Mirage means optical illusion or miraculous appearance, and the Military Department really was in for a big surprise with the Mirage: a credit overdraw of 66 %, the reduction from 100 to 57 machines, and finally the dismissal of Air Force Chief Etienne Primault. But then the miracle of having Europe's best interceptor together with the French! Primarily to save expenses the IIIS fleet had to be decommissioned by the end of 1999.
The Mirage IIIS: a supreme interceptor
fhm. Foreign combat aircraft were tested from 1956 on to find a successor plane for the Vampire planes. The Cold War reached its climax with the Russian invasion of Hungary. The Commander and Chief of Armament of the Air Force and Anti-Aircraft Command, Maj Gen Etienne Primault, personally experienced the totally insufficient state of Switzerland’s combat aircraft in1939 when war broke out. In this new threatening situation he sought the best material for his air force. In 1958, it was reinforced with 100 Hunter interceptors and was to be augmented with a high performance system. In 1959, the working group for aircraft procurement presented its 1958/59 test report. Under the direction of Col GS Willy Frei and Maj GS Arthur Moll, the Swedish Saab Draken, the American Lockheed Starfighter and Grumman Super Tiger (not identical with our Northrop Tiger), the French Dassault Mirage III and the Italian Fiat G-91 were tested and evaluated.
The best: Super Tiger and Mirage III
The Fiat G-91 tuned out to be inferior to the Swiss P-16 ground attack aircraft, which had not been procured a year before after two sensational crashes of the prototypes. The Super Tiger was held to be the best aircraft, but cost too much. The Starfighter was considered to be militia incompatible as well as too expensive. The Saab Draken was cheaper, its tactical qualities and in particular its operational range, however, were unsatisfactory.
Therefore, the working group proposed that the Chief of General Staff procure the Mirage IIIC, which had proved almost equal to the Super Tiger. Contrary to the latter, however, its fielding was definitely planned in large numbers in a foreign air force, with the French Armée de l'air. And the working group optimistically concluded ‘that the development options of the Mirage IIIC were sufficient to permit planning for a series of 200 from the beginning’!
The Federal Council favoured the Mirage III und proposed a credit from parliament of 871 million CHF for the purchase of 100 machines in 1961. The chambers gave their consent. Its performance but also the proximity of the producer plant, the identical units of measure and the absence of translation difficulties were points in favour of the Mirage, whose frame and engine were to be built in Switzerland under licence. Such advantages are not as significant today as then.
In 1962, the first French Mirage IIIC is bought that has been weapon tested in Cazaux/F and Holloman/USA. Two trainer Mirages IIIBS follow suit in 1964 – also from France – training and instruction of future Mirage pilots.
Massive additional costs
Then the shock: In1964, the Federal Council applies for an additional credit of 576 million, which corresponds to additional costs of more than 66 %! The Military Department has its ‘Mirage affair’. Such excessive expense was primarily due to the installation of the American ‘Taran’ fire control and navigation radar, which had been chosen due to its compatibility with the planned American Hughes air-to-air missile. In addition reconnaissance equipment was required, short take-off accessories and spare parts, furthermore, production under licence proved more expensive than expected. Aircraft assembly facilities used to date proved to be unsatisfactory for the new super jet.
Heads roll in the Military Department
A parliamentary investigation committee is tasked under the direction of the former National Councillor Kurt Furgler and established that ‘some aspects of the dispatch of 1961 were partial, imprecise and in certain points quite misleadingly formulated’, but also admitted that ‘the investigation has in no case found evidence for dishonourable actions or personal ambition’. The report leads to the dismissal of Maj Gen Etienne Primault by the Federal Council. Chief of General Staff Jakob Annasohn retires voluntarily and finally Federal Councillor Paul Chaudet too. A later verdict of the Federal Supreme Court clears Etienne Primault from personal fault. His merits relating to the air defence concept of the 1960s are equally undisputed today as the outstanding qualities of the aircraft that led to his downfall.
Brig Gen Fritz Gerber, director of the Military Airbase Division, took over the functions of the Commander-in-Chief and Chief of Armament of the Air Force and Anti-Aircraft Troops. The Federal Military Department was reorganised. The newly founded ‘Defence Procurement Agency’ was to ensure a better arms procurement process, in addition parliamentary control was reinforced. The National Council rejected the additional credit and reduced the number of machines to be purchased from 100 to 57. An inevitable additional credit of 150 Mio was, however, granted by parliament in 1965.
Baptism of fire with the Israeli Air Force
The Mirage IIIC aircraft proved its worth in the Israeli-Arab conflicts of 1963, 1964 and 1966. Israeli Mirage aircraft were victorious in dogfights with Egyptian and Syrian Mig-17 and Mig-21. At the beginning of the Six-Day War in 1967 the Israel attackers succeeded in destroying already on the ground in a surprise attack almost the entire Egyptian fleet of 440 combat aircraft, including 130 top modern Mig-21 fighters. The 150 Israeli machines included 72 Mirage interceptors. This operation of only three hours on the morning of 5 June was decisive for the outcome of the battle.
After France opened an arms embargo against Israel, it developed its own successor model, the Kfir which again has been very successful in operations against new Arab aircraft provided by the Soviet Union. For their own aircraft production, Israel illegally obtained engine blueprints from Sulzer.
The Mirage is operationally ready
In 1964 the Federal Councillor nominated Eugen Studer as new Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force and Anti-Aircraft Troops. The majority of the Mirage fleet, 36 IIIS interceptors, are assembled in Switzerland under licence and are fielded from 1966 on. Mirage fielding chief is Col GS Arthur Moll, and future Chief of the Air Force and Anti-Aircraft Troops. He manages conversion courses for flight instructors and pilots of the Surveillance Wing, the professional pilot unit of the air force.
In 1967, Capt Fernand Carrel, qualified FIT engineer and militia pilot joined the air force as flight test chief. Work on the Mirage became the important priority of the nascent air force commander. He worked out their operational mission methods. In the following year Capt Aridio Pellanda became commander of the first Mirage squadron, Fighter Squadron 17 of the Surveillance Wing.
In Payerne the SIMIR flight simulator for training pilots became operational under the direction of Capt Gion Bezzola. Now, jet assisted take-offs (JATO) could be introduced: Up to eight solid state rockets under the fuselage shortened the take-off distance to less than 300m. This enabled the evacuation of aircraft from a partly destroyed airfield: However, there still had to be 300m of intact runway to take-off from. For rapid climbs and accelerations in extreme heights at about 20,000 m the aircraft was equipped with a SEPR rocket engine under the rear fuselage. From such a height the Mirage was supposed to attack enemy bombers flying at high altitudes and then fire its two HM-55S Falcon guided missiles. For aerial combat the Mirage was equipped with two 30mm guns and two Sidewinder infrared homing missiles.
Five Mirage aircraft fly in formation
In 1968, a ‘Mirage aerobatics squadron’ was created with Aridio Pellanda as their leader. With its five delta interceptors, the unit conducted two widely observed presentations in Dubendorf und Geneva. But then air force command decided that the Mirage pilots and their machines had to remain fully committed to air defence tasks.
In 1969, the procurement of the Mirage IIIS combat aircraft is competed. In 1970 that of the IIIRS reconnaissance version. The 57 aircraft authorised by the federal councils were thus fully commissioned. Apart from the most modern systems of the US Air Force Europe the Confederates now had together with the French the best interceptors of Central Europe. In 1969 as well as in 1971 it was possible to purchase one further trainer version, and in 1983 two more B/DS trainer aircraft.
In 1974, a four ship formation of the Surveillance Wing very nearly ends in disaster near Payerne: One machine brushed the ground in flight across a length of 150m, two other planes razed bushes. After this incident, the expensive and fast Mirage was only permitted to fly low alone or in two-ship formation.
A reliable aircraft
From1964 to 1999, ten machines of a total of 61 Mirage of various versions purchased were lost through crashes; seven of them were IIIS. Three pilots and a third party were killed in the accidents. These accidents were mainly caused by mistakes of the pilots, but also collisions with birds, engine flameouts and weather conditions.
If we consider over a period of only 30 years that the German Air Force lost 269 Starfighters through crashes out of a total of 917 machines that had been developed and procured at almost the same time, and 113 pilots lost their lives, the Mirage has proved to be in comparison a safe and reliable aircraft. The assessment of the Swiss test experts in 1959, however, that the Starfighter appeared unsuitable due to its high demands on flight skills and the tricky emergency landing requirements in the event of engine failure’ has been confirmed, equally Switzerland’s renunciation of the Super Tiger, which never attained serial production.
Guided missile tests in Vidsel – supersonic flights from Decimomannu
In 1977, three Mirage IIIS aircraft were deployed to Vidsel in Sweden for shooting tests with live ammunition and air-to-air guided missiles. In 1981, the weapons systems of the Mirage again, and for the first time, those of the Tiger combat aircraft could be engaged and evaluated in Vidsel, during the third test in 1986, Swiss Hunters were also integrated.
Supersonic flights below 10,000 MASL were and are prohibited over Swiss territory. 24 professional pilots, however, with six Mirage und six Tigers were able to carry out air combat exercises for the first time in 1985 from Decimomannu in Sardinia at low altitudes above the sea. These exercises were repeated in the following years. The modern monitoring installations in Decimomannu allowed uninterrupted evaluation of the controlled air battles.
In the course of their long period of use, the Mirage fleet were continually modified to enhance its combat power. These modifications involved electronic and aerodynamic improvements. The most obvious changes to the appearance of the aircraft were the addition of forward lateral winglets (canards). They improve the aircraft’s agility in the lower speed range. An ejection seat and a chaff-and-flare-dispenser were installed as well. At the same time the S fleet was painted in the same dull grey camouflage as the two-seaters already were.
The F/A-18 replaces the Mirage IIIS
At the end of 1997, the first F/A-18 squadron became operational: Thus, a new generation of interceptors came into service, an aeroplane that perceives the enemy at a distance of 100km and engages him from a distance of 30km, and namely several targets simultaneously. The Mirage visual range is 30km and 12 km for engagement. The obligation to save as well as the end of the East-West conflict necessitate the decommissioning of the more than 30-year old Mirage IIIS fleet. Therefore, the Management Board of the DDPS decides in 1998, to decommission the remaining 29 Mirage IIIS by the end of 1999. Running costs amounting to some 11 millions CHF can thus be saved.
The Mirage BS und RS continue to remain in service. The scout versions however will have to be replaced in the near future, possibly by F/A-18 machines that are additionally equipped for aerial reconnaissance. But it will be possible to admire some ten Mirage IIIS in aircraft museums.
Last updated: 12.05.2010