At nearly 40, the IAI Kfir fighter jet received a new lease of life

Sep 30 2013 - 3 Comments
By Richard Clements

The IAI Kfir, (“Lion Cub” in Hebrew) has just received an upgrade program to extend its life for another 40 years (possibly).

During the late 1960′s the Israel Aircraft Industries were forced to look inwardly after France had imposed an arms embargo on Isreal (which lasted 42 years) after Israel had paid for development work by Dassault on the Mirage V, a fair weather ground attack aircraft to replace the Israeli Mirage III’s in that role.

In short, avionics were removed from behind the cockpit to increase the fuel capacity and to lower maintenance costs and, in response to the arms embargo, Israel produced an unlicensed copy of the Mirage V and called it the Nesher, after it is thought that the blueprints for the engine and air frame had been acquired from third party Mirage producers.

After the Six Day war, supplies of Mirage III were pretty low so producing a domestic version made sense and got around the embargo completely.

The Kfir program began whens the need to enhance the Nesher became apparent due to the improving Soviet era jets that Israel’s neighbours were acquiring at the time.

The first thing the Kfir designers were to look at was an engine; two engines were looked at: the Rolls Royce Spey Turbofan (which had been used in the Blackburn Buccaneer, F-4K Phantom in UK use and by the AMX project in Italy) and the General Electric J79 Turbojet, the same as in the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom of which the Israeli Air Force (IAF) were just starting to take delivery of, which was selected and produced locally.

Due to the need for increased cooling of the J79, the Israeli engineers shortened the Mirage III rear fuselage and widened it to accommodate wider air intakes and an additional air intake was also introduced to the bottom of the vertical stabilizer.

A modified two seat Mirage IIIc took to the skies in 1970 powered by the new J79 engine shortly followed thereafter by a J79 powered Nesher during September 1971. But it was June 1973 when a highly modified Nesher powered by the J79 took to the skies for the first time, along with the Israeli avionics on board and re-arranged fuel tanks to improve range.

The finished article entered IAF service during 1975 and saw its first combat during an air strike into Lebanon during 1977 and even got its first kill, a Syrian Mig-21, in 1979 the same day as the F-15 took its first air to air kill. By 1982 the Kfir was used mostly in the ground attack role, leaving the F-15′s & F-16′s to take on the air superiority role.

The Kfir was retired from IAF service in 1996 but is still used by several export customers. Due to the J79 being a U.S design it meant that Israel had to gain permission from the U.S State Department to export the Kfir which did limit the export potential but was bought by Colombia, Ecuador and Sri Lanka and have been used extensively by those nations.

Twenty five examples were also used by the U.S Navy as aggressor aircraft operating out of NAS Fallon and were given the name of F-21A.

Israel has recently announced a new upgrade program to extend the life of the existing export examples named “Block 60.”

The upgrade basically strips the aircraft back to its fuselage and then performs a nuts and bolts rebuilt, upgrading avionics and other systems including a new data-link system, something the Kfir never had being a third generation aircraft.

IAI state that the improvements bring the Kfir up to a fourth generation aircraft and something that is suitable for the 21st Century.

All of Colombia’s Kfir jets have gone through this program as well as the further twelve examples that were acquired; IAI is hoping that it can sell the Block 60 upgrade to the other two operators.

Richard Clements for TheAviationist.com

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  • Juanma Baiutti

    IAI Nesher are in fact french Mirage 5 sold undercovered.
    The Nesher became Dagger when sold to Argentina.
    The Daggers became Finger after local modifications (post 1982)

    Despite the name given the aircraft identification plate idenfiies them as Mirage V.
    At least everyone in Argentina that has been around a Nesher/Dagger/Finger knows it.

    • av

      I agree.
      Israel never reverse engineered the Mirage. They didn’t have the cabability. Everithing arrived from abroad. Israeli involvment in Kfir is very small. The huge amount of work was carried out in France and later in the US (for the J79 engine for example). It is very funny how all the specialized press continue to sell the propaganda that Nesher/Kfiris a Israeli design. It was impossible. Think about the difficulties for PRC to reverse engineer the Mig21 with a much larger technical and industrial base.

  • Lama glama

    Colombia’s aircraft did not go through the Block 60 upgrade. They went through an updated version of the Kfir 2000 upgrade, substantially the same radar/avionics package IAI had developed in the late ’90s and sold to Ecuador as Kfir CE in 1999. The Colombian aircraft have better avionics in the form of larger color MFDs, as one would expect from an upgrade taking place a decade later. They also have one antenna on top that can’t be seen in the older Ecuadorian aircraft, possible a datalink antenna of some sort. However, they retain the mechanically steered EL/M-2032 radar set. The recently unveiled Block 60 should have an AESA radar if IAI publicity is to be believed. Where Colombia’s aircraft stand out is in the weapons package that came along with the upgrade, as well as the podded systems that were sold in the deal. Ecuador never exploited the Kfir CE’s BVR capabilities, or it’s high off-boresight capabilities. In the first case, they never acquired the Derby missile. They did secure the Python IV missile, but not the DASH helmet. Colombia seems to have obtained the Python V with HMS and there are pictures Kfir C.10s with Derby captive rounds on their underwing hardpoints. Colombia also operates a second type of upgraded Kfir known as the C.12, all but identical to the C.10 except they don’t carry the multimode fire control radar set. Both types have been photographed with Litening pods, something Ecuador never acquired.