The Atlas Cheetah programme grew out of South Africa's requirement for a modern fighter and strike aircraft during the 1980s.  There was a need for more advanced aircraft to attain an edge over the ever more sophisticated Soviet aircraft such as the MiG-23 being supplied to Angolan and Cuban forces and used against the South African Forces during the Border War. 

Increasing maintenance costs due to sanctions and The arms embargo imposed at the time by United Nations Security Council Resolution 418 prevented South Africa from purchasing new aircraft from other countries, thus leading the SAAF to make the only possible decision, to radically upgrade one of the existing types in service.  All the work would be carried out locally by Atlas Aviation (formerly Atlas Aircraft Corporation and now known as Denel Aviation), using expertise partly gained by recruiting technicians from Israel's aborted Lavi jet fighter project.


The upgrade consisted of a complete refurbishment of the airframe down to zero hours, the fitting of non-moving canards just aft of the engine intakes, two new stores pylons at the wing roots, an aerial refueling probe, new ejection seats, a more powerful engine (the SNECMA Atar 9K50C-11) that had been upgraded in South Africa for the D and C variants, a new main wing spar along with a new "drooping" leading edge and a dog-tooth incision on each wing, modern elevons controlled by a twin computer flight control system, and strakes on the nose to improve the Cheetah's high-Angle of attack (AoA) performance.  These aerodynamic refinements alone increased the turn rate by 15%, increased the AoA, reduced the minimum airspeed to 100 knots and increased maximum take-off weight by 700kg.  However, these modifications also resulted in a 5% decrease in maximum level speed and acceleration.

In addition, a highly sophisticated avionics, radar, EW and self-protection suite was installed, necessitating a lengthening of the nose.  This entailed the fitting of an EW suite which included missile and radar warning sensors.  Other features included the aircraft's self-protection system, which consisted of electronic jammers and chaff/flare dispensers that engaged automatically; the integration of a South African helmet-mounted sight and an oversized head-up display (HUD); the installation of a data link plus advanced Pulse-Doppler radar and sophisticated cockpit instrumentation.

Other improvements include the fitting of a single-piece wrap-around windshield with an anti-radiation coating in place of the old three-piece version, a new in-flight refueling probe with less external piping, new undercarriage and suspension, the deletion of the wing fences, an upgraded version of the Atar 9K50 and a new nose to incorporate the more sophisticated electronics and radar.

All the Cheetah C aircraft entered service with 2 Squadron, also at AFB Louis Trichardt (now known as AFB Makhado), the first Cheetah C aircraft being rolled out in January 1993.

Operational History

The Cheetah C never saw combat operations during the Border conflict, so the aircraft's performance was never operationally tested against the dominant fighter during the conflict, namely, the Soviet MiG-23.  The Cheetah C was the ultimate development of the Cheetah series, and was the only fighter aircraft in service with the SAAF until replaced by the Saab JAS 39 Gripen in 2008.  Cheetah 324 (Spotty) received her colour scheme in 1995 when the South African Air Force celebrated their 75th Anniversary.  She was used during air combat displays during air shows as the "bogey" (enemy) so spectators could easily distinguish the "enemy" aircraft from the "Friendly" aircraft.  When her airframe hours expired, Spotty was donated to the SAAF Museum where she is now proudly displayed.

Guns: 2 x 30 mm DEFA Cannons
Bombs: 250 kg 'booster' bombs plus various unguided 'iron' bombs
Missiles: Delivering of precision-guided munitions (PGM's), ranging from laser-guided bombs (LGB's), to GPS-guided weapons and TV-guided bombs. It also has the capability of using stand-off air-to-ground weapons such as the MUPSOW and TORGOS. In addition, it is able to carry air-to-air weapons, and such as the V4 R-Darter, a beyond-visual-range (BVR) radar-guided missile, the   U-Darter, a highly capable short-range infrared (IR)-guided missile and the V3C Darter, Python 3 air-to-air missiles.

Other:Two auxiliary fuel tanks (fitted with two 125 kg bomb pylons each)