Cheetahs and Mirage 50s for Ecuador
Ecuador’s FAE currently operates a variety of fighter aircraft. 14 Israeli Kfirs, (12 + 2 two-seat trainers) upgraded to the C10/CE standard, 12 upgraded French Mirage F1 fighters originally delivered in 1978-80, and about 20 A-37 Dragonflys form their fighter core. About 7 Jaguar strike aircraft are reportedly in storage, and unfit to fly. The Kfirs will last for a little while, but the Jaguars, Dragonflys, and Mirage F1s need replacement.
A deal is in the works for up to 18 of Brazil’s Super Tucanos, which are replacing the A-37 with a number of Latin America’s other air forces as well. They can’t replace the Jaguars and F1s, however, which triggered a search for replacements that could be bought on a small budget. After investigating a number of offers, a deal with South Africa was set, even as Venezuela stepped in with an offer of its own.
The Reported Deals
In October 2009, South Africa’s Denel Aviation confirmed that talks were underway concerning its Cheetah-C aircraft, which bear a number of similarities to Ecuador’s Kfir CEs, but have French SNECMA engines instead of American J79s. The offer involved 12 aircraft (10 Cheetah-C fighters and 2 Cheetah-D fighter/trainers), plus a complete 5-year, renewable maintenance and support package. Complete maintenance and acceptance flight testing would be conducted in South Africa and in Ecuador, and Denel expected a deal to be finalized before the end of 2009. In the end, it would take until late 2010 for that deal to take shape.
Denel Aviation was the prime contractor in the development of the Cheetah during the mid 1980s, holds official design authority for the aircraft, and also performed contractor support for South Africa’s fleet until its 2008 phase-out. They were involved with the structured phase out of the Cheetah logistic support system, and witnessed the packaging of the systems and equipment for storage pending a possible sale.
The key questions Ecuador must consider are whether Denel can support the Cheetah-C radars and avionics by itself, and their ability to replace Israeli weapons with South African weapons if the USA chooses to block future Israeli military sales or services to Ecuador. Their conclusion appears to have been a positive one – but the Cheetah may not be the only fighters the FAE receives.
As part of his campaign for wider influence in Ecuador and in Latin America, Venezuelan Strongman Hugo Chavez stepped in to offer Ecuador 6 of the FAV’s Mirage 50M fighters in late 2009. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has been a close ally of the Chavez regime’s for several years. Unfortunately, the Mirage 50Ms are less advanced than the Israeli-upgraded Mirage F1s they might replace, and their state of maintenance is not certain. Reports indicate that if Ecuador does accept Venezuela’s Mirage 50Ms, they would likely serve in a training role as transitions from the pending Super Tucanos to Ecuador’s Kfir/ Cheetah fighters.
As is often the case, however, training aircraft may be pressed into double duty. The Super Tucanos will perform as very capable counter-insurgency and light attack aircraft, as well as being excellent 2nd-stage flight trainers. Likewise, any serviceable Mirage 50s on hand would also be available for combat if the situation demanded it, and might offer a second option if the FAE’s Kfir fleet ends up grounded.
The question for Ecuador’s FAE is whether the money and effort required to maintain the Mirages would add a meaningful capability, or end up being an expensive diversion that came disguised as a bargain.
The Atlas Cheetah was derived from South Africa’s Mirage III fleet. Since the Israeli Kfir was already a modification of Israeli-built Mirage Vs, they were able to help South Africa upgrade their planes to a similar standard by adding small canards, avionics improvements, radar and self-defense equipment, and modernized weapons. Cheetahs were produced in a number of variants.
Creating a Cheetah involved a structural reset to create a “zero flying hours” airframe, plus the standard Cheetah additions of non-moving canards, additional stores pylons at the wing roots, an aerial refuelling probe, new ejection seats, the SNECMA Atar 9K50 engine, modified wings, modern elevons, strakes on the nose, Israeli avionics that included Elbit’s DASH helmet-mounted display (HMD), a twin computer flight control system, and the ability to use South African or Israeli weapons. Chile reportedly bought 5 earlier-model Cheetahs in 2003, in order to serve as a source of spares for its now-retired Pantera fleet of Mirage 50s with Kfir-like upgrades.
The Cheetah-C was Denel’s most advanced variant. It reportedly added a single-piece wrap-around windshield with an anti-radiation coating, a new in-flight refuelling probe with less external piping, new undercarriage and suspension, an upgraded variant of the SNECMA Atar 9K50 engine, a more modern radar (possibly even the same IAI EL/M-2032 that equips Israeli F-16s and FAE Kfir C10s), upgraded Elbit HMDs, and modernized ECM and self defense suites. Previous Cheetah-E variants were limited to carrying short range air-air missiles, but the Cheetah-C can use Derby/R-Darter BVRAAMs (Beyond Visual Range Air to Air Missiles) as well. The FAE already uses Israeli missiles and strike weapons, so that compatibility would be an asset.
Cheetah-Cs served as South Africa’s front-line fighter ahead of the SAAF’s Mirage F1s, until they were phased out in 2008 in favor of the new JAS-39C/D Gripen. Brazil was reportedly offered Cheetahs to replace its own recently-retired Mirage 5BRs, but chose to purchase used French Mirage 2000s instead.
The Mirage V was designed in conjunction with the Israelis, who had made Dassault’s Mirage III famous. It actually removed avionics and radar capabilities from the Mirage III, in order to add more fuel and more weapons. The resulting plane was optimized for clear-weather attack roles and close air combat. Israel’s Col. Giora Epstein (ret.) remains the world’s top-scoring jet ace. Most of his 17 kills were scored in Israeli Neshers (Mirage 5s), including one memorable fight in 1973 when he dueled 11 Egyptian MiG-21s, all by himself, and shot down 3 before the rest fled.
The Mirage 50 is a 1980s-1990s Mirage III/V upgrade that added the SNECMA Atar 9K-50 engine and Cyrano IV-M3 radar, among other improvements. It did not substantially change the basic airframe, however, and by that time the design had lost much of its competitiveness. The Mirage 50 was not a popular export; only Chile (Mirage 50/Pantera) and Venezuela (Mirage 50M) ordered them, and in the 1990s, Chile went on to upgrade its planes to the Kfir-like Pantera configuration with Israeli help. Chile’s Panteras were recently phased out in favor of new F-16 C/Ds, and they were reportedly one of the offers made to Ecuador’s government.
Israel went down a different road. They switched in the American GE J79 turbojet that powered the Cheyl Ha’avir’s F-4 Phantoms, and heavily modified the Nesher’s airframe and electronics, in order to design IAI’s canard-winged Kfir series fighters. This expertise would lead the Israelis to assist in the subsequent South African Cheetah and Chilean Pantera programs. Ecuador currently flies the Kfir C10/CE, the family’s most advanced variant. It carries IAI’s popular EL/M-2032 radar, a fully digital cockpit, and the ability to carry precision weapons and radar-guided air-air missiles.
The GE J79 is no longer in production, but more than 2,500 engines remain in service around the world. GE still offers related services, and there is no shortage of spares via the USAF’s AMARC “Boneyard” near Tucson.
Unless, of course, the USA decides to block military sales to Ecuador. Which makes the Snecma-powered Cheetahs an interesting sort of compatible insurance policy.
Contracts and Key Events
Denel returned the planes to serviceable condition and flight-tested them in South Africa, then disassembled them and shipped them to Ecuador. The Cheetahs were delivered in 4 batches, with the final shipment completed earlier in 2012. Arriving aircraft were carefully reassembled and flight-tested in Ecuador, while Denel Aviation provided technical support and spares. Ecuadorian pilots and ground support staff also received extensive conversion training to fly and maintain the new planes.
Denel Aviation’s release says that they will continue to provide a comprehensive maintenance and support service to the FAE for the next 5 years, with an option for renewal. It would seem that the MRO agreement only begins upon acceptance, rather than upon the signing of the contract, and that other support and training provided to date was within the scope of the main contract.
May 17/12: Flypast. 7 of the FAE’s new Cheetah fighters conduct a flypast, to mark the handover of FAE command to Brigadier General Enrique Velasco. Source.
Dec 13/10: Ecuador signs a deal with Denel for 10 Cheetah-C fighters, and 2 twin-seat Cheetah-D fighter/trainers. Price is not disclosed. Denel Aviation will also provide a comprehensive maintenance and support service for at least 5 years following the sale, with an option for renewal. Denel | South Africa’s DefenceWeb | South Africa’s Engineering News | Flight International | UPI || El Paso Times recaps recent Ecuadorean military spending projects.
Aug 23/10: Latin American news outlets report that Ecuador will spend $80 million to buy 9 Cheetah fighters from South Africa. Reports indicate that the new fighters will replace the FAE’s Mirage F1s, and serve alongside the FAE’s similar fleet of Israeli Kfirs.
To pay for it, however, Ecuador will reduce their buy of EMB 314 Super Tucano trainer and light attack turboprops from 24 to 18 aircraft. Combat Aircraft September 2010 || In Spanish: CRE Satelital | Confirmado | El Universo.
Oct 5/09: Defense Aerospace runs a release labeled as being from Denel Aviation, which confirms ongoing discussions around 12 Cheetah-C aircraft and sets out the deal’s broad terms – but not its cost. The deal would involve 12 aircraft, plus a complete 5-year, renewable maintenance and support package. Complete maintenance and acceptance flight testing would be conducted in South Africa and in Ecuador, and Denel expects a deal to be finalized before the end of 2009.
Denel Aviation CEO Ismail Dockrat is quoted as saying that: “…we see this [deal] as a platform to showcase [South] Africa’s MRO (Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul) capability to the rest of the world.” Defense Aerospace | See also South Africa’s Engineering News.
Sept 30/09: Venezuela’s El Universal quotes Ecuadorian Security Minister Miguel Carvajal:
“We plan to use these [Mirage 50M] airplanes for training in our transition from the current status of Ecuadorian obsolete planes to what is expected, provided that some discussions for supersonic jets are materialized.”
Sept 28/09: Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa reportedly announces in the northern town of Ibarra that:
“Venezuela wants to give us six Mirage jets … we are going to accept them.”
Correa reportedly describes the jets as being “in good condition,” and adds that the country is discussing the purchase of a further 12 jets from South Africa and 24 Super Tucano fighters from Brazil, as well as radar systems and helicopters. The reference to discussions re: the Super Tucano sale is odd, since Brazil’s Embraer confirmed the sale in March 2009. Agence France Presse.
Sept 24/09: Ecuadoran daily El Universo reports that the FAE has recommended buying South Africa’s Cheetahs, adding that bids presented by Spain and Chile exceeded Ecuador’s modernization budget. The aircraft offered by Chile and Spain were not mentioned, but Chile would almost certainly have offered its recently-decommissioned Pantera fighters, which are Mirage 50s modified by the Israelis to Kfir capabilities. Spain flies Mirage F1s that are being supplanted by new Eurofighter Typhoons, and might be for sale, but would probably require additional upgrade work to be fully compatible with FAE weapons etc.
The FAE has not confirmed these reports, but EL Universo adds that:
“The decision on the purchase has been made and it is estimated that in December the financial negotiations will begin. For that, an outlay of $35 million from a not-yet-determined total amount is anticipated.”
Denel Aviation representatives reportedly renewed their offer in August 2009, during a visit to the Cotopaxi airbase. Other reports place the modernization budget at $65 million, which seems more likely if support is also involved. Speaking of which, the FAE is also expected to present a technical report on the advisability of accepting the donation of 6 Mirage 50M jets from Venezuela. Inside Costa Rica | Poder 360 | South Africa’s Engineering News Report and Video Interview.
Sept 23/09: Venezuela’s El Universal reports that Ecuador has yet to decide whether it will accept Venezuela’s gift of 6 Mirage 50 fighters. See also China’s government-run Xinhua, which gets some key details wrong (Ecuador does not have Mirage III/V/50 aircraft), but notes that negotiations revolve around “commission” and maintenance costs.
- Fuerza Aerea Ecuatoriana official site
- Wikipedia – Ecuadorian Air Force
- SAAF (unofficial) – Cheetah-C. More advanced than the Cheetah-E.
- SAAF (unofficial) – Cheetah-E
- Wikipedia – Atlas Cheetah
- Aerospace Web – Mirage 5. Adds comparisons to subsequent Kfir/ Pantera/ Cheetah modifications
- Wikipedia – Mirage 5. The Mirage 50 is an upgraded derivative.