The SEPECAT Jaguar was designed in the 60s as a jet trainer. But as with many aviation projects, they grow in scope and become more expensive. This Anglo-French venture eventually became a supersonic tactical nuclear-capable aircraft.
It ended up being a huge success and despite aircraft being built from 1968 – 1981, it is still in service with the Indian Air Force, some 50 years later. Many other nations also bought the Jaguar with exports heading to Oman, Ecuador and Nigeria too.
Even though she had humble origins, it has been used in many major conflicts including the 1990 Gulf War.
By the mid-2000s, other aircraft were more competent than the Jaguar in the air-to-ground role and France retired their fleet in 2005 being replaced by the Rafale. The RAF also retired all of their Jaguars in 2007.
Trainer to Nuclear Attacker
The Jaguar was born from a programme that began in the early 60s as the British wanted a new trainer to replace the Folland Gnat. A jet trainer is a crucial part of an air force as it serves as the bridge between high-performance piston-powered aircraft and frontline combat jets.
In July 1960 the RAF introduced the English Electric Lightning into frontline service and it was a monumental step up in performance. Going from a subsonic Folland Gnat to a Lightning is like going from a Ford Fiesta to a Ferarri. Yes, technically if you learn to drive one you can the other. But, the difference is you can get into trouble way faster in the Ferarri.
And it was no different in the Lightning.
Having a new jet trainer with performance closer to the Lightning would give pilots way better training and help them transition into flying an aircraft that could exceed Mach 1 in a vertical climb.
The French air force was also looking for a new aircraft that could be used for dual purposes, namely as a trainer and light attacker to replace their fleet of ageing Fouga Magisters and Lockheed T-33 Shooting Stars. These were very much first generation jet aircraft.
Many companies offered their designs including, Hawker Siddeley, Folland, Dassault, Nord and Sud-Aviation. It was clear both sides of the Channel were vying for the contract which led to the creation of SEPECAT (Société Européenne de Production de l’Avion d’École de Combat et d’Appui Tactique).
Aircraft would be assembled by both UK and France using a single supplier for each component. But, quickly specifications change. Britain wanted an aircraft with supersonic performance, upgraded electronics and better weapons systems than initially intended.
It was such a radical change that the French aircraft was completely different at this point. However, on they looked fairly similar which helped the public appearance of the programme.
The British ordered 150 trainer variants of the Jaguar, designated the B variant. Whilst France split their order into 75 ‘E’ variant trainers and 75 ‘A’ attackers. Thanks to internal French politics, the Mirage G was selected in 1967 and cancelled their orders for the new aircraft, leaving the British in an uncomfortable situation.
Germany started expressing interest and the programme became less focussed on the jet trainer and more so on the low-level strike role. By the end of 1970, Britain ordered 165 single-seat strike aircraft along with 35 trainers.
The huge shift in focus was thanks to the cancellation of the TSR-2, meaning that Britain would need to look at replacing their Phantom FGR2s in the strike role so that they could be used for air defence.
At this point, the project was almost 10 years old and the requirements for a trainer had dramatically shifted and were subsequently fulfilled by the Hawker Siddeley Hawk. The Jaguar could now solely become a low-level strike aircraft.
The French had now become interested again and committed to buying 40 carrier variants, dubbed Jaguar M.
With the single focus of the Jaguar now as strike aircraft, capability significantly evolved. It was now a supersonic low-level attacker, with the ability to carry anything from AIM-9 air-to-air missiles to a pair of deadly WE177A free-fall gravity nuclear bombs.
What was to become the final evolution of the Jaguar first took to the skies in September 1968 with a pair of Adour engines, developed by Rolls Royce and Turbomeca. These were able to put out 5,100 lbf of dry thrust each and 7,300 lbf with the afterburner lit.
Performance thanks to the Adour engines was impressive meaning that the Jaguar A was able to reach around 840 mph at sea level and over 1,000 mph at 35,000 feet.
Eight prototypes were produced and flown for several years before the official introduction into service. The only major issue was an engine fire that caused the third prototype to be lost when landing in 1970. Several Jaguars were flown at the Paris Air Show in 1969 all without incident. By 1973 all testing was complete and the Jaguar was ready for her introduction into service.
The design is a very typical ‘fighter jet’ with swept wings and tricycle landing gear which gives a basic, but classic appearance. The total length was around 55ft with a wingspan of 28ft. The size and simple-looking design were nothing to scoff at – the real party piece was the ability to carry weapons and lots of them.
The Jaguar was able to carry a massive variety of armaments. From rocket pods, dumb bombs, AS37 anti-radar missiles, cluster bombs, AIM-9 sidewinders and Matra Magic R550s and nuclear weapons too.
Diversity of armament meant that the Jaguar could take on a huge variety of missions and defend itself if required. For close-up work, a pair of DEFA or ADEN cannons were installed too.
The British also modified their Jaguars to carry over-wing pylons which were often used for air to air missiles such as the AIM-9L. This freed up the underwing to carry conventional gravity weapons.
Jaguars have seen extensive combat use across the globe and almost immediately after introduction, France received their first aircraft in 1973. Some aircraft were initially stationed in South Africa to help protect national interests.
In 1977, only four years after its introduction was the Jaguar’s combat debut in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. French aircraft were also used in Chad to great success as part of Operation Epervier. 11 Jaguars launched a raid on an airfield that had been built by the Libyans in Northern Chad. Bombs dropped by Jaguars destroyed the runway successfully preventing its use.
Just as the British did, the French committed aircraft to the Gulf War coalition in 1990. Both forces also had success flying a large number of combat sorties and attacking targets such as missile sites and naval vessells.
Only one French aircraft suffered damage at the hands of an Iraqi surface-to-air missile. In 1991 further attacks were carried out and in a single sortie three Jaguars suffered damage but all making it back to base.
British Jaguars were also playing an important part in the conflict with the continual bombing of enemy forces to demoralise them. In January 1991 a pair of RAF aircraft destroy a landing ship using unguided rockets.
These aircraft were invaluable, as the Tornado GR1s that were also used as part of the conflict struggled with the heat, leaving the Jaguar to do the heavy lifting.
Almost 20 years after its introduction, it was showing itself to be a tough and reliable aircraft capable of playing an important role in the Gulf War.
In the UK the Jaguar was very much part of nuclear deterrent thanks to their ability to carry the WE.177. By the late 70s, there were six squadrons of 12 aircraft and each squadron had eight tactical nuclear bombs.
Training was undertaken using the motorway as a runway for fully laden aircraft to take off in the event of nuclear war. The idea being that Jagaurs would deliver nuclear weapons as a retaliatory strike.
Thanks to excellent all-around performance, other nations became interested in the Jaguar project as early as the late 60s. But, due to the ongoing internal conflicts between Britain and France, it was unclear whether either nation would certainly be accepting the aircraft.
But in 1978 India became the biggest export customer for the Jaguar. Placing an order worth $1 billion after the evaluation process.
A total of 160 aircraft were destined for the Indian Air Force, 40 built-in Europe with the remainder built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in India.
The Indian variant of the Jaguar was similar to the UK version and used the latest Adour engines that had seen upgrades since the introduction of the aircraft. Over-wing pylons became the standard and utilised the deadly R-550 Magic air-to-air missiles. Avionics was the biggest differentiator between the models with in-house nav-attack systems being developed.
Pakistan was unfortunately on the receving end of the Jaguar’s devastating attacks in the 1999 Kargil War. Many types of munitions were dropped by IAF Jaguars and even used in the anti-ship role too. This conflict certainly highlighted the imporantance of such an aircraft and it has been extremely popular with its pilots.
The IAF still uses the Jaguar today, with no immediate plans to retire the platform. Whilst it is ageing, India have plans to keep their fleet in the air until at least 2034. At which point the Jaguar will be over 60 years old – not bad for what was initially supposed to be a trainer.
India was not the only export customer. The Jaguar found success elsewhere too. Ecuador, Nigeria and Oman all purchased aircraft, which were delivered by the mid-80s.
With these other nations, Jaguar did see combat and performed admirably. Nigeria ended up retiring their fleet of 18 aircraft in the early 90s as their economy could not support keeping their birds in the air.
Ecuador used its aircraft for ground attack and they took part in the conflict with Peru in 1995. They were replaced in 2003 by the Atlas Cheetah – an upgraded variant of the Dassault Mirage III.
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The Jaguar was a huge success with a good safety record and received almost universal praise from those who had the pleasure of flying this wonderful aircraft.
It could carry a huge range of weapons, from ground attack to anti-air and even anti-ship. Although it was primarily used in the ground attack role, Ecuador used theirs in the air superiority role.
With a breadth of mission capability, a great safety record and proven real-world combat use, the Jaguar is surely one of the greatest jet aircraft ever.
- Crew: 1 (A and S); 2 (B and E)
- Length: 16.83 m (55 ft 3 in) (A and S) with minor variations dependent on nose configuration; 17.53 m (57.5 ft) (B and E) with minor variations dependent on nose probe type (AAR or pitot)
- Wingspan: 8.69 m (28 ft 6 in)
- Height: 4.89 m (16 ft 1 in)
- Empty weight: 7,000 kg (15,432 lb) typical, (dependent on variant and role)
- Max takeoff weight: 15,700 kg (34,613 lb) with external stores
- Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour Mk.102 afterburning turbofan engines, 22.75 kN (5,110 lbf) thrust each dry, 32.5 kN (7,300 lbf) with afterburner
- Maximum speed: 1,350 km/h (840 mph, 730 kn) Mach 1.1 at sea level /1,699 km/h (1,056 mph; 917 kn) Mach 1.6 at 11,000 m (36,000 ft)
- Service ceiling: 14,000 m (46,000 ft)
- g limits: +8.6 (ultimate load +12)