From 1964 to 2003, the Swiss Air Force operated modified licence-built interceptor, reconnaissance and trainer versions of the classic 1960’s era French designed, delta winged Dassault Mirage III (the type was replaced by the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet between 1996 and 1999). Powered by a SNECMA Atar 09 turbojet engine, the Mach 2.0 capable Mirage III jet truly brought Switzerland into the supersonic age as it’s predecessor, the Hawker Hunter only had a top speed of Mach 0.94! Now they could rapidly defend Swiss air space if the need was ever to arise.
In 1961 the Swiss initially purchased a single Mirage IIIC from France (J-2201) to use as the basis for licence production of the Mirage IIIS by the federal government aircraft factory, F+W Emmen. They differed significantly in production from the original French design.
The Mirage IIIS airframe, wings and undercarriage were strengthened to enable them to be crane lifted within underground mountain bunkers that are very tight for space (4 lift points were added to the airframe) and this also enabled them to handle the Jet Assisted Take-Off (JATO) system that was fitted for rapid take-off from mountain air bases (they could also be fitted with a detachable rear mounted SEPR 84 rocket engine booster to increase speed during flight for a short period to make a rapid altitude climb to aid in interception missions. It could be switched on and off but could only be used for a maximum of 80 seconds). Swiss air space is small so they needed to get up and away fast!
The Mirage IIIS was also fitted with US supplied avionics and weapons systems replacing the standard French systems with a Hughes TARAN 18 radar (instead of the Thomson-CSF Cyrano II radar) and fire-control system, in addition Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) were fitted on both wingtips and on the rudder. French missiles were replaced with the Hughes GAR-11A variant of the AIM-4 Falcon (the radar guided export variant designated HM-55 were delivered by Hughes to Switzerland between 1965 to 1968) and AIM-9 Sidewinder (infrared guided) air-to-air missiles. The Mirage IIIS retained the standard French armament of two 30mm DEFA cannons.
In an upgrade program conducted from 1985 to 1988, new avionics and countermeasures (new radar warning receiver and chaff/flare dispenser) were fitted to the Mirage IIIS. As part of the upgrade program forward canard wings were also added to improve maneuverability and reduce the fighters landing speed (re-designated as Mirage IIIS C.70 – canard wing at 70%).
The “Mirage Affair”
Originally the Mirage IIIS was intended to provide a supersonic alternative to the Hawker Hunter that could be used as a true interceptor to protect Swiss air space and also in a secondary ground attack role (the Mirage was chosen over the Swedish Saab 35 Draken design). The fitting of US avionics, airframe strengthening and the development of a reconnaissance version caused massive cost overruns and lead to what was known as the “Mirage Affair” within the Swiss Government (the original planned reconnaissance camera wing pods were unsuccessful as they deteriorated the performance of the Mirage IIIRS and a redesign was required resulting in nose mounted cameras and a centerline photo-reconnaissance pod).
This lack of operational and financial oversight led to a lot of changes in Swiss military procurement processes to make them more transparent and professional in approach to future purchases. A small number of senior military and political personnel also stepped down over the affair including the Defence Minister. Due to the high cost, which was around 1.75 times the original budget, Mirage IIIS production was cut from a proposed 100 airframes to just 58 (plus the Mirage IIIC)!
The secondary ground attack role for the Mirage IIIS was abandoned as there were no longer enough aircraft to cover all the roles planned and in the 1970’s the Swiss purchased the relatively inexpensive Northrop F-5E Tiger II fighter to conduct both air to air and air to ground roles. The old Hawker Hunters that first entered Swiss service in 1958 soldiered on in the ground attack role into the 1990’s (please see my previous post).
Swiss Mirage III Inventory
The final inventory received by the Swiss Air Force was 36 Mirage IIIS interceptors (in service from 1964 to 1999), 18 Mirage IIIRS reconnaissance versions (in service from 1969 to 2003, 2 were lost in accidents) and 4 Mirage IIIBS two-seat trainers (the trainers were introduced into service in 1964). In addition, 2 Mirage IIIDS trainers were purchased in 1983 to replace 2 Mirage IIIBS lost in accidents. Both trainer models were retired in 2003.
The Mirage IIIRS reconnaissance aircraft did not have the nose radar fitted. It was replaced with a OMERA nose camera system and could also carry a photo-reconnaissance centerline pod. They retained a weapons capability including the two 30mm DEFA cannons and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. The Mirage IIIRS could also be fitted with JATO rockets. Examples of both the Mirage IIIS and IIIRS can be seen today in Hall 2 of the Swiss Air Force Centre (Flieger Flab Museum) at the Swiss Air Force base in Dübendorf near Zurich (the following photos are from my visit to the museum in December 2015).
Regardless of the issues it faced, the Mirage IIIS provided some thunder over the alps and served the Swiss Air Force for 30 valuable years. I am sure that lengthy service made up for the past!
Swiss Air Force Centre (Flieger Flab Museum)