Wondering About Those Wedge-Shaped Fighter Jets Over Tucson? Here's Your Answer!

It seems as if the unfamiliar appearance of the delta-winged, charcoal gray jets with white bellies have attracted some local attention.

Colombian Air Force participates in Red Flag
Staff Sgt. Angela Ruiz—12th Air Force (Air Forces South

I have received a bunch of messages over the last 72 hours from people living in Tucson, Arizona who were trying to figure out the origin of the unfamiliar charcoal and white jets that have been roaring their way around the skies over Davis Monthan AFB. Their delta-wing shape clearly sparked the interest of local residents even though the community is well acquainted with tactical aircraft roaming around their airspace. The answer to this little mystery is that these aircraft are Israeli-built Kfir C10 fighters belonging to the Colombian Air Force.

So why is the Colombian Air Force operating in Arizona? They are there to prepare for Red Flag, the USAF's premier large-scale air combat exercise that takes place roughly three times a year over southern Nevada. In order to get the most out of this highly complex and challenging flying, foreign air arms often bed down at one of the USAF's master air bases that has very convenient access to expansive training ranges so that they can sharpen their skills before the curtain lifts on the 'big show' at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas. These work-ups can also include pilots getting accustomed to new upgrades on their aircraft that will be put to the test during the big international exercise. 

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A Colombian Air Force Kfir C.10 taxis on the apron at Davis Monthan AFB after arriving on July 5th. 

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Colombian Air Force personnel arrive at Davis Monthan AFB on July 5th aboard a KC-767 Taner Transport. Like the Kfirs, the KC-767 is also an Israeli product and is converted from a second-hand 767 airframe. 

Colombia has also sent Super Tucano light attack planes to Davis Monthan AFB in the past to take part in large close air support exercises. But those drills don't compare in scale to what Kfir pilots will face during the upcoming Red Flag.

This isn't the Colombian Air Force's first time at Red Flag, they brought a half dozen Kfirs and a KC-767 tanker-transport to the exercise in 2012, which drew a lot of attention from military aviation aficionados and photographers. 

The Kfir ('Lion Cub') is an incredibly interesting aircraft as it is basically a knock-off of the 1960s vintage Mirage III/V with a few alterations. The biggest of which is its General Electric J79 turbojet engine—the same powerful type that powered the F-4 Phantom—that took the place of the French SNECMA Atar turbojet.

Israel once had a force of Kfirs on hand in its own arsenal and the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps even flew a handful of earlier models loaned by Israel as part of the dissimilar adversary training program back in the 1980s. Most famously, the Kfir starred as the bad guys' jets in the awesomely campy '80s air combat action flick Iron Eagle. 

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VMFAT-401 Kfirs in formation circa 1988.

Kfirs left the IAF's front-line inventory by late 1990s, but Israeli's potent defense and aerospace industry saw it as a relatively simple, cost-effective, yet high-performance platform that could provide 4th generation fighter-like capabilities at a fraction of the cost. As such, the Kfir was outfitted with a modern pulse-doppler radar set, new cockpit displays and pilot interfaces, the ability to carry smarter weapons and electronic warfare pods, among other enhancements, and exported to a number of countries. One of which was Colombia. 

In fact, Colombia was a Kfir operator before the type was drastically upgraded, having acquired examples in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but those were basically daytime intermediate-weight fighters until the upgrade process began. So Colombia has been operating the Kfir for nearly 30 years in one form or another. 

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Kfir C.10 on the ramp at Nellis in 2012. Note the notoriously capable ELTA EL/L-8222 Jamming Pod on the wing-root station. Colombia has 21 Kfirs in its inventory. 

Today's C.10 C60 standard Kfir is a far cry from where the jet began. They are multi-role fighters with beyond-visual-range capability via the Derby missile—also supplied by Israel—and capable of aerial refueling and operations in almost all atmospheric conditions. They feature a modern cockpit, helmet mounted display, digital radar warning receiver, and an open-architecture avionics suite similar to that of a Block 50 F-16. They can employ LITENING targeting pods and precision-guided munitions. At the heart of the upgrade is the highly adaptable Elta Systems EL/M-2032 radar which supposedly now features an AESA antenna. 

Clearly, the Colombians are excited to bring the new capabilities this latest upgrade provides to the international air combat stage that is Red Flag. 

Although they may not feature the raw performance or payload of their more complex 4th generation counterparts, they are still nimble, and in an era where the sensors a fighter carries have become more important than the kinematic performance of the platform they are attached to, Columbia's Kfirs offer big capability on a modest budget. 

It's also worth noting that about a half a dozen Kfirs, often referred by its DoD 'F-21' designation, have been flying in the states for nearly two decades as part of the Airborne Tactical Advantage Company's (ATAC) commercial adversary support aircraft fleet. In fact, they have been the highest-performance private aggressors in continuous service, but that is about to change, which you can read all about here.

Tyler Rogoway/Author

ATAC F-21/C2 Kfirs on the ramp at Point Mugu along with their Hawker Hunter stablemates. 

ATAC's jets are not anywhere near as advanced as Colombia's and lack a radar of any type. But what can be seen as another variant of the Kfir, the Atlas Cheetah, which was built for the South African Air Force with the help of Israeli defense contractors, are more advanced and include radars. A dozen of those jets are now destined for ATAC's competitor, Draken International and will be upgraded before entering into service. 

So the Kfir family of jets will become a more familiar sight over the U.S. soon. As for when the Colombian Kfirs will move from Davis Monthan AFB to Nellis AFB for Red Flag, that should occur in about ten days or so as the exercise is slated to kick-off on July 23rd and will run through August 8th. 

In the meantime, the citizens of Tucson can look up and enjoy the "Lion Cub's" roar.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com