Current and Finished Projects > Stories

The French Connection

(1/3) > >>

The French Connection

In late 1971, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) issued an Air Staff Requirement for a new fighter to replace the recently acquired Dassault Mirage III fighters. The response was overwhelming with just about every current or proposed fighter in the Western world being offered.  One offer stood out from the rest though. Ever innovative when it came to marketing their aircraft, Dassault offered a very attractive package deal. This package comprised three elements:

* First up, Dassault would buy back all the flyable RAAF Dassault Mirage IIIs - given the aircraft had only been in service since 1964 with the last ones being delivered in 1969, these aircraft were in good condition and Dassault were safely confident that that they would soon be re-sold;
* The new Dassault Mirage F1 would be acquired by the RAAF as a replacement for the Mirage IIIs. Moreover, Dassault offered Australian Industry an extremely attractive offer whereby Australian Industry would manufacture components for the entire world market for the F1. Moreover, assembly of the majority or the aircraft would take place in Australia and Australia would also be the production location for any F1s sold in the Asia-Pacific region; and finally
* Given the RAAF was still experiencing delays waiting for the General Dynamics F-111 bombers, Dassault would also include the new Dassault Mirage G8 as part of the same package. Given the F-111s were showing no signs of being delivered any time soon and in fact that the Australian Govt was already initiating legal action to cancel the contract and was looking for alternate options that could be delivered quickly (the leading candidates were seen to be either F-4 Phantom IIs, Blackburn Buccaneers or Grumman Intruders), this was seen as a timely offer.
Federal elections were held in Australia on 2 December 1972. The conservative Liberal Party led Government had essentially been in power since 1949 but at this election that ended. The Australian Labour Party (ALP) led by Gough Whitlam swept to power. Whitlam, a witty and powerful orator and former RAAF Navigator, took on the traditionally conservative bastion of Defence, riding on the back of the public’s dissatisfaction with the United States led campaign in Vietnam. Using this, and linking it to their wider “It’s time for a change” campaign theme, the ALP embraced the Dassault offer as a way to revitalise the RAAF, provide a strong economic injection to industry and also be seen as reducing the American influence.

In August 1973 the new government introduced their first budget. Amongst a raft of new measures was the announcement that the offer from Dassault would be taken up in full.

The Aircraft

The new Mirage F1O would be initially produced in two variants: The single seat Mirage F1O(F) fighter/attack variant and the two seat Mirage F1(D) trainer. Both variants were based upon the Mirage F1.M53 in development by Dassault - the RAAF would actually be the lead customer for this new variant. These had the new, more powerful SNECMA M-53 turbofan which when combined with increased fuel capacity, helped increase range. The nose profile was also revised to provide for the introduction of a retractable flight refuelling probe. Provision was also made for multi-role avionics as well as strengthened undercarriage. Assembly would be centred at the Government Aircraft Factory (GAF) with support from the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC).

Because of the focus on getting ready for the F1 production, the Mirage G8s were acquired directly from the factory in France. In early 1975, the first of 24 Mirage G8Os were delivered to the RAAF. By the end of the year 1 Squadron had stood up. A year later 6 Squadron had also stood up. Six of these would later be configured for the reconnaissance role and designated G8O(R). The two seat Mirage G8s were powered by the same SNECMA M53 engines as the F1 and were also equipped with a similar retractable refuelling probe. They were also equipped with Thompson-CSF Terrain Following/Attack Radar and a low-altitude navigational-attack system based on that used in the SEPECAT Jaguar and Dassault Milan. In RAAF service, the G8Os quickly got the nickname “The Pig” - a reference to their low flying ability combined with a reference to the French truffle hunting pigs.

Also in late 1976, the first RAAF Mirage F1O(F) was rolled out at Martignas-sur-Jalle, France, This was followed two days later by the first Mirage F1O(D) trainer. 7 months later, the first Australian assembled was rolled out from the GAF plant at Avalon in Victoria, Australia. The engine for this aircraft was produced by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation at Fishermans Bend in Melbourne. These first aircraft, along with their French built siblings were soon delivered to No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit (No. 2OCU) at RAAF Base Williamtown, New South Wales.

Gradually over the next 3 years, all the RAAF fighter squadrons ‘traded in’ their Mirage IIIs for the new Mirage F1s. A total of 100 Mirage F1Os were acquired and equipped No.s 3, 75, 76 and 77 Sqns as well as 2OCU. Later in 1980, a design was made to re-form No. 79 Squadron as a dedicated Tactical Reconnaissance unit. This was equipped with a total of 12 Mirage F1O(R) variants. These were based upon the French Mirage F1CR variant and included internal and external reconnaissance equipment including SAT SCM2400 Super Cyclone infrared linescan unit installed in the space previously occupied by the port cannon, under nose Thomson-TRT 40 panoramic camera or Thomson-TRT33 vertical camera as well as a variety of sensors carried in external pods carried under the fuselage centreline.

The Navy gets onboard

On 5 December 1976, a fire deliberately lit by a member of the Fleet Air Arm severely damaged the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne along with many of its A-4G and S-2G aircraft. The RAN had been contemplating a new carrier for many years and had over the years considered multiple options including the HMS Albion, HMS Hermes and even a Essex class carrier.  With the fire, these efforts regarding a updated carrier capability were redoubled. In June 1977, the Defence Force Development Committee approved an investigation into acquiring a new aircraft carrier. By August 1978, the decision was ranging from a Helicopter only platform such as a LHD, a ‘Harrier Carrier’ style ship also embarking VTOL capable fixed wing aircraft through to a full conventional CV.

At the same time as this was occurring, the Marine Nationale were also considering new ships. The PH75/PA75 was aimed at designing a nuclear-powered amphibious assault ship. As the design program moved forward though, the cost of the nuclear variant had become more and more unpalatable. Now the designers saw the RAN requirement as a way to spread the costs. Following a number of discussions, in January 1979, a new proposal was put to both the RAN and the Marine Nationale. This would see a combined construction programme involving two designs:

* The PH79 - this would be a conventionally powered LHD displacing some 18000t. It would be equipped only to handle helicopters but also incorporated a docking well aft able to handle various landing craft.
* The PA79 - this was a slightly larger version (displacing approx 22,000t) of the same basic design but still sharing many common elements. It was also equipped with an angled landing deck as well as arrestors and steam catapults.
Because of the use of much common equipment, and thus the greater buying power, it was envisaged that the total costs per ship could be reduced. Versions of both basic designs were proposed to satisfy both the need for the LHDs as well as replacements for the two Marine Nationale Clemenceau class ships Clemenceau and Foch as well as the RAN’s requirement. In all 6 ships would be built concurrently - two PH79 LHDs and two PA79 CVs for France and a single PH79 LHD and PA79 CV for Australia.  Both France and Australia were convinced with the resulting joint production contracts signed in early 1980. In the case of the RAN the ships would become the HMAS Canberra LHD and the HMAS Australia CV.

The HMAS Canberra was equipped with 18 of the new AS332 Super Puma which were also entering service with the Australian Regular Army. There was accommodation for 600 troops and their equipment, together with light vehicles.

The HMAS Australia would be equipped with up to 25 aircraft. These comprised of a mix of navalized Mirage F1O(M) fighters (essentially identical to the RAAF F1Os but with the addition of arrestor hook, catapult launch equipment and other aspects for naval use), turboprop S-2T Tracker (these being reconditioned and re-engined S-2G aircraft) and AS332 Super Pumas. In addition to the changes to the aircraft themselves, the Mirage F1O(M)s were also able to carry the AM39 Exocet Missile. This capability was also later added to the RAAF F1O(F) and G8O aircraft.

Both the HMAS Australia and HMAS Canberra entered service within a year of each other in 1983 and 1984 respectively.

Operational Service

For the first part of their lives, the RAAF’s Mirage G8Os and Mirage F1Os along with the RAN’s Mirage F1O(M)s had a relatively quite life. The only excitement being in May 1987 when the HMAS Australia was dispatched to Fiji as part of Operation Morris Dance in response to the first of the 1987 Fijian coups d'état.  During this operation though they played only a minor role.

A much greater role would be played in 1990/1991 when as part of Australia's contribution to the 1991 Gulf War under Operation Damask, No. 79 Squadron with its Mirage F1O(R) was deployed to Saudi Arabia as a dedicated Tactical Reconnaissance unit. The squadron would go on to fly some 450 operational sorties during the resulting liberation of Kuwait.

Following the war, the Mirage F1O(R)s would remain in the area as part of Operation Habitat, Australia’s contribution to the multinational response under the guise of Operation Provide Comfort. They would later be replaced in June 1991 by a flight of Mirage G8O(R)s as part of the ongoing Operation Jural in the region.

In December 1992, Australian forces were once again deployed, this time to Somalia. Under Operation Solace Australia’s contribution to the Unified Task Force (UNITAF) multinational force in the Republic of Somalia the HMAS Canberra deployed and subsequently supported the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) battalion group in south-central Somalia. The Battalion group was successful in improving the security situation and earned the respect of the non-government aid organisations operating in the region. The 1 RAR battalion group left Somalia on 21 May 1993 also via the HMAS Canberra.

The rest of the decade was relatively quiet for the Mirage fleet as they went through the “MUG” program (more below). That was until late 1999 when an emergency formed just North of Australia. Following a a referendum on the question of independence, violent clashes, instigated by a suspected anti-independence militia, sparked a humanitarian and security crisis in East Timor.  Following UN Resolutions, the International Forces East Timor (INTERFET) coalition began deploying to East Timor on 20 September 1999. Led by Australia, who contributed 5,500 personnel, it was tasked with restoring peace and security, protecting and supporting UNAMET, and facilitating humanitarian assistance. The RAN deployed a total of 16 ships to the task force of various types. The centrepiece though was the rotating contribution of either the HMAS Canberra or HMAS Australia. The lead up to the operation remained politically and militarily tense. Australia re-deployed frontline combat aircraft—Mirage F1O(F)s and Mirage G8Os—northward to act as a deterrent against escalation of the conflict by the Indonesian military. From 20 September, when INTERFET began to arrive in East Timor, the Mirages were maintained at a high level of readiness to conduct reconnaissance flights or air strikes if the situation deteriorated. For the latter role two G8Os armed with concrete-filled bombs fitted with precision guidance kits were kept available at all times.  INTERFET did not encounter significant resistance, however, and Mirage operations were limited to reconnaissance missions conducted by Mirage F1O(R)s.

The final operations conducted by the Australian Mirages were as part of Operation Falconer. This was Australia’s contribution to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As part of this Australia deployed both the HMAS Australia with its Mirage F1O(M)s and a combined squadron of Mirage G80s/G8O(R)s. During the war the Mirages flew a combined total of 750 combat sorties and dropped some 322 laser guided bombs with no losses.

Upgrades and Exports

In the mid-late 1990s, all the the RAF and RAN Mirages were given an intensive upgrade program. This became known as the Mirage UpGrade (MUG)program and comprised of the incorporation of upgraded radios, missioncomputers, Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation systems, upgraded Identification Friend or Foe (IFF), and a number of structural repairs to address airframe fatigue. The aircraft were also upgraded to carry the Thales RDY multifunction radar which provided a great improvement in capability.

As part of the original deal with Dassault, Australia would also be the production location for any F1s sold in the Asia-Pacific region. Following the entry into service of the RAAF and RAN aircraft, there was a major push to find extra markets for the aircraft and thus to keep the Australian production lines gainfully employed. This was met with some significant success.

New Zealand

First opportunity was seen in New Zealand. In 1985 the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) was considering a major upgrading of its A4K Skyhawk fighters. However, rather than do this it was soon decided to acquire 16 Mirage F1s from Australia. These would comprise 12 F1NZ(F) single seaters and 4 F1NZ(D) dual seaters and were essentially identical to the F1O(F) and F1O(D) aircraft operated by the RAAF.


In 1988, the Republic of Singapore Air Force was considering a replacement for its ageing Hawker Hunters. At first it looked like the RSAF would select the General Dynamics F-16 for this. However, after approached by Australia aided by multiple operations alongside the RAAF Mirage F1O(F)s as part of regular Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) exercises out of RMAF Butterworth and RAAF Tindal, in late 1988 Singapore announced it would acquire an initial 4 Mirage F1S(F) and 2 Mirage F1S(D) aircraft. These were to be followed a year later by a larger order of 38 Mirage F1S(F) and 12 Mirage F1S(D)s.


The final recipient of Australia built Mirage F1s was another FPDA partner. In 1988 Malaysia also approached Australia to seek 18 Mirage F1s to replace their F-5/RF-5 fighters which had started to experience significant fatigue problems.  Over the next 2 years, a total of 20 Mirages would be delivered, comprising of 8 Mirage F1M(F) fighters, 10 Mirage F1M(R) Reconnaissance aircraft and 2 Mirage F1M(D) trainers.

End of the Line

In 2005, the decision was made to finally retire the Mirages. Both the G8Os and F1Os would be replaced with a single type. Following a competition to identify a common platform capable of fulfilling all the roles required, it was announced that both the RAAF and the RAN would acquire the new Dassault Rafale, thus continuing the French connection with the ADF

This has been a project long in the works, originally starting back in 2014 with Damian Manley who did these line drawings based on photos i supplied him of the real world Mirage F1 M53 variant:

I thank him, and others and especially Mark Jones who has helped me push it across the line these last few months with his F1 profiles in the main story.

The inspiration for this was the real world offer by Dassault for Australia to produce F1s in the mid-late 1970s.

Outstanding, I have been waiting for this for a long time since you first mentioned it a few years back.

One addition I would suggest that has a bit of real world is the RAN apparently initially favoured the Super Frelon over the Sea King but went for the latter for cost reasons.

Edit. The a conventionally powered version of the PH75 was offered to the RN, if memory serves, it was to have been Olympus powered.  HMAS Success was a derivative of the French Durance Class AORs and served very effectively for decades, there were originally meant to have been two built but the second was never ordered following real and perceived build issues with the first.  Real problems encountered include design data being in metric and the Australian decision to hire some French speakers to translate the data for the build, rather than contracting the French to do it as part of a larger build support contract that the powers that be decided wasn't necessary.


--- Quote from: Volkodav on November 02, 2019, 11:00:09 AM ---One addition I would suggest that has a bit of real world is the RAN apparently initially favoured the Super Frelon over the Sea King but went for the latter for cost reasons.

--- End quote ---

Maybe.  I would love a 1/48 kit of both the Super Frelon and more importantly, the Super Puma - the latter because I really want to do an alternate to the Blackhawk in Australian Army service since it came down to hat pair back in the '80s.

--- Quote from: Volkodav on November 02, 2019, 11:00:09 AM ---The a conventionally powered version of the PH75 was offered to the RN, if memory serves, it was to have been Olympus powered. 

--- End quote ---

Indeed - 2 RR Olympus TM3 gas turbines - see below:

Very interesting, was the conventional PA 75 a real project? I know the PH75 was and was offered as a Melbourne replacement, the PA75 could have been a more economical solution with the more expensive ship being able to operate Melbourne's existing air group then potentially being able to operate F/A-18A/B from the mid 90s when the Skyhawk came due for replacement. 

Off topic I know but the real world implications are intriguing.  I already know the modifications to the first three FFGs and the acquisition of the SH-60B to replace the still very effective Sea King in the ASW role was more expensive than buying (or even building) a replacement for Melbourne. If there was an affordable CTOL option that changes everything.


[0] Message Index

[#] Next page

Go to full version