (of French design) to a new modern standard. The end result would be what many experts have considered the "definitive" evolution of the Mirage III family as a whole - the South African initiative producing the Atlas (now Denel) "Cheetah C" fighter. For all intents and purposes, the Cheetah C is regarded as a comparative to the McDonnell Douglas / Boeing F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter.

It is widely believed that the South African Atlas concern received some level of assistance (at least initially) from IAI of Israel for two distinct reasons - 1) South Africa and Israel enjoyed a particularly close relationship during this time and 2) Israel had already garnered intimate experience in upgrading their own French Mirages through the indigenous Israeli "Kfir" fighter endeavor. This participation no doubt supplied a strong understanding when bringing about the new standard for the South African Mirage III. As such, the SAAF aircraft sports various proven Israeli elements as advanced avionics, all-digital systems and quality physical design changes to the airframe (the forward canards for example).

Though retaining roughly 50 percent of the existing Mirage III airframe, the Cheetah basically evolved into an "all-new" aircraft and appeared in a few variants made distinguishable by the identified single-seat or twin-seat derivatives. A fixed in-flight refueling probe was also added to the design for essentially unlimited operational ranges as was the inclusion of additional underfuselage hardpoints (wingtip hardpoints were trialled successfully for the Mirage IIIR2Z which would have become the "Cheetah R" dedicated reconnaissance platform but these never put into production). Higher rated engines were also added to the mix.

The resulting Mirage design was an impressive combination of speed and performance. Armament was centered around the modern multi-role theory from the start with standard twin 30mm DEFA 552 series internal cannons for close-in work and capability for air-to-air (Python/Darter) and air-to-surface missiles of various types. Other munition options included rocket pods (SNEB 68mm) and gun pods as well as conventional drop ordnance and guided bombs (GPS/laser). Two hardpoints were plumbed for jettisonable fuel drop tanks.

Externally, the Cheetah series managed an appearance not unlike the Mirage IIIs it mimicked. The aircraft retained many of its design lines and physical feaures including its long pointed nose cone, forward-set cockpit, side-mounted intakes, single engine installation, low-set delta wings, tricycle undercarriage and single vertical tail fin. Power was via a SNECMA Atar 9K50C-11 series afterburning turbojet engine developing up to 16,000lbs of thrust allowing for a top speed of Mach 2.2 at altitude. Maximum take-off weight was 30,200lbs.

The initial Cheetah would become the single seat "Cheetah C" that featured modernized equipment throughout and is widely considered as the ultimate product of the Mirage III family series. 38 of this type were delivered. There have been 16 "Cheetah D" (twin-seat trainer with secondary attack capability) and 16 "Cheetah E" airframes also delivered for a total inventory of 70 aircraft systems. The Cheetah D was the two-seat trainer with secondary-line attack functionality retained. The Cheetah E were airframes utilized as interim jets until the Cheetah Cs attained operation numbers. The proposed "Cheetah R" was never produced, the SAAF electing instead to outfit its existing strike Cheetah Cs with reconnaissance pods. Introduction of the Atlas Cheetah line as a whole occurred in 1986.

The Cheetah series has since been replaced in the South African Air Force with the arrival of the Swedish Saab JAS J39 Gripen next generation fighter, of which an initial batch were ordered in 1999. As such, the Cheetah family was retired from frontline service with the SAAF in 2008. Some ex-SAAF Cheetahs saw extended service lives in the inventories of Ecuador and Chile. Ecuador purchased 10 Cheetah C models and a pair of Cheetah D models after 2009 with deliveries commencing in 2011. Chile has managed at least five Cheetah E airframes since 2003. Both nations were operators of older model French Mirages.

December 2017 - Draken International, in the business of supplying air forces with "adversary services", has purchased as many as twelve ex-South African Cheetah fighters. The stock involves nine single-seat forms and three-twin-seat forms.

Denel Cheetah C Specifications

Service Year: 1986
Status: Retired, Out-of-Service
Type: Strike Fighter Aircraft
National Origin: South Africa
Manufacturer(s): Denel Aviation (Atlas Aviation) - South Africa
Total Production: 38

Structural (Crew, Dimensions, Weights)

Operating Crew (Typical): 1
Overall Length: 50.85 feet (15.5 meters)
Overall Width: 26.97 feet (8.22 meters)
Overall Height: 14.76 feet (4.50 meters)

Weight (Empty): 14,551 lb (6,600 kg)
Weight (MTOW): 30,203 lb (13,700 kg)

Power / Performance (Engine Type, Top Speed)

Engine: 1 x SNECMA Atar 9K50C-11 turbojet engine developing 16,000 lb thrust with afterburner.

Maximum Speed: 1,269 knots (1,460 mph; 2,350 kph)
Maximum Range: 702 nautical miles (808 miles; 1,300 km)
Service Ceiling: 55,774 feet (17,000 meters; 10.56 miles)
Rate-of-Climb: 46,000 feet-per-minute (14,021 m/min)

Armament / Mission Payload

2 x 30mm DEFA 552 cannons

Mission-specific optional ordnance can include any of the following:

Python 3 air-to-air missiles
Armscor V3B Kukri air-to-air missiles
V3C Darter air-to-air missiles
V4 R-Darter air-to-air missiles
U-Darter air-to-air missiles
Air-to-Surface Missiles
Conventional Drop Bombs (Iron, Cluster)
Matra Rocket Pods (68mm SNEB Rockets)
Laser-Guided Bombs
GPS-Guided Bombs
Reconnaissance Pods

Global Operators (Customers, Users)

Chile; Ecuador; South Africa

Model Variants

Cheetah - Base Series Designation
Cheetah C - Definitive Cheetah Fighter Variant fitted with contemporary avionics and weapons systems; Atar 9K-50 turbojet engine.
Cheetah D - Two-Seat Attack Variant based on the Mirage IIIDZ; canards; static inflight refueling probe.
Cheetah E (EZ) - Single-Seat Fighter; avionics and airframe improvements ; retains base Mirage III SNECMA Atar 9C powerplant.
Mirage IIIR2Z - Prototype Mirage III with wingtip air-to-air missile mounts; never put into production.
Cheetah R - Proposed Dedicated Reconnaissance Model based on the Mirage IIIR2Z testbed; sans cannons and inflight refueling probe.

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