The Cheetah Was South Africa’s ‘Good Enough’ Fighter
Little-known fighter will now serve with a company that flies as simulated bad guys
Draken International, a Florida-based company which bills itself as the world’s largest private air force, will buy 12 Atlas Cheetah jet fighters from the South African arms company Denel. The addition of the Cheetah will add another warplane type to Draken’s inventory, and could soon see action in mock air-to-air battles with the U.S. military.
The Cheetah is an odd choice for a “red air” — or opposition force — training plane, Draken’s primary service, and the purchase gives new life to a rare jet that is only still flying in active military service in Ecuador. There are only a handful of them left in the world. Only 70 were built, and it appears that only 24 still exist.
So, the Cheetah was not a spectacular aircraft. But it was more or less “good enough” during its time, given the prior circumstances of the South African Air Force.
During the 1980s, South Africa had difficulty finding arms suppliers because of international sanctions targeting the Apartheid regime. At the same time, the regime faced an insurgency in occupied South West Africa — future Namibia — amplified by the ouster of Portugal’s colonial possessions in the Angolan War of Independence.
In Angola’s post-colonial civil war, Cuba intervened and brought its MiG-23s to the conflict. These sleek fighters were more than a match for the SAAF. So, with Israel’s help, South Africa upgraded its 1960s-vintage, French-made Mirage IIIs while its Mirage F1s — the more capable of the two — stayed in the battle.
We say the Mach 2.2 Cheetah was “good enough” because it was still based on the Mirage III, a third-generation fighter that had already become obsolete by the time the Cheetah first flew in 1986. But the objective was to build a fighter that could tangle with comparable jets such as the MiG-23, another third-generation fighter, not the fourth-generation jets rapidly proliferating around the world.
We also say the Cheetah first flew in 1986, because although it was an upgrade of the Mirage III, it was a practically new airplane as South Africa rebuilt it from the inside-out, modeling the jet partly on Israel’s modification of the Mirage 5, the Kfir.
What was different? Jan Paradowski of the Bad Pilot’s Blog detailed the specifics of this curious sanctions-stricken adaptation of the Mirage III.
Among the changes were new countermeasures and avionics, modifications to the fuselage, new canards — tiny wings forward the main wings, which were also tweaked — and the addition of a refueling probe. The Cheetah had new ejection seats and a nose modification. All together, the improvements meant the Cheetah could not fly as slow as the Mirage III, but the Cheetah had greater agility and could carry three times as many bombs and rockets in weight.
There were different versions of the Cheetah. The Cheetah C, which comprised the bulk of the type in the SAAF, had an ELTA radar, heads-up display and a helmet-mounted sight. The Cheetah D was a two-seat trainer. The Cheetah E an interim single-seat interceptor with fewer upgrades, and the Cheetah R was a planned reconnaissance version that never made it out of the prototype stage.
It’s not clear whether any Cheetahs saw combat — and available sources indicate they didn’t. With the end of Apartheid, the Cheetahs aged in peacetime as South Africa transitioned to democracy, and they eventually worked their way into storage at Denel. Today, the primary SAAF fighter is the Swedish-made JAS 39 Gripen. With the sale of Denel’s Cheetahs to Draken, that will end the Cheetah’s presence in Africa.
Ecuador remains the only country in the world to still fly Cheetahs in an air force, with 10 Cheetah Cs and two Cheetah Ds comprising one squadron operating since 2009, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Cheetah was a logical choice for Ecuador, as the country also operates a squadron of similar Kfirs.
These two squadrons comprise the entirety of the Ecuador’s air-to-air fighter capability.
Peru previously operated Cheetah Es, but no longer does, as it has far more capable MiG-29s purchased from Belarus. The deal to buy those MiGs, it’s worth noting for the record, was an epic disaster and a case study in how not to buy warplanes on the international market. In a nutshell, the deal was too good to be true. The Cheetah was simply good enough.