French Mirage Fighters Turned Israel Into a Major Air Power
France and Israel worked closely to produce the iconic Mirage 5
Fifty years ago, on May 19, 1967, the Mirage V made its first flight from Melun-Villaroche airfield in France. Within context of events that were to follow ever the next few weeks, this date marked the birth not only of the modern-day French military aviation sector, but also what can be considered the birthday of the Israeli Aircraft Industries.
The Mirage V was a result of close cooperation between France and Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. Its story could be traced back in time to the days when what was then officially designated the Israel Defense Force/Air Force was searching for a modern, jet-powered, swept-wing fighter, in 1954.
The IDF/AF’s original preference was for the North American F-86 Sabre — pictured in Israeli colors at top — but the administration of U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower ruled out any such sale. Undeterred, the Israelis looked elsewhere and ended up flight-testing the SAAB J29 Tunnan in Sweeden — and then the Dassault jet fighters in France.
What is nowadays Dassault Aviation came into being in 1929, when Marcel Bloch established the Sociéte des Avions Marcel Bloch. After World War II, Bloch changed his name to Dassault, and the name of his company to Avions Marcel Dassault.
Initially, this was merely a design bureau employing a small workforce of engineers and designers, that was subcontracting production of aircraft to the state-owned company Sud-Aviation. Its first design was the small military liaison aircraft Languedoc, but in 1951 Dassault embarked on development of the MD.450 Ouragan – a subsonic, straight-wing jet fighter, 441 of which were built for the French and Indian air forces by 1953.
Meanwhile, designers at Dassault were working on a swept-wing variant of Ouragan, designated the MD.452 Mystère. Initial testing was not particularly promising, and only the French air force placed an order. Indeed, the Israelis initially rejected the Mystère and then the Tunnan, and the IDF/AF continued its attempts to acquire Canadair-manufactured F-86s.
Only once this solution was blocked by the State Department, in July 1954, did Israel finally place an order for six Mystère IIs, in August 1954.
The troublesome predecessor — the development of Mystère II was hampered by problems and only a small number of this little-known type ever entered service with the French air force. Albert Grandolini Collection
Development of this type encountered numerous problems and the delivery was re-scheduled for July 1955, and then postponed even further. By the summer of 1955, the French found no other solution but to offer a batch of 12 second-hand Dassault MD.450 Ouragans as a stop-gap measure, until the first 12 Mystère IIs would be available.
Israel reacted in September of the same year, accepting the offer for Ouragans, but cancelling the purchase of Mystère IIs and instead ordering more advanced Mystère IVs for delivery in 1956.
Ouragans and Mystère IVAs played the crucial role during the Suez War of 1956, when foremost their armament proved better suited for modern-day jet combat than that of Soviet-built MiG-15s and MiG-17s operated by the Egyptian air force.
However, contrary to Israeli claims that the destruction of newly-delivered MiGs in Egypt would pre-empt another major Arab-Israeli conflict, the Suez War only intensified the arms race. Not only that at least 40 percent of Egyptian MiGs survived that conflict, but Cairo and Damascus placed additional orders while the fighting was still going on, and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was quick to deliver.
In 1958, amid rumors about Egyptians negotiating the purchase of supersonic MiG-19S interceptors, the Israelis rushed to place an order for 36 Dassault Super Mystère B.2 — the first European jet capable of breaking the sound barrier in horizontal flight.
By the time the IDF/AF began acquiring SMB.2s, in early 1959, Israelis were already eyeing Dassault’s next project — the outstanding, Mach-two-capable, delta-winged Mirage interceptor. Israel ordered 24 examples of the IIICJ variant in May 1960. These were equipped with Cyrano I bis radar, necessary to support Matra R.530 radar guided air-to-air missiles – first such weapons systems in the Middle East.
Deliveries of Mirage IIICJs to Israel began in April 1962, by when the order was increased to a total of 76 aircraft. During the same year, Israel and France signed a contract for license-manufacture of Mirages, but Israel lacked the industrial capacity to open a production line at home, and this proved a stillborn idea.
Officially declared a product of the Israeli Aircraft Industries, the 51 Mirage 5s — nicknamed ‘Nesher’ in Israeli service — were all manufactured in France. IDF photo
Service introduction of the Mirage in Israel proved anything else than smooth. The SNECMA Atar 09B engine was chronically unreliable and caused a number of accidents. Similarly, there were critical issues with the radar and its synchronization with two calibre 30mm cannons, while — although nick-named ‘Diamond’ in the IDF/AF — R.530 missiles proved anything else than simple to operate.
Hundreds, if not thousands of technical modifications were necessary in order to transform the Mirage IIICJ into an effective combat aircraft.
A bi-product of resulting effort was the idea to develop a simpler and cheaper, easier to maintain and operate variant. Related work resulted in emergence of the Mirage V, later renamed Mirage 5 — a ground-attack aircraft capable of speeds in excess of Mach two, equipped with a bare minimum of electronics, but with a slightly lengthened fuselage to increase fuel capacity and the number of hardpoints for armament.
The concept was proven in action already during the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, better known as the Six Days War, when the Israelis destroyed most of neighboring air forces on the ground, thus obtaining the key to victory for their land forces.
However, during the Six Days War, French president Charles de Gaulle imposed the first of ultimate two arms embargoes against Israel, the latter of which was ‘total’. Therefore, the delivery of 50 Mirage 5s built for the IDF/AF was stopped before it even began.
Curiously, the Israelis continued transferring payments until paying the full price, in April 1968. At least officially, the Mirages were then taken up by the French air force, while France returned the payment.
Actually, in early 1968 and in great secrecy, Dassault signed the contract titled “JC3” with Rockwell International for license production of Mirage 5s in Israel. Rockwell was a company hitherto known for production of transmissions and other car-related products, but in mid-1960s it acquired the famous aircraft manufacturer North American and then became curious to expand abroad.
In the period September-to-December 1969, Libya placed one of biggest orders for Mirages ever, totaling no fewer than 110 aircraft. Around 26 of these were lent to Egypt, where they saw their baptism of fire during the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Dassault Aerospace photo
Its agreement with Dassault stipulated delivery of 50 aircraft in the form of knockdown assembly kits, made from parts manufactured by a wide variety of Dassault’s subcontractors, including Aerospatiale and the Reims-Cessna: Dassault manufactured only the front fuselages for 10 two-seaters that were delivered as a part of a follow-on order, in the early 1970s.
There is less clarity in regards of who furnished the necessary SNECMA Atar 09C engines, but it seems that the “production” of these in Israel was organized with help of Belgian and Swiss companies, with specialized tools purchased from France, Australia, and the Fairchild Company in the United States.
The result of all of these efforts was the establishment of Israeli Aircraft Industries in 1968.
Thanks to the secret contract with Dassault, only three years later, IAI rolled out the first out of eventual 51 Mirage 5s — all assembled from parts manufactured in France. While the latter fact is confirmed even by manufacturer plates installed on the aircraft in question, the Israeli company remains insistent until today that these fighters, nicknamed Nesher in IDF/AF’s service, were “developed and manufactured in Israel.”
Meanwhile, the fame the Mirages achieved during the Six Days War reached such proportions that Dassault was literally showered with orders from other foreign customers. In the late 1960s and early 1970s everybody wanted to fly the victorious Mirage. Orders from Lebanon, Pakistan, Peru, Belgium, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela followed in quick succession.
This is how it happened that by 1971, the French company was not only secretly delivering its fighters to Israel, but also — and publicly — to Lebanon and Libya, too, and became involved in negotiations with Iraq and Saudi Arabia. While Baghdad never placed an order for Mirage 5s, Libya ordered no less than 110. A squadron worth of these were lent to the Egyptian air force, in 1972.
The result was inevitable. During the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War, French-manufactured fighters designed on Israeli request were flown by both sides. The IDF/AF flew the Neshers actually assembled in a U.S.-sponsored factory at Lod International but officially declared as “made in Israel,” while the Egyptians flew Libyan-owned Mirage 5s.