Non-conformist of the Mirage Clan
A sleek and elegant triangular shape cutting its way through the sky at supersonic speeds is the usual image that comes to mind at the mention of Dassault’s long lived Mirage family of aircraft. An extensive family of delta winged aircraft that can trace its history to the early 1950s and is exemplified today by the Mirage 2000. However, not all members of this illustrious and legendary line of jets marched to the same drummer.
The Mirage F.1, the prototype of which first flew in late 1966, was initiated as a private venture by Dassault with a primary focus on creating a relatively low cost flexible fighter which could be operated in less than optimum airfield conditions. However, the origins of the F.1 can be traced back to the Mirage F2; a failed all weather strike fighter prototype which had flown in June of 1966. It was from the F2 that the F.1 inherited its distinctively non-delta wing shape.
The Mirage F2 was Dassault’s response to a 1963 requirement issued by the French air force for a strike fighter to replace the Mirage III in that role. While the delta wing design gave the Mirage III much in the way of streamlining and speed, it had the drawback of requiring the aircraft to have a high landing speed; this translated into the Mirage III needing a long, well prepared runway.
The French air force specified that the new aircraft would need a lower landing speed so that it could be operated from shorter runways in potentially spartan and rudimentary conditions away from larger more permanent bases. To achieve this aspect of the specification, Dassault dispensed with the delta wing and instead opted for a swept wing mounted high on the fuselage and a separate tail unit of conventional design. The separate swept wing allowed a variety of high lift devices to be incorporated into it that were not adaptable to delta wing designs of the period; these devices permitted the aircraft to remain aloft at the lower landing speeds stipulated for the new strike aircraft.
The Mirage F2 was cancelled when France withdrew from the integrated command structure of NATO in 1966. The withdrawal created a change in France’s own military requirements and it was determined that, without NATO commitments to consider, France itself no longer had need of a large, expensive strike aircraft such as the F2 was.
What France did see a pressing need for at the time was an all weather interceptor capable of Mach 2 speeds that would also possess some ability in the strike mission. To meet this new requirement, Dassault put forth the Mirage F3 and the Mirage F.1 designs. the F3, like the F2, was a much larger, more complex and more expensive aircraft than the F.1; these factors would work against it. The F.1 was able to meet all the specified parameters in a smaller and more cost effective package and was ultimately chosen as France’s new fighter in 1967.
The first Mirage F.1 entered French air force service in spring of 1974.
A Mirage with More
In all aspects, the Mirage F.1 was superior to the Mirage III and its Mirage 5 offshoot. The F.1 had roughly 40% greater internal fuel capacity, significantly shorter take of and landing lengths, greater range and a more rugged construction which allowed operations from remote and austere conditions.
From an export standpoint, the F.1 did not see the tremendous levels of success that the Mirage III and 5 did; however, it did respectably well for itself and served in the air forces of 14 countries.
The core of the Mirage F.1 family consists of five variants, though there are several sub variants to each. The sub variants typically represented the equipment desires of the purchasing nation:
A ground attack optimized variation which used the F.1C as a base. It was developed jointly between France and South Africa.
Two seat training variation based on the F.1C
Standard all weather multi role fighter version. This was the first production version of the aircraft family.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, approximately 80 Mirage F.1C aircraft were built as F.1C-200 variants. The F.1C-200 incorporated an in flight refueling capability and served as the basis for the F.1CT ground attack and F.1CR reconnaissance versions.
Two seat trainer version of the F.1E
An export version with full mission capabilities of the F.1C as well as enhanced air to ground abilities.
The Hired Gun
The Mirage F.1 has had a particularly active life as far as combat operations are concerned. Many of these have been quite small and localized border skirmishes between neighboring nations.
What also stands out is that, in some cases, the aircraft seems to have something of a mercenary tone to its duties. France was not always picky about who they sold military equipment to and were not above selling to nations that had arms embargoes against them; such was the case of the South African F.1 fleet after an embargo was placed on that nation in 1977.
Through a large section of the 1980s, South Africa used the F.1 extensively against Angolan forces during the South African Border War.
Iraq flew many F.1 missions to intercept Iranian aircraft during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.
The Chadian-Libyan conflict, a series of skirmishes between Chad and Libya which lasted from 1978 to 1987, saw the Mirage F.1 flown by both sides. Libya used their F.1 fleet to make attacks on Chad while, through a defensive agreement with France, French F.1 aircraft were used to fly air cover for Sepecat Jaguar aircraft making counter-strikes into Libya.
In 2011, during the Libyan Civil War, a pair of Libyan Mirage F.1 aircraft made international headlines when the pilots decided to divert their aircraft to Malta rather than follow their orders to open fire on protesters in the city of Benghazi.
Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the Mirage F.1 has seen action in French service over the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Balkan Peninsula, Libya and Mali.
In combat operations, the Mirage F.1 showed great flexibility and adaptability to using a range of different weapons from a variety of sources. Beyond French made weapons, the aircraft was known to carry munitions of American, Israeli and South African origins.
Mirage F.1 operations in Europe were brought to an end when France disbanded their last unit of Mirage F.1CR aircraft in June of 2014. The type’s other European users, Greece and Spain, retired their fleets in 2003 and 2013 respectively.
As of late 2016, the Mirage F.1 soldiers on in Gabon, Iran, Libya and Morocco.
In spite of clearly being in its twilight years, the F.1 does still have some life in it. The Moroccan fleet was subject to an extensive engine and avionics upgrade which make it comparable to the Mirage 2000.
With the Libyan Civil War bringing an end to the Gaddafi regime and improving relations between Libya and the world; a deal was struck in which France would refurbish and upgrade Libya’s F.1 fleet.
As an interesting footnote to the F.1 story, shortly after Spain retired their remaining inventory of the type, Argentina entered negotiations to acquire some of the former Spanish aircraft. Negotiations between the two countries progressed to the point of a formal deal; however, Spain pulled out due to pressure from the UK against the sale fearing Argentina would use the aircraft to escalate tensions over the contested Falkland Islands.
Despite the failure of that deal, it does show that the Mirage F.1 is still viewed to have some value in spite of its age.
More evidence of the Mirage F.1’s enduring value came in late 2017 when two American civilian defense contractors, ATAC and Draken International, purchased fleets of former French and Spanish F.1s to provide aggressor aircraft for USAF fighter pilots to train against.
Former South African and French Mirage F.1 aircraft are used for fast jet training and aggressor work by the Paramount Group in South Africa.
This is a general overview of the F.1 at Dassault’s own web site:
This link will take you to a good article about the Mirage F.1 in South African service:
This article talks about the 2017 purchase of former French F.1s by ATAC: