27 May 2015

Birth of the Lion: The Development of the IAI Kfir

Mirage IIICJ Shahak (Sky Blazer)
In the early 1950s, the most advanced jet aircraft in the IDF/AF was the Gloster Meteor, the first examples being delivered from Great Britain in 1953 which marked the IDF/AF's first combat jet equipment. Although the Meteors gave good service to the Israelis, the supply of more advanced MiG fighters to its Arab neighbors meant that Israel needed to something more capable than the Meteor- their first choice was the North American F-86 Sabre, but its purchase was thwarted by American government. Israel then turned to France and formed a remarkably close relationship with Dassault in particular. The first Dassault Ouragan jet fighters were delivered in October 1955 as a stopgap measure until the arrival of the supersonic-capable Dassault Mystere IVA in April 1956, becoming the first Israeli combat aircraft capable of breaking the sound barrier. The improved Dassault Super Mystere became operational with the IDF/AF in December 1958 along with the Sud Aviation Vatour strike fighter. Israeli Aircraft Industries, started in 1952 as Bedek Aviation in Tel Aviv by American Al Schwimmer, had begun license production of the French jet trainer Fouga Magister in 1957 with the first wholly IAI-built example rolling out in 1960. The IDF/AF's relationship with Dassault as one of its best customers continued with the arrival of the Mirage III series. Israel had a custom variant based on the Mirage IIIC interceptor designated the IIICJ which was first delivered to the IDF/AF on 7 April 1962. IAI's skill set expanded as it modified the Mirage IIICJs as needed for Israeli needs, one of which was a removable nose that contained cameras for reconnaissance missions. It would be an Israeli Mirage IIICJ that scored the first aerial victory for the entire Mirage series worldwide against a Syrian MiG-21 on 14 July 1966. Known as the Shahak (Sky Blazer) in IDF/AF service, the Mirage IIICJs were an integral part of the IDF/AF until their retirement in 1982.

When Charles de Gaulle was elected president of France in December 1958, there was nothing to indicate that the long standing relationship between France and Israel would change for the worse. On 7 April 1966, Israel signed an agreement with Dassault for a custom variant of the Mirage 5 optimized for ground attack and designated Mirage 5J. Named Ra'am (Thunder), the Mirage 5J was a quantum leap in capability over the Mirage IIICJ. Since the weather was generally good in the Middle East, the Mirage 5J (as well as the rest of the Mirage 5 series) traded the all-weather radar capability for an increase in fuel and weapons load (32% more fuel in fact) and small radar ranging unit in a slimmed down nose. Dispensing with many of the electronics of the Mirage IIICJ, the Mirage 5J was not only more capable, but cheaper, with the initial contract for 50 Mirage 5Js and two dual-seat trainer versions of the 5J. Many IDF/AF pilots like the legendary Danny Shapira completed the Mirage 5J flight test program after its first flight on 19 May 1967. But the winds of change were coming to the Middle East despite the rapid progress on the Mirage 5J program by Dassault. With France losing Algeria in 1962 and de Gaulle's desire to be a player in Middle East politics beyond the United States and the Soviet Union, relations between France and Israel were cooling and came to a head in June 1967 during the Six-Day War. The Mirage 5J's first flight was less than a month prior when de Gaulle announced an arms embargo on Israel just three days prior to the start of the Six-Day War. At first the embargo was partial and hope held out that the IDF/AF would still get the Mirage 5J aircraft. But de Gaulle insisted on Israel withdrawing to its pre-1967 lines as a prerequisite for lifting the embargo, something the Israelis obviously refused to do. When the PLO launched a terrorist attack against El Al at the Athens airport on 26 December 1968, the Israelis responded with reprisal attacks against the PLO stronghold in Beirut two days later. In response, France imposed a total embargo on Israel. 

Armee de l'Air Mirage 5F (an embargoed Mirage 5J in French service)
Despite the embargo, Dassault completed the Mirage 5J production run on 19 June 1969, but the completed fighters were put into storage. The Mirage 5J would become the basis for a new family of Mirage 5 variants that would prove popular with other air forces. The Israeli Mirage 5Js in storage were put into service with the French Air Force (AdA) as the Mirage 5F. Some of these airframes ultimately ended up with Chile years later. Israel would eventually get a refund of its money for the first variant of the Mirage 5 series, but in 1969 with tensions running high in the wake of the 1967 war, the only option was for Israel to build its own fighter aircraft. Despite the initial partial embargo, Israeli Aircraft Industries had negotiated for license production of the Mirage 5J in Israel and at the end of 1967 an agreement was signed between IAI and Dassault. Dassault felt that since they were a private company, they weren't bound by the embargo, but the maker of the Atar 9C turbojet of the Mirage 5J, SNECMA, was government owned. Time was of the essence and it would have been time consuming to find a replacement engine for the Atar 9C. At the time, the Swiss company Sulzer was license building the Atar 9C for Switzerland's Mirage order and an engineer with Sulzer, Alfred Fraunknecht, was approached by the Mossad with a deal- supply the engineering data and blueprints for the 9C for $250,000. Approximately 200,000 drawings were transferred before Swiss authorities arrested Fraunknecht and sentenced him to four and a half years of prison. 

Neshers on the flightline. Note the nose painted black to appear like a IIICJ.
Keeping the name Ra'am (Thunder) that was intended for the Dassault-built Mirage 5Js, a highly classified program got underway at IAI to essentially build the 5J with a reverse-engineered Atar 9C. Despite the embargo, the Israelis found many sympathetic supporters in the French aerospace industry to assist with the production of what was called the Nesher (Vulture). Dassault supplied manufacturing jigs and tooling and even whole airframe subassemblies despite the total embargo. Oddly enough, spare parts for the Mirage IIICJ fleet were exempt from the embargo and with the Nesher being a derivative of the 5J which was a derivative of the IIICJ, many spare parts ended up on Nesher aircraft. The first Nesher aircraft made its maiden flight on 21 March 1971 and became operational with the IDF/AF the following October. When the Nesher program ended in 1974, 50 Nesher A single seat fighters were built as well as 10 Nesher B combat trainers. 

IAI Kfirs (from the DML/Dragon 1/144 scale kit box art)
While the Nesher was becoming operational, IAI then turned its attention to rectifying the deficiencies of the aircraft, the biggest of which was the Atar 9C engine. Focus then turned on a re-engined Nesher as the next follow on aircraft. The General Electric J79 was selected as it already powered the F-4E Phantoms that had already been in IDF/AF service for several years. On 21 September 1970 (before the Nesher's maiden flight), IAI conducted the maiden flight of a demonstrator to prove the J79 could be integrated into the Mirage airframe. This demonstrator was a two seat Mirage IIIBJ called the Technolog. The flight test program of the Technolog was used to uncover any issues with using the J79 on the Mirage airframe. The new production aircraft that would use the J79 in a Nesher airframe was named Kfir (Young Lion) and the prototype Kfir that first flew on 4 June 1973 was in fact a Nesher modified to accept the J79 and be representative of the production standard Kfir. The deliveries of the first Kfirs was interrupted by the October Yom Kippur War that year, but it was apparent that the Kfir wasn't the leap in improvement over the Nesher that IAI had hoped. The fix was aerodynamic and would applied to subsequent Kfirs- first, a saw tooth was added to the outboard wing which increased wing chord and the saw tooth created a vortex that energized the wing air flow and acted as a wing fence to stop drag-inducing spanwise flow. Next, canards were added above and behind the intakes which helped control the air flow over the wing and made destabilized the Kfir to make it more agile. Lastly, a pair of strakes was added to the extreme tip of the nose which helped smooth the airflow over the wings and canards. This configuration became known as the Kfir C2 and was the definitive production model that also had extra hardpoints for more weapons. The first production Kfir was delivered on 14 April 1975. One of the Israeli guests of honor was Alfred Fraunknecht, the Swiss engineer who had passed on the Atar 9C turbojet engineering information years earlier for the Nesher program.

Source: Aviation Classics: Dassault Mirage III/5, Issue 17. "Vultures and Young Lions" by David G. Powers, pp 70-81. Photos: Wings Palette, Wikipedia, DML/Dragon Models

1 comment:

  1. Greatly enjoyed this post. Always curious to know more about the Mirage III and its descendents - a topic inadequately discussed in the "widely-available" English language literature. Hope to hear more about the oft-overlooked little marvel in the near future.

    All the best.