Douglas Barrie/LONDON

Budget cuts have forced the South African Air Force (SAAF) to consider cancellation of the last, and potentially most critical, element of its Cheetah C upgrade project - the acquisition of a beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile (AAM).

The SAAF's Cheetah C fighter upgrade programme was carried out with Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI). The tie-up remains sensitive because the deal, concluded in 1988, contravened the arms embargo on the then apartheid regime in South Africa.

Although the SAAF remains unwilling to identify by name the international partner, it does admit that funding constraints are having a damaging effect on the project.

At the 29-30 September HAS Fighter Conference in London, Lt Col Cobus Toerien, commander of 2 Sqn, the Cheetah C unit, said: "We should get a BVR capability, but with the defence cutbacks, I don't know if it is going to happen- a capability has been developed, but it may never be fielded."

Although the SAAF has not disclosed details of the missile programme, it is understood to be a consortium of IAI/MBT/Rafael, with the support of South Africa's Kentron. The weapon is believed to correspond to the South African R-Darter project. Israel is already marketing its own version of the radar-guided AAM, dubbed the Alto or Derby.

The configuration of the missiles is thought to use propulsion and control elements from the Rafael Python-4 infra-red-guided short-range missile, coupled with an MBT active-radar seeker. The missile would be much longer than the Python-4, at around 3.8m long with cruciform mid-body wings as well as the Python-4's two ailerons.

The 38 Cheetah Cs are believed to have been fitted with a derivative of the Elta EL/M-2032 multi-mode pulse-Doppler radar providing the aircraft with a good long-range air-detection capability. Without a BVR missile, however, its combat utility would be diminished.

The SAAF has also looked at the possibility of fitting its Cheetah Cs with a variant of the Russian Vympel R-77 (AA-12) missile to boost a weapons capability now limited to short-range infra-red AAMs.

Source: Flight International