Not an upgrade – rebirth

Upgrading military aircraft – fixed wing and rotary – is a common operation performed all over the world. You take an old platform, reinforce the fuselage and wings, install some new systems and it can fly for many more years.

But what Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is currently doing with its old Kfir fighter aircraft is an exception.

The Kfir (Lion Cub) fighter is a single-seat multitask fighter built by IAI. The aircraft was first built for the Israeli air force (IAF). The first Kfir was delivered to the IAF in 1975, and entered into service in 1976.

The fighter was sold to various countries, and around 27 were leased to the US Navy and Marine Corps and for use as aggressor-role fighters.

Kfirs are in service with the air forces of Sri Lanka, Ecuador and Colombia. As I reported yesterday in Flight International, Argentina is now evaluating the purchase of the latest version – the Kfir Block 60.

The Kfir was born in the 1960s, during the “Honeymoon” of defence ties between France and Israel. First flight was performed in 1973, but in the mid-1990s the Kfir was phased out.

The first upgrades of the Kfir were made a few years later, and the version was dubbed C-10, or Kfir 2000.

IAI manufactured approximately 200 Kfir fighters, and most found their way to a southern IAF base, where the low humidity helped to keep the grounded aircraft in a good condition.

What is happening now in the market is a result of a few facts: shrinking defence budgets, the understanding that not every air force needs a fifth-generation fighter and above all the ability of the Kfir airframe to keep flying with very advanced systems.

One IAI source told me the upgraded Kfir offers many of the capabilities of fourth-generation aircraft such as the F-16 Block 52, Eurofighter, Rafale and MiG-29.

So, after its “Lavi” fighter programme was terminated in 1987 due to heavy pressure from Washington, IAI is now actually operating a fighter aircraft assembly line.

The stripping/rebuilding/upgrading line is full with Kfir fighters that have been brought from desert storage and are being readied for the next customer.

The Kfir on offer now is the Block 60. This version will be equipped with an Elta EL/M-2052 AESA radar, full network capability using the IAI Link 16 datalink, open architecture, a glass cockpit and all the systems that were supplied with previous versions. Among these is the fourth generation of the Rafael Litening targeting pod.

According to all indications the new “assembly line” will be very busy in the coming years. What will come out of the big hangar is a fighter aircraft that was born more than 40 years ago, but has something in its “genes” that enables a new, full life – in fact, better than its first one.

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