Modern Day

The Atlas Cheetah is an Evolution of the Mirage III

The Atlas Cheetah was developed by South Africa’s Atlas Aircraft Corporation (now Denel Aeronautics) and emerged in the 1980s as a response to the pressing need for a modernised fighter capable of asserting air superiority while navigating the complex geopolitical and embargo-laden landscape of the time.

Contents

Development

The inception of the Atlas Cheetah traces back to a critical juncture in South African history, where geopolitical tensions and international sanctions imposed a stringent arms embargo against the country. This embargo significantly restricted South Africa’s ability to procure advanced military hardware, including state-of-the-art fighter aircraft, crucial for maintaining its national security. Faced with this daunting challenge, South Africa embarked on an ambitious journey to circumvent these limitations, laying the groundwork for the creation of the Atlas Cheetah.

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The strategic imperative to modernise and enhance the South African Air Force’s (SAAF) existing fleet served as the catalyst for the Cheetah’s development. The Mirage III, a French-designed aircraft that formed the backbone of the SAAF’s fighter capabilities, was rapidly becoming obsolete in the face of evolving global military aviation technologies. The need to sustain a competitive edge in aerial combat capabilities prompted South African engineers and defence specialists to envisage a comprehensive upgrade programme that would breathe new life into the Mirage III platform.

The Cheetah is based on the Mirage III. This bright paint scheme is a South African example. Photo credit - Bob Adams CC BY-SA 2.0.
The Cheetah is based on the Mirage III. This bright paint scheme is a South African example. Photo credit – Bob Adams CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Atlas Aircraft Corporation, South Africa’s premier aerospace manufacturer, spearheaded this endeavour. The project’s objectives were clear: to significantly upgrade the airframe, avionics, and weaponry of the Mirage III, transforming it into a 21st-century fighter aircraft. The programme initially shrouded in secrecy, involved a meticulous analysis of the existing capabilities of the Mirage III and identifying areas for enhancement that would result in superior performance, survivability, and combat effectiveness.

The Mirage III But Better?

Central to the Cheetah’s development was the integration of cutting-edge avionics and weapons systems. Engineers sought to overhaul the aircraft’s radar, electronic countermeasures, and navigation systems, equipping it with the latest technology available within the constraints imposed by the embargo. This included sourcing components from friendly nations and developing indigenous solutions that met or exceeded international standards.

Another significant area of focus was the enhancement of the aircraft’s airframe to improve its aerodynamic performance. The introduction of canards, small forward wings, significantly increased the Cheetah’s manoeuvrability and stability, enabling it to execute complex aerial manoeuvres with greater ease. Additionally, the incorporation of a more powerful engine, the Atar 09K50, provided a much-needed boost in thrust, enhancing the Cheetah’s speed and agility in the skies.

The project also entailed a reconfiguration of the cockpit to accommodate modern control systems and improve pilot ergonomics. The introduction of a hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) configuration allowed pilots to control the aircraft and its weapons systems more intuitively, significantly enhancing operational effectiveness during high-stakes combat situations.

A Cheetah cockpit simulator. Photo credit - NJR ZA CC BY-SA 3.0.
A Cheetah cockpit simulator. Photo credit – NJR ZA CC BY-SA 3.0.

The culmination of these extensive modifications and upgrades marked the birth of the Atlas Cheetah, a fighter aircraft that not only met the immediate needs of the South African Air Force but also demonstrated South Africa’s resilience and ingenuity in the face of international isolation. The Cheetah’s successful development underscored the country’s ability to achieve technological advancements independently, setting a precedent for future domestic defence projects.

Operational History

The Cheetah’s operational history commenced in the mid-1980s, marking the beginning of a distinguished service period within the South African Air Force (SAAF). This era underscored the aircraft’s adaptability, reliability, and combat proficiency, cementing its status as a pivotal component of South Africa’s aerial defence strategy. From the outset, the Cheetah demonstrated exceptional capabilities that far exceeded those of the ageing Mirage III fleet it was designed to upgrade, showcasing its prowess in various military exercises and operations.

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The introduction of the Cheetah into active service signalled a new dawn for the SAAF, providing it with a technological edge that was critically needed amidst the geopolitical tensions of the time. The aircraft’s advanced avionics suite, enhanced weapon systems, and improved manoeuvrability allowed the SAAF to execute a wide range of missions with greater efficacy and confidence. The Cheetah’s operational debut involved rigorous testing and evaluation, ensuring that pilots and ground crews were thoroughly familiar with the aircraft’s capabilities and limitations.

A Cheetah flying over the USS Forrest Sherman at Cape Town.
A Cheetah flying over the USS Forrest Sherman at Cape Town.

Training exercises played a crucial role in integrating the Cheetah into the SAAF’s operational framework. Pilots underwent extensive training to master the aircraft’s advanced systems and exploit its aerodynamic enhancements. The introduction of the Cheetah D, the two-seat variant, was instrumental in this process, providing a platform for pilot instruction and transition without compromising operational readiness. These exercises demonstrated the Cheetah’s superior performance characteristics, including its agility in dogfighting scenarios and precision in strike missions.

It was loved by Pilots

While the specifics of the Cheetah’s combat engagements remain largely undisclosed, its presence significantly bolstered the SAAF’s deterrence capability throughout its service life. The aircraft’s versatility enabled it to undertake a variety of roles beyond air-to-air combat, such as reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and ground-attack missions. Its adaptability ensured that the Cheetah remained a valuable asset in the SAAF’s inventory, capable of responding effectively to evolving operational requirements.

The Cheetah’s operational tenure also included participation in international exercises, where it operated alongside aircraft from other nations. These engagements provided invaluable opportunities for cross-training and showcased the Cheetah’s capabilities. The aircraft’s performance in these exercises earned it respect among international peers, highlighting the success of the upgrade programme and the skills of South African pilots.

Despite its successes, the evolution of military technology and the introduction of next-generation fighter aircraft necessitated a re-evaluation of the Cheetah’s role within the SAAF. The decision to retire the fleet came as newer, more advanced platforms, such as the Swedish-built Saab Gripen, were introduced, offering superior capabilities in terms of stealth, avionics, and weapon systems. The retirement of the Cheetah fleet marked the end of an era but also the beginning of a new chapter in South African military aviation.

A paintjob for its namesake. Photo credit - Alan Wilson CC BY-SA 2.0.
A paint job for its namesake. Photo credit – Alan Wilson CC BY-SA 2.0.

Variants

The Atlas Cheetah’s development led to the creation of three primary variants, each designed to fulfil specific roles within the South African Air Force (SAAF) and tailored to meet distinct operational requirements. These variants, the Cheetah C, Cheetah D, and Cheetah E, collectively represent the evolutionary journey of the aircraft, showcasing the adaptability and scalability of the design to accommodate various mission profiles.

Cheetah C

The Cheetah C emerged as the quintessential model of the Cheetah series, embodying the culmination of the upgrade program’s objectives to enhance performance, survivability, and combat effectiveness. As a single-seat variant, the Cheetah C was primarily tasked with air superiority missions, leveraging its advanced avionics, weapons systems, and aerodynamic improvements to engage enemy aircraft and defend South African airspace.

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The integration of a multi-mode radar, capable of tracking and engaging multiple targets, and the inclusion of modern electronic warfare systems, significantly increased the Cheetah C’s lethality and survivability in contested environments. Pilots appreciated the improved cockpit layout and the HOTAS (Hands On Throttle-And-Stick) control system, which facilitated easier management of flight and combat systems, allowing them to focus on the mission at hand.

Cheetah D – The Two-seat Trainer

Recognising the need for an effective training platform to prepare pilots for the complexities of modern air combat, the Atlas Aircraft Corporation developed the Cheetah D. This two-seat variant served as a bridge for transitioning pilots from older platforms to the more advanced Cheetah C. The Cheetah D retained most of the combat capabilities of the C variant, ensuring that training missions could replicate operational conditions as closely as possible.

A twin seat Cheetah D. Photo credit - Alan Wilson CC BY-SA 3.0.
A twin-seat Cheetah D. Photo credit – Alan Wilson CC BY-SA 3.0.

The second seat allowed an instructor to accompany the trainee, providing real-time guidance and feedback during flight operations. This hands-on approach to training was instrumental in cultivating a new generation of pilots capable of exploiting the Cheetah’s full potential.

Cheetah E

The Cheetah E holds a unique place in the variant lineage as an interim solution, designed to address immediate operational requirements while the more advanced C and D variants were still under development. Based closely on the Mirage III, the Cheetah E incorporated several key upgrades that would later define the Cheetah series, serving as a testbed for new technologies and systems. Although it was the first of the Cheetah variants to be phased out, the E variant played a crucial role in the transition period, allowing the SAAF to maintain operational readiness and gain insights into the performance of the upgraded systems.

Retirement

The retirement of the Atlas Cheetah opened a significant chapter in the South African Air Force (SAAF) history and marked a pivotal shift in South Africa’s military aviation capabilities. This transition, taking place in the early 21st century, showcased the technological advancements in aerial warfare and the SAAF’s evolving strategic priorities.

The SAAF has reitred its fleet of Cheetahs in favour of the Saab Grippen. Photo credit - NJR ZA CC BY-SA 3.0.
The SAAF has retired its fleet of Cheetahs in favour of the Saab Grippen. Photo credit – NJR ZA CC BY-SA 3.0.

The SAAF made the decision to retire the Cheetah fleet after thoroughly assessing the aircraft’s operational viability against the backdrop of rapidly advancing global military technology standards. Despite extensive upgrades to prolong its service life, the emergence of newer, more advanced aircraft made it evident that the SAAF needed these modern fighters to maintain a competitive edge in contemporary air combat. The SAAF’s incorporation of the Saab JAS 39 Gripen, a fourth-generation multirole fighter, underscored this shift. The Gripen’s superior stealth, avionics, agility, and interoperability with international forces represented a significant advancement over the Cheetah’s capabilities.

The phased retirement process included gradually phasing out Cheetah aircraft from active service, shutting down associated infrastructure and support systems, and retraining pilots and ground personnel for the new aircraft. The SAAF meticulously planned this transition to preserve operational readiness and combat effectiveness during the changeover.

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The farewell ceremonies for the Cheetah’s retirement stood out as deeply moving events at various air bases across South Africa. These events celebrated the distinguished service of the aircraft and honoured the men and women who flew and maintained them. Flypasts, static displays, and speeches highlighted the ceremonies, recounting the Cheetah’s contributions to national security and its legacy in South African aviation history.

The Cheetah Lives On

After retiring, several Cheetahs began new chapters outside the SAAF. Private collectors and aviation companies worldwide purchased some, while museums received others as donations, where they continue to teach and inspire future generations with their stories of innovation and resilience. Additionally, the Ecuadorian Air Force acquired a select few, prolonging the Cheetah’s operational legacy on the international stage.

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