Saturday, July 2, 2011

Weekend Wings #41: South Africa's "Franken-Mirages", Part 3 of 3

This is the third and final article of a series describing the aircraft and systems developed by and for the South African Air Force (SAAF) during the 1980's and 1990's. In Weekend Wings #39, we described the Cheetah upgrade program for the SAAF's Mirage III fighters. In Weekend Wings #40, we looked at the Atlas Carver indigenous fighter project. This week, we'll look at efforts to re-engine the SAAF's Mirage F1 fighters (and later the Cheetahs as well), and examine some of the weapons and other systems developed to equip them.

1. The 'Super Mirage F1' program.

The Cheetah program was originally intended to produce 32 upgraded Mirage III fighters, 16 two-seat Cheetah D's and the same number of single-seat Cheetah E's. Once these were in service, it was planned to upgrade a similar number of the SAAF's surviving Mirage F1 fighters with avionics and systems developed for the Carver program. It would have been necessary to design a new nosecone for the F1's to accommodate some of them (just as the Cheetahs had been fitted with nosecones similar to those on Israel's Kfir fighters), and modify the F1's airframe to make space for the rest. (I saw a couple of preliminary design sketches where a fairing had been added to the base of the F1's vertical stabilizer, as was done on the Lavi - see the latter's photograph in Weekend Wings #40. Other designs envisaged having some systems, particularly ECM, fitted into removable pods, mounted beneath the wings or at the wingtips.) However, the F1's were the SAAF's front-line fighter force during the 1980's. They could not be spared for upgrades until replacements were available; nor could South Africa's defense industry, stretched thin as it was, afford to give attention to their needs until the Cheetah, Carver, Oryx and Rooivalk aircraft programs were further advanced.

The F1's had all been delivered with the Atar 09K50 engine as standard equipment. As noted earlier, this was the de facto powerplant for Carver, at least at first. A few Mirage III's (D2Z two-seaters and R2Z single-seat reconnaissance models, delivered during the early 1970's) also had this engine. A 09k50-equipped Mirage and a couple of spare engines were made available to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Atlas Aircraft Corp. during the 1980's, to investigate possible improvements to the powerplant to get the maximum possible thrust out of it. (This project was ultimately successful: see Section 2[a] below for details.)

However, another alternative emerged. During the second half of the 1980's, the former Yugoslavia began development of what it called the 'Novi Avion'; a single-engined, single-seat light fighter to replace its Soviet-supplied combat aircraft. Wikipedia describes it thus:

The Novi Avion most closely resembled the French Rafale, although it was smaller and had only one engine. It was designed to fill many roles, including air superiority, interception, reconnaissance, ground attack, and anti-ship attack. Maximum speed was just under Mach 2. Super-maneuverability at both supersonic and subsonic speeds was a priority, and a major portion of the airframe was to be composed of composites.

Artist's impression of Novi Avion

The design was to incorporate a number of features to lower its radar cross section, although it would not have been a true stealth aircraft. The aircraft was to carry an advanced ECM/ECCM suite. It was an all-Yugoslav design, not based on any foreign plane, although France was providing some assistance with the design of the most complex parts that Yugoslavia had no experience with, such as a multipurpose radar.

The engine was to be the French Snecma M88, the same engine used in the Rafale. Most of the weapons it would have carried would probably have been either French weapons, or built with French assistance.

It sounds like a project very similar to the initial iteration of the South African Carver (see Weekend Wings #40). I'm informed that there was an exchange of information between the two projects - very discreetly, of course. Both countries' governments (at that time) were more than a little paranoid, each in its own way, and it probably would have seemed like a good idea to them to draw on and reinforce each others' strengths. (For the same reason, South Africa maintained relatively close ties with Chile and Taiwan, both of whose governments were also feeling the pinch of international isolation. Military co-operation was ongoing, particularly - in the sphere of aviation - with regard to Taiwan's AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo fighter and its indigenous missile armament, and Chile's ENAER Pantera program to upgrade its Mirage 5 aircraft to Kfir C.7 standard. Spanish-speaking Chilean Mirage pilots helped the SAAF monitor radio communications between Cuban-manned aircraft in Angola, and Chile would later buy some of South Africa's Cheetah E aircraft [Mirage III's that had been modified to the same Kfir C.7 standard] to serve as a source of spares for its Pantera fleet.)

I'm informed that, as part of its discussions with Yugoslavia over the Novi Avion, South Africa asked about the possibility of acquiring a quantity of SNECMA M88 engines. The M88's thrust (with afterburner) of some 17,000 pounds was only about 7% greater than the Atar 09K50: in fact, it was less than the latter engine would achieve after the South African upgrade program. However, the M88 was 40% lighter and shorter than the 09K50, offering a significant improvement in engine power-to-weight ratio and taking up much less space in or on an aircraft than its older sibling. Its fuel consumption was also much more economical than the 09K50. It would have offered an excellent solution to the needs of the Carver program, and probably a future Mirage F1 upgrade as well.

SNECMA M88-2 turbofan (image courtesy of Matthieu Sontag and Wikipedia)

I'm told (although, of course, I can't independently confirm) that the French government was willing to turn a blind official eye to an unexpectedly large order for the engines from Yugoslavia. After all, turbofans are extremely expensive to develop. The profits to be made on an order for (say) 300-400 engines, split between Yugoslavia and South Africa, would probably have paid for the entire development cost of the M88 program. However, Yugoslavia knew that South Africa had no other prospective suppliers for engines. It was a seller's market. Therefore, during initial discussions, the price it allegedly demanded to act as an intermediary for the M88 deal was very high . . . indeed, it was said to be so high that it would have paid for most of Yugoslavia's own engine needs!

This was too much for a South African defense budget already burdened with the cost of the Border War and a vast number of weapons development and acquisition programs. There was also the question of how to guarantee an ongoing supply of spares. South Africa had learned the hard way, when the UN's mandatory arms embargo was imposed in 1977, that the existence of a binding contract could not guarantee that it would be honored. Therefore, according to my sources, the deal fell through before any serious negotiations could develop. (In any event, the Novi Avion, like the Carver, would be cancelled in 1991.)

I understand that a further attempt was made to buy M88's directly from France during the early 1990's, but the UN arms embargo was still in force at the time (it would not be lifted until May 1994), so France was not in a position to accede to the request. However, by then, an alternative had emerged.

In the late 1980's the Soviet Union began to collapse, a process that would climax in 1991 with its dissolution. South Africa had regarded it as an enemy for decades, right through the Cold War. Indeed, the Soviets' internal problems were all that allowed the Border War to be resolved relatively peacefully, because it could no longer afford to support Angola's communist government, which therefore could no longer afford to pay for the tens of thousands of Cuban surrogate forces in that country. (They were ultimately withdrawn as part of the peace accords to settle the conflicts in Angola and Namibia.)

The Soviet Union's slow but inexorable implosion meant that many of its armaments companies found themselves in a parlous position. They depended for their existence on State contracts, which were by now either being abrogated or not being renewed due to lack of funds. They faced financial ruin. A number of them sought permission from the Kremlin, and/or the leaders of their increasingly independence-minded republics, to enter into contracts outside the Soviet Union with anyone who had hard currency available to buy their products. The USSR's central government and the Communist Party, trying desperately (and ultimately in vain) to preserve the Union and their own positions, didn't have time or energy to waste on such matters, and therefore gave these companies a free hand. They could do whatever they had to do in order to survive.

One such group of companies was the Klimov Experimental Design Bureau and its associated factories. Klimov had designed the RD-33 turbofan engine that powered the very successful Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter.

Klimov RD-33 engine from an East German MiG-29, illustrated
on the wall behind the engine (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The RD-33 produced a maximum thrust, with afterburner, of 18,285 pounds. This was a little over 15% more than the Atar 09k50 engine of the SAAF's front-line Mirages - just what the service was looking for to upgrade its existing aircraft, and to power the Carver program. The RD-33 was also 28% shorter and lighter than the 09K50, and considerably more fuel-efficient. Therefore, when Klimov put out feelers via the international aviation network to see whether any Western companies might be interested in its engines, South African executives sat up and took notice.

Unfortunately, this was to lead to a split in the South African aerospace industry. Atlas Aircraft Corp. was tied to the apron-strings of Armscor (the government's weapons production and procurement agency), and unwilling to step outside the boundaries established for it by official fiat. For Atlas to suggest a Russian engine to the SAAF and Armscor, conditioned as they were by decades of virulently anti-Communist propaganda and a shooting war with Communist surrogate forces, was almost unthinkable . . . yet some executives and engineers recognized that this might be the country's last chance to get hold of modern engine technology before the Carver program (then still in progress) became 'set in stone' and unable to adapt to a new powerplant.

The result was that, in 1990, certain senior personnel from Atlas and other areas of South Africa's aviation industry resigned to form Aerosud, a company that still exists today. Their actions caused a major conflict between Aerosud and Atlas, the latter initially refusing to have anything to do with the former's efforts. The tension between the companies would persist through many years of bitterness and infighting. Be that as it may, Aerosud immediately began to investigate the possibility of fitting the RD-33 engine to the SAAF's Mirage and Cheetah fleets. If this could be done successfully, it would have obvious implications for the Carver program as well. (Indeed, I'm informed that the final iterations of the Carver design assumed that the RD-33 or a similar engine would be its powerplant, and amended the aircraft's structure accordingly, as illustrated in Weekend Wings #40.)

Aerosud's negotiations with Klimov initially proceeded in secret, but were fruitful. The RD-33 had to be modified to fit into the fuselage of Mirage-series fighters, relocating its gearbox and lengthening the rear of the engine. The resulting model of the RD-33 was designated the SMR-95. The SAAF's leadership was persuaded to co-operate, on the grounds that the service stood to gain a great deal if the experiment worked, but would lose nothing if it failed.

A Mirage F1 was shipped to Russia in 1991, where the SMR-95 engine was installed in it for trials. There were initial problems with the aircraft's center of gravity, but once these were rectified, the conversion proved very successful. The increased thrust and lighter weight of the new powerplant provided a considerable improvement in performance, and its better fuel economy extended the F1's combat radius. The rate of engine acceleration, from idle to full afterburner, was only a third as long as required by the Atar 09K50, which permitted much more rapid throttle response in combat situations (a very important tactical consideration).

SAAF Mirage F1AZ fitted with Klimov SMR-95 engine (note modified exhaust)

However, there were significant maintenance issues. The RD-33/SMR-95's time between major overhauls was only about 300 flight hours. South African engineers found this astonishing; they were used to getting at least 1,200 flight hours (sometimes much more than that) out of their Atar 09K50's between overhauls, even in the stress of a combat environment. (Most Russian military aircraft engines have the same problem to this day - they're nowhere near as durable or reliable as Western engines. Some Chinese military aircraft engines are admitted, by the Chinese themselves, to be even worse. Furthermore, Russia usually insists that its engines must be returned to the factory for overhaul, whereas most Western manufacturers are more than happy to allow their customers to set up their own overhaul facilities, and sell them the necessary tools and spare parts to do so.)

Nevertheless, the trials continued. The 'Super Mirage F1', as the re-engined aircraft came to be known, was modified to use the Vympel R-73 visual-range (VR) infra-red-homing (IR) missile (NATO reporting name AA-11 Archer), which at the time was the most advanced weapon of its type in the world. It could carry up to four, two beneath each wing. It's shown here at the 2001 MAKS air show in Moscow, where it was displayed with an R-73 beneath each wing.

There was talk of equipping all South Africa's fighters (Mirages and Cheetahs) to carry the R-73, although in the end this was not done. More SMR-95 engines were sent to South Africa, where one was fitted to a second Mirage F1, and another to a Cheetah D for test purposes. It provided the Cheetah with the same improvement in performance it had given to the Mirage F1.

SMR-95-engined 'Super Cheetah D' (note the exhaust, different from standard Cheetahs)

However, South Africa faced very serious problems if it wished to adopt the SMR-95. Russia was reluctant to permit local overhaul of the engine, but this was not acceptable to the SAAF. Even if Russia had permitted it, the cost of setting up service facilities for a totally new engine type would have been exorbitant. Furthermore, the much shorter interval between overhauls of the SMR-95 would have greatly increased the SAAF's maintenance costs and workload. It would have required, in effect, the setting up of two separate maintenance operations, one for aircraft with Russian engines, the other for the balance of the SAAF's fleet, which operated according to Western maintenance schedules. Finally, by 1995, when tests had been completed, the SAAF had no money available for a re-engining project. Its budget had been slashed as part of the reorientation of government expenditure after apartheid's demise. (Indeed, to this day, South Africa's inflation-adjusted defense spending has never returned to anything near its 1980's levels.)

The SMR-95-equipped Mirage F1 was placed in storage. At Russia's request, it was refurbished to participate in the MAKS airshow at Moscow in 2001 (see images above), where it put on a well-received aerobatic display. Russia and Aerosud hoped to use it in a joint project to sell engine and avionics upgrades to countries operating older Mirage fighters. No customers emerged for the engine upgrades, but Aerosud has kept the aircraft flying as a company demonstrator. Here's a short video clip of it, practicing for an SAAF Museum air show earlier this year.

Shortly after MAKS 2001, a Russian news agency announced that the SAAF would re-engine its Cheetah fighters with the Klimov SMR-95. However, nothing came of this, so it was probably just a publicity stunt to promote Klimov's engines to users of older Mirage fighters. Aerosud and other South African companies have assisted both the SAAF and other air forces to upgrade the avionics and weapons systems of their aircraft (see Section 2 below), but as far as I'm aware, the SMR-95 engine upgrade has never been installed on operational Mirages or Cheetahs.

2. Systems, Weapons and Upgrades.

In order to upgrade the SAAF's fighter aircraft, whether through the Cheetah, Carver or Super Mirage F1 programs, a large number of systems and weapons had to be provided. Given the arms embargo against South Africa, as many of these as possible would have to be locally sourced. This was a huge challenge for South African industry, but they rose to it, with a significant amount of help from foreign companies. In this section, I'll examine only a few of the most important programs.

(a) Engines: The Atar 09K50 turbojet of the Mirage F1 was the only engine readily available to the SAAF. It was therefore (at least initially) the de facto choice for the Cheetah and Carver programs. Other engines were considered later, as discussed in Section 1 above.

A license to manufacture the 09K50 (shown at left) had been purchased from France in the 1970's, and blueprints obtained, but it proved impossible (at least initially) for local industry to produce all the components required. Nevertheless, an effort was made to make as many parts for the engine as could be economically produced in South Africa. New engines were purchased on the international market (discussed in Weekend Wings #39), and stocks were built up of spare parts that could not be locally manufactured.

A program was launched to increase the power of the engine, involving a new compressor, new turbine, and new electronics. Over time, this resulted in about a 10% improvement in performance. Some of these improvements were applied in due course to the engines of the SAAF's Cheetah fleet. Ultimately, long after the era of sanctions was over, they were offered to other users of the 09K50 as the 'Atar Plus' upgrade by a consortium of SNECMA in France, Denel Aviation of South Africa, and Industria de Turbopropulsores of Spain. (For details, see pages 3-4 of this 2000 presentation by SNECMA at a conference in Bulgaria. The link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format.)

The more powerful 09K50 engine necessitated modifications to the air intakes of some Cheetah models. IPMSSA reports:

During 2002 Cheetah D no 859 was used for development work with new intakes as part of "Project Recipient" to increase the airflow through the original Cheetah D intakes. The air intakes feature modifications to some areas of the intake shape to improve the airflow. Basic outer shape remains the same.

Cheetah D with upgraded air intake. Note the new curved splitter plate.

The main feature of the "Recipient" upgrade is the fitment of an up-rated 09K50 engine, by improving a number of individual components of the engine. The fitment of the 9K50 engine was as a follow on project to feasibility studies carried out by DENEL in 1994 as a private venture by mating Cheetah D no 844 with 836 (a Mirage III RZ which received a 9K50 engine in a separate upgrade). Increased airflow and the up-rated engine give the "Recipient" upgraded Ds a significant increase in performance. Judging by the air show display of this aircraft, it is certainly not a slow mover.

There's more at the link, which is a 10-page history and modeler's detail study of the Cheetah aircraft. Recommended reading, as is the whole IPMSSA site for its detailed coverage of SAAF aircraft and other South African military equipment.

(b) Avionics: In order to support the Carver program, upgrade the SAAF's Mirages in the Cheetah and Super Mirage F1 programs, and equip the Oryx and Rooivalk helicopter programs, local avionics capabilities had to be developed. This was done with assistance from Israel and companies in several NATO nations.

The process was made easier by the fact that many avionics components and systems are used by aviation in general, not just military aircraft. Vendors of such general-purpose equipment, attracted by the profits to be made from South Africa, were glad to accept their customer's assurance that their products were being purchased for civilian use. Of course, they never bothered to check up on that . . . it would have implied they didn't trust their customer (perish the thought!). They were thus able to bypass the arms embargo against that country. Companies in countries whose governments were more likely to ask awkward questions (e.g. the USA) would ship their products to subsidiaries in Europe, or sell them to 'front companies' in other countries. That minimized interference from pesky authorities, and made lots of money for all concerned. (Anyone who thinks the same thing isn't happening today, in terms of trade in secret information or embargoed items with countries such as China, Iran, etc., needs their head examined. Click the links for examples.)

We don't have space or time here to go into the details of what was accomplished. Suffice it to say that local companies developed turnkey systems abilities in this area, and have continued to develop their product offerings to the present day. For example, the South African ATE Group was awarded a contract to upgrade the avionics of the Spanish Air Force's Mirage F1's in the 1990's. ATE later developed and installed custom avionics and weapons systems upgrades for the Algerian Air Force's fleet of Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters.

ATE avionics & weapons systems upgrades for Algerian Mi-17 helicopters (above & below)

These proved so successful that ATE went on to design a light attack helicopter (although this does not appear to have been further developed at the time of writing, and is no longer mentioned on the company's Web site). It also entered into an agreement with the giant Eurocopter conglomerate to "jointly design, develop, manufacture and support a modern SAWS [Stand Alone Weapons System] that can be installed on any of Eurocopter’s light and medium helicopter products". In 2005 the expanded ATE Group moved its head office to France, but continues operations in South Africa, Brazil and Asia.

South Africa was one of the first countries in the world to deploy a helmet-mounted sight, introducing it in the 1970's in conjunction with its Kukri air-to-air missiles (see below). This technology has been continuously developed, and has been adapted to the SAAF's Rooivalk combat helicopters. A similar system (albeit foreign-sourced) is used on the service's Saab Gripen fighters. Helmet-mounted displays and sights have become ubiquitous on modern combat aircraft, including the USAF's new F-35 Lightning II.

South Africa's involvement with radar systems began as far back as World War II. It began designing and producing its own radars in the 1960's, simple systems at first, growing more sophisticated as experience was gained. During the 1980's and 1990's two types of Israeli combat aircraft radars (the Elta EL/M-2001B and EL/M-2032) were imported for use in the Cheetah and Carver fighter programs, and others for the Oryx and Rooivalk helicopters. Local industry helped with their integration into the avionics systems of these aircraft.

Although they're not avionics, it's worth mentioning that South Africa developed advanced ground- and ship-based radars for air defense, including both the identification and tracking of enemy aircraft and missiles, and the provision of guidance and control to SAAF fighters and surface-to-air missiles to intercept them. To illustrate this capability, one of the most recognizable of these systems was the 'Kameelperd' ('Giraffe', later re-designated the ESR 220 Thutlwa system, and still in production in its enhanced Mk. II form).

ESR 220 Thutlwa Mk. II air defense radar system

The technology for this system was developed by the CSIR, then handed over to a commercial firm, today known as Reutech Radar Systems, for implementation. It's the base platform for the DBR-XL Radar Technology Development Programme, and will be developed into a three-dimensional radar as part of South Africa's Ground Based Air Defense System (GBADS). A land-based, containerized version of the naval Umkhonto missile system (of which more below) is being developed for the GBADS.

It's worth noting that the CSIR was the backbone of South Africa's military technology, conducting an enormous amount of research, the fruits of which were provided to commercial companies for implementation in weapons systems. An historical overview of its activities in this field may be found on pages 12-15 of a 1995 newsletter published by the organization (link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format). Such activities continue to this day.

(c) Composite materials: As mentioned in Weekend Wings #40, the Carver fighter would have used a large proportion by weight of composite materials, to improve the thrust-to-weight ratio of the aircraft (which was particularly important, given the relatively low power available from the Atar 09K50 engine). An intensive development program was undertaken by the CSIR in the field of composite materials during the 1980's. These were first applied to the Oryx transport helicopter and the Rooivalk combat helicopter. International observers were surprised by the sophistication of these programs when they were revealed in the late 1980's. Even composite rotor blades were being manufactured.

With Carver's cancellation, much of this expertise was, if not lost, then at least shelved. However, some defense companies applied it to other commercial and industrial projects, and South Africa also exported much of its technology in this area. Suffice it to say that South Africa could certainly have produced the composite structures and components required for the Carver program. It was one of only a handful of countries with that level of capability in this field during the late 1980's and early 1990's. ATE Group, mentioned above in connection with avionics, is presently offering composite rotor blades for Russian-manufactured Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters as part of its upgrade package for these aircraft. To the best of my knowledge, only about a dozen countries in the world are presently producing composite rotor blades, which gives some idea of the level of technology required to do so.

(d) Air-to-air missiles (AAM's): South Africa ordered 200 early-model AIM-9B Sidewinder missiles (the same generation as those used by the USAF in the early years of the Vietnam War) in the late 1950's, to equip its Canadair Sabre Mk. 6 fighters. It also purchased French Matra R530 and R550 Magic AAM's with its Mirage fighters in the 1960's and 1970's. The AIM-9B was the subject of a technology study by the CSIR during the late 1960's, producing a 'carbon copy' missile known locally as the Voorslag (which can be idiomatically translated as the first stroke, or lash, or blow, of a whip). The Voorslag, plus information gleaned from the French R550, formed the basis of a program to develop an indigenous infra-red (IR) visual-range (VR) AAM. The result was the V3A Kukri missile, which entered production in 1973. This was one of the first missiles anywhere in the world to use a helmet-mounted sight system. It was followed by the more advanced V3B Kukri (entering production in 1979), V3C Darter (1986) and U-Darter (1997).

V3C Darter missile

The V3B/C's proved satisfactory for rear-aspect engagement of slower aircraft, but were inadequate to deal with the very fast MiG-23's encountered in Angola. They were therefore supplemented in the late 1980's by a quantity of Python 3 AAM's, with all-aspect attack capability, which were purchased from Israel and dubbed the V3S Snake in SAAF service. These, along with all older-model Darter series missiles, were retired with the Cheetah fighters in 2008. A new fifth-generation VR AAM, the V3E A-Darter, is currently under development as a joint venture with Brazil. An early prototype is shown below.

It's claimed that the A-Darter will be at least equal to, if not better than, any other IR-guided VR AAM currently in service. Pending its availability, the SAAF bought some IRIS-T missiles to equip its Gripen fighters. (Development models of the A-Darter have already been successfully integrated with the SAAF's Saab Gripen fighters.)

South Africa pursued research into long-range ground-to-air and air-to-air missiles using ramjet propulsion in the 1980's and 1990's. Very little information has been released about this project, known variously as LRAAM (Long Range Anti-Air Missile) or Project Integral. I've also seen the air-to-air version referred to as the 'S Darter' and/or 'T Darter' by some sources. I suspect 'S Darter' may be correct (although I don't know for sure), but the 'T Darter' designation has been applied by Denel Dynamics to a later project.

LRAAM ramjet-powered test & development missiles

Flight Global reported in 1995 that both ground-to-air and air-to-air versions were being developed. Interestingly, a mock-up of this missile was displayed with a rounded glass nose, suggesting an IR guidance system. It's shown below.

The 'glass nose' may have been merely a 'hangover' from the LRAAM's origins in the SAHV surface-to-air missile (which would be further developed into today's Umkhonto surface-to-air missile system). I would have thought LRAAM's long range would imply radar guidance, rather than IR; but it's possible that a combination of mid-course guidance via datalink from the launching platform's radar, followed by terminal IR homing, might have been planned (which is what Umkhonto uses). Not having been part of the project, I couldn't say for sure; and it's of academic interest only, since the LRAAM program was apparently terminated in 1995/96 due to budgetary constraints.

I find it intriguing that the Russian Vympel R-77M-PD (RVV-AE-PD) very-long-range ramjet-powered AAM (shown below) bears a striking external resemblance to the South African LRAAM.

According to the link above, their development programs were under way at about the same time. Might Russia and South Africa have collaborated on this project? Based on the visual similarities between the South African and Russian missiles, and the propulsion technology both used, who knows? Vympel NPO was undoubtedly short of development funds at the end of the Soviet era (as were all Soviet arms manufacturers), and there was already co-operation at that time between the two countries on re-engining South Africa's fighters (see Section 1 above): so a joint project - or at least an exchange of information - isn't beyond the realms of possibility.

Budgetary constraints threatened to prevent the SAAF from fielding a beyond-visual-range (BVR) radar-guided AAM for its Cheetah C fleet. However, after much debate and delay, the V4 R-Darter entered service with the SAAF. It was based on the Python 4 IR missile, and jointly developed by Rafael in Israel (who marketed it as the Derby) and Kentron in South Africa. Kentron maintained that despite their external similarity, the R-Darter was a different missile to the Derby, but this was no more than a continuation of the 1980's policy (discussed in Weekend Wings #39) of insisting that all South African weapons were locally developed, even if they weren't. Kentron's claim was debunked by one of the reasons given for the retirement of the R-Darter in 2008, along with the SAAF's Cheetah fleet; namely that "the missile contained Israeli technology and required continued assistance from that country to remain operational".

The SAAF currently does not have a long-range missile to equip its Saab Gripen fighters. Denel Dynamics (as Kentron is now known) announced in 2008 that it was 'conceptualizing' a new BVR AAM for the Gripen fleet, to be known as the T Darter, but no further news of this project has been made public since then.

(Intriguingly - and to illustrate how confusing news reports can be in the absence of technically literate journalists - in 2003 Pakistan announced the entry into service of what it calls the H-4 BVR missile, said to have a range of 120 kilometers [75 miles]. Indian press reports claim that it's a "modified version of the South African T-Darter BVR missiles", and allege that "In the face of protests from India, the South African government blamed "rogue" elements to collaborate with Pakistan to develop BVRs". Wikipedia calls the H-4 an air-to-surface weapon, but the Indian reports specifically compare it to the "AA11, AA12 and Python 4", all AAM's [the latter being the foundation for the Derby and R-Darter, as previously mentioned]. On the other hand, the mention of a 120km. range for the H-4 corresponds to that claimed for the Kentron Raptor II air-to-surface weapon, described below. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Pakistan had bought both the Raptor II and a version of the R-Darter from South Africa, and/or a license to produce them. Indian journalists probably confused the two.)

South African AAM's and other weapons systems have also allegedly been either copied by or sold to China, which has exhibited missiles that look like identical twins to their South African counterparts. For more information, see here (scroll down to the heading 'Possible "South African" AAMs' for the details).

(e) Precision-guided air-to-ground weapons: South Africa purchased Nord AS-11, AS-20 and AS-30 missiles during the 1960's. Its Buccaneer strike aircraft launched a dozen of the latter at the tanker SS Wafra (shown below), to sink her after she grounded off Cape Agulhas in 1971, and used more of them against enemy positions during the Border War.

SS Wafra after being hit by AS-30 missiles fired by SAAF Buccaneer strike aircraft in 1971

In the 1970's Kentron began development of a TV-guided air-to-ground weapon, initially based on technology similar to that used in the AGM-62 Walleye bomb, deployed by the USA in Vietnam. The H-1 was an experimental project, never used in combat: but the larger, more sophisticated H-2 (later renamed the Raptor 1) was used to destroy an important bridge near Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola in January 1988, at the height of the Border War. The threat from Angolan air defenses was too great for the bridge to be bombed conventionally, but the H-2's stand-off range (up to 60 kilometers [37½ miles]) allowed SAAF Buccaneers to strike the target.

Kentron Raptor 1 (formerly H-2)

The Raptor 1 is said to be in service with Pakistan, where it appears to be designated as the H-2 SOW. Kentron further developed it into the Raptor II, shown below, which has a more precise guidance system and an extended range if fitted with an optional booster unit. It's likely that Raptor II is the basis for the reported Pakistani H-4 SOW. (There appears to be some confusion between the latter weapon and an AAM - see the air-to-air missiles section above for details.)

Kentron Raptor II

Kentron went on to develop the MUPSOW (MUlti-Purpose Stand-Off Weapon) during the 1990's.

MUPSOW being launched by a Cheetah D aircraft

This cruise missile was powered by a small turbojet, enabling it to fly nap-of-the-earth to its target. MUPSOW was further developed into the Torgos air-launched cruise missile (I don't know whether that's an acronym, or just a random project name like Carver).

It's said to have a range of up to 300 kilometers (187½ miles). Its service status is unknown, but it may be operational in Pakistan, and there are reports that it may have been supplied to China, either as a sale, or as technology to be used in that country's own weapons programs.

South Africa has also developed the Umbani, a strap-on 'smart bomb kit' similar to the US JDAM. It can be fitted to 'dumb bombs' such as the US Mark 80 series. It offers an optional propulsion system to extend its maximum range to as much as 200 kilometers (125 miles), depending on the altitude of the launch aircraft and the flight profile to be followed by the bomb. It's been tested on Hawk, Cheetah and Mirage F1 aircraft. However, it may not enter production, as it was announced last year that the SAAF would buy Paveway II laser-guided bomb kits from the USA.

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Many other weapons systems were developed in South Africa during the period of the arms embargo, and in the years following. They're beyond the scope of this article, but some of them were (and some still are) reportedly among the best in their class in the world. (For example, every US MRAP vehicle using a V-hull is drawing on technology developed in Rhodesia and South Africa during the 1970's and 1980's.) Nevertheless, the South African arms industry is today a mere shadow of what it might have been, if the impetus gained during the 1980's had not been wiped out by cancellations and the radical reorientation of the nation's budget during the 1990's.

The Cheetah and Carver programs, and all the projects related to them, were remarkable achievements by a country that until the 1970's was relatively unsophisticated, technologically speaking. They bear stark witness to an unintended consequence of international sanctions; in striving to circumvent them, the target country may develop far more advanced technologies, and far greater capabilities, than it had before. This was certainly the case with South Africa. Indeed, the expertise that its arms industry gained during the sanctions era, and continued to develop since then, is now helping other nations, including China and Pakistan, to develop and field sophisticated weapons of their own. Both countries are arms suppliers to nations such as Iran, which in turn has ties to Syria, North Korea, etc. We really, really don't want countries such as the latter three to have access to such technology. It would be bitterly ironic if the armed forces of the USA and NATO countries one day found themselves confronting weapons and systems that were developed as a direct result of their sanctions and embargoes against South Africa.

Well, there you have it. Weekend Wings #39, #40 and #41 (which are really a single very long piece, split into three parts for manageability) are the most detailed articles of their kind I've ever written for this blog. That's because I was personally involved with some of the programs and projects mentioned in them. Call it a labor of love, if you like . . . or a desire to make sure that the stories of Cheetah, Carver and their related projects are remembered. I've never seen all the elements pulled together in one place before - just bits and pieces here and there, never giving the whole picture. I hope I've managed to do that in these three articles, and that you've enjoyed reading them.



Bob@thenest said...

I never thought of scuttling a ship by using a missile. Always figured a contractor with a lot of well-placed explosives was the preferred method. I wonder which is cheaper in the long run.

Peter said...

I think the SAAF decided to use the Wafra as a training exercise - an expensive one, given that a dozen AS-30 missiles didn't sink her, and conventional bombs had to be used to do the trick. The incident certainly demonstrated that a tanker full of oil is very hard to sink!

MrG's said...

Awesome article, well researched!!

Thank you

Mr Simon said...

Very interesting stuff thanks for posting

Jones said...

Fantastic article! Thanks! One comment though... Composite Structures: you seem to have forgotten about the ACE - Advanced Composite Evaluator. A Pilatus PC9 style aircraft made from +- 90% composites. It was supposed to be a Harvard replacement as well an important engineering exercise.

Peter said...

@Jones: Glad you enjoyed it. I hadn't forgotten about the Ace, but I was space-limited. I'd initially planned this as a single blog article. By the time I finished, it had grown to three, each much longer than my usual Weekend Wings entries. Even then, I had to leave out some material due to lack of space and time. The Ace project was one such omission.

Will said...

"The incident certainly demonstrated that a tanker full of oil is very hard to sink!"

Obviously, no one connected with this exercise was familiar with the stories of the Malta convoys of WWII, or they might not have bothered.

Jones said...

Please can you do some more stuff about the state of SA military/industrial technology from the late '80's. It's a sorely neglected part of history...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great aricle. I was a bursary student at Kentron from 1989 to 1994. Thought I knew all about the secret project ect., but never knew about the Carver programme.

Thanks again. Attie

Anonymous said...

Ja many thanks for posting this article.
Very interesting read! Pulls toghether a lot of the "bits and pieces" especially regarding the Carver project and Klimov/Super Mirage upgrade.
Equador bought a couple of the Cheetahs 3 years ago and I think there's F1's still for sale as well. I know Gabon bought some F1's at some point and 1 or 2 have been mounted on pylons as Gate guards I believe.
Anyway, baie dankie vir die artikel Peter!

Rolf Pearson said...

Your closing paragraph's brings tear to my eyes. What we could have had in terms of export potential for foreign income and retaining highly skilled people in our country as apposed to losing them to other countries. To try regain what we had would almost be impossible. I am very proud and sad at the same time.

Len Tom said...

Peter, quite a well rounded ,much informed blogger ,who has interested me with your blog of the Catholic Church and its bad side,which you explained in detail...and your knowledge of Mirages and Russian motors in SA..!! you say you are a military man,I have not read all your info yet, but.....SADF forces...? I was SA Navy !

anyhow thanks for all your views ,I will share them with a few friends...!!

Lekker laks Boet,..!! ...Len ,Essex ,UK via Hillbrow Transvaal...!

Anonymous said...

Well researched article. There is some (more accurate) info regarding Carver on the net (drawings). But as a senior ex-SAAF Officer it certainly made for some good factual reading.