Cold War Era

The True Story Behind Israeli Nesher Fighter, the Mirage 5 Built by Rockwell (and Not by IAI)

The 51 Mirage 5Js and 10 Mirage 5DDs were delivered to Israel on board of USAF’s C-141 Starlifter transports, in 1970, and assembled by a team of Rockwell’s engineers in what was meanwhile ‘Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI)’.

Some myths remain persistent no matter how much proven to be fake. Perhaps the best example is the myth about ‘Israeli Aircraft Industries Nesher’ – supposedly a Mirage 5 fighter ‘made in Israel’.

Sure, Israel did place an order for 50 of these in 1966; then France imposed an embargo and impounded all the aircraft; then the aircraft were taken over by the French Air Force as Mirage 5Fs…but that’s where the reality ends.

The rest of the known story is little else but a myth: many of those with the least clue about this affair love to insist that Israel also paid for these aircraft, but never got them, and that France never returned the payment… Supposedly, Israel then ‘solved the problem through espionage’, and ‘learned’ how to make own Mirages with help of such ‘spies’ like Alfred Frauenknecht (a Swiss engineer working at a company involved in licence production of Mirage in Switzerland) etc., etc., etc…

Firstly, nope: it’s not truth that the French kept the money but never delivered. Yes, the original deal for 50 Mirage 5Js was canceled in 1968, but Paris and Tel Aviv then negotiated the return of the Israeli payments for them. Concluded in February 1972, related talks resulted in France returning FF32 million Israel paid for this batch of aircraft.

Secondly, the story about Alfred Frauenknecht delivering ‘blueprints’ for Mirages to Israel was another cover-up: Frauenknecht was working on engine-related issues, for a Swiss company involved in local production of Mirage IIIS – and was out of condition to provide technical specifications for the Mirage 5J.

Actually…. in January 1968, Rockwell International made a deal with Dassault for another batch of Mirage 5Js to be delivered to Israel. To better cover-up the story, fuselages were made by Aerospatiale, wings by Reims-Cessna, while engines were manufactured by SABCA, a Belgian subsidiary of Dassault.

The 51 Mirage 5Js and 10 Mirage 5DDs were then delivered to Israel on board of USAF’s C-141 Starlifter transports, in 1970, and assembled by a team of Rockwell’s engineers in what was meanwhile ‘Israeli Aircraft Industries’.

Nope, this is no ‘Tom Cooper discovery’: the story of delivery and assembly of French-made Mirages to Israel was published in the US magazine Wings, back in 2001, in an interview with US aircraft designer Gene Salvay.

Salvay was working for North American since WWII, and was involved in coming-into being of types like B-25, F-86, F-100 etc. In mid-1960s (after the cancellation of the XF-108 Rapier interceptor), North American was bought by Rockwell – originally a company specialized in manufacturing car spares, but meanwhile curious to expand, so also to launch car spares production in Israel.

By 1970, Salvay was one of leading aircraft designers in the USA. Thus, he was sent by Rockwell to Israel to help install the General Electric J-79 engine into the Mirage fuselage. That’s how comes he witnessed the delivery and assembly of Mirage 5Js by US technicians at Israeli Aircraft Industries.

Indeed, that’s how comes Salvay then went on to design the Kfir – with quite some help from Lockheed and Dassault – before returning to the USA where he designed the B-1 bomber (between others).

The rest of the story was unearthed by Albert Grandolini in France, while David Lednicer shot the photo attached below, showing the manufacturer plate of the first Mirage 5J (meanwhile on display at the Israeli Air Force’s Museum in Israel).

Of course, this is all a rather emotional issue for interested Israelis. Unsurprisingly, even the ‘most authoritative researchers’ there are still insisting ‘only’ this – ‘the first Nesher’ – was ‘made in France’.

Actually, the story of Dassault’s involvement with the IAI just went on: in South Africa it’s a ‘public secret’ how many parts of ‘IAI Kfirs’ acquired to make Cheetah fighters in the 1980s and 1990s were also ‘made in France’.

Tom Cooper

Tom Cooper is an Austrian aerial warfare analyst and historian. Following a career in the worldwide transportation business – during which he established a network of contacts in the Middle East and Africa – he moved into narrow-focus analysis and writing on small, little-known air forces and conflicts, about which he has collected extensive archives. This has resulted in specialisation in Middle Eastern, African and Asian air forces. As well as authoring and co-authoring 560 books and over 1,000 articles, he has co-authored the Arab MiGs book series – a six-volume, in-depth analysis of the Arab air forces at war with Israel, in the 1955–73 period. Cooper has been working as editor of the five @War series since 2017.

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