Skip to content Skip to footer

South Africa’s Atlas Carver | Lessons for Pakistan?

In the early 1980s, South Africa tasked the country’s main defence vendor, Atlas, to design, develop and manufacture an indigenous fourth-generation multi-role fighter.

Designated “Carver,” the fighter was an ambitious play at replacing the South African Air Force’s (SAAF) legacy Mirage III and Mirage F-1 combat aircraft with an indigenous state-of-the-art solution.

However, the Carver was cancelled by 1991 due to both a shift in South Africa’s strategic realities – namely the end of the Angolan Border War and lifting of international sanctions – and escalating costs. In fact, by the time the project was halted, South Africa had spent around $2 billion US on development.[1]

Though the Carver is no longer a factor, there may be parallels between the intent and aspirations of the SAAF in the 1980s and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) today. Like the SAAF in the 1980s, the PAF of today is working on its own in-house next-generation fighter aircraft. Moreover, like the SAAF, the PAF was more or less compelled to embark on an indigenous project due to a lack of willing overseas suppliers.

But the Carver can also be a lesson on the difficulty and complexity of fighter development, especially for a country with limited industrial inputs. While South Africa was ahead in terms of the latter compared to Pakistan, it is arguably still the closest analogue to Pakistan’s situation compared to other countries with fighter projects, such as South Korea’s KF-X.

History of the Atlas Carver Fighter Program

In the late 1970s, the SAAF was facing both the potential threat of new, advanced fighter aircraft joining Angola, and the reality that its fleet of Mirage III and Mirage F-1 fighters were aging. However, due to the sanctions imposed on South Africa at the time, the SAAF did not have many options for next-generation fighter aircraft from abroad (e.g., the Mirage 2000 or F-16). Thus, the SAAF had to rely on its own industry.

In the early 1980s, the SAAF had actually embarked on three fleet modernization programs, of which the Carver was among them. The other two revolved around the Cheetah, i.e., a vast modernization program of the SAAF’s Mirage IIIs involving a new engine, airframe engines, and contemporary electronics suite.

Though a significant upgrade, the Cheetahs were meant as an interim solution until the Carver (and after the project was cancelled, a fourth-generation fighter) was inducted. The goal was to start replacing all of the SAAF’s existing fighter aircraft from 2000, i.e., 15 years after the start of the Carver’s development.[2]

The SAAF had envisaged a fighter in the class of the F-16 and Mirage 2000.[3] At its peak, the development process would have required more than 4,000 engineers.[4] However, the costs and development time were both expected to be relatively high due to the need to develop the critical inputs, such as the engine and electronics. Moreover, South Africa could not shake itself of developing the inputs due to sanctions.

The Carver’s Development Process

The first phase of the Carver’s development process was the SAAF’s User Requirement Specification (URS), which spelled out the SAAF’s requirements of the fighter. Like the PAF’s Air Staff Requirement (ASR), the URS sets out basic design or configuration details, intended roles, and required capabilities.

The Carver’s URS is said to have taken 15 months to draft due to the difficulty involved with matching the SAAF’s requirements to the capabilities of the South African defence industry.[5]

Once the Carver’s design requirements were frozen, Atlas began recruiting experts – including designers, engineers, and other personnel – to basically start a fighter program from scratch. The lead designer of the Carver was David Fabish, who had worked on Dassault’s Mirage 2000.[6]

The initial design configuration of the Carver was that of a medium-weight single-engine aircraft. One of the Carver’s key features was that it was supposed to make extensive use of composite materials so as to reduce both its weight and observability on radar. It was to have similar payload to the Mirage 2000.[7]

The next phase investing in developing the fighter’s critical inputs, namely: composite materials, avionics and communications systems, and an engine to power the aircraft.[8]

By 1987 or 1988, Atlas was conducting wind tunnel tests of Carver models at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) facilities. Work was also underway in constructing a 1:1 scale mock-up as well as a prototype of the fighter.[9] By this point, the Carver’s development was progressing.

However, the engine remained a major challenge. South Africa only had access to the French Atar 9K50 turbojet engine, so it tasked Mattek and Aerotek to improve the system. Though those companies were successful in that regard, the 9K50 was not enough to power the Carver. Atlas tried to procure the Mirage 2000’s M53 and the Rafale’s M88, but it was not successful in either endeavour.[10]

Interestingly, late into the design process, the SAAF also opted to change the configuration from that of a single-engine jet to a twin-engine system. One theory for this was that because the Atar 09K50 was both the only engine available and that it was underpowered, the Carver would have to be twin-engine in order to meet the SAAF’s operational requirements while drawing on South Africa’s available inputs.[11]

Though the design change would have set the Carver back by two more years, it would not matter in the end. In 1991, the South African government announced that it would cancel the Carver program.

Lessons for Pakistan and Project Azm?

One of the telling aspects of the Carver was that South Africa had spent $2 billion US (in the early 1990s, so $3.94 billion US by today’s standards) on development before reaching the first prototype.

It appears that a major reason for the cost was the need to develop critical inputs, such as the engine and composites for the airframe, with very little prior infrastructure. In other words, South Africa was basically developing a fighter on a turnkey basis, i.e., completely free of outside inputs.

In an interview in 2018, the PAF’s Chief of Air Staff (CAS) said that Project Azm is “indigenous at this time,” and that the PAF “will be self-reliant and not dependent upon western or eastern partners.”[12] While this would suggest that the PAF wants to source a fighter domestically on a turnkey basis, one must remember that South Africa was compelled to go turnkey out of necessity – it had no other option.

Moreover, as one can see from the South African example, the cost of developing those inputs from zero is very high. It could amount to billions of dollars before a workable prototype is even built. However, the payoff is not only that of an indigenous fighter, but a technology base that one could scale to other areas, and in turn, drive high-value exports and lower the cost of developing other projects (e.g., drones).

It is evident from the CAS’ statements that the PAF wants to achieve a turnkey aerospace capabilities, but does it have to take the same route as South Africa? Basically, South Africa had to invest in critical inputs in order to get to a prototype because it had no one to help it.

On the other hand, the PAF apparently does have the option of leaning on at least one complete industrial power, i.e., China. So, at least initially, the PAF can source critical subsystems, such as engines, from the Chinese (or others) to drive the development of Project Azm forward, while avoiding major redesign work due to domestic constraints (e.g., the Carver’s switch from single to twin-engine).

So, the PAF could accelerate Azm’s development by using subsystems that are already available off-the-shelf, but indigenize its inputs through the long-term years, if not decades, after the first prototype. This is actually the same approach Turkey is taking with the TF-X, i.e., Turkish Aerospace will use the General Electric F110 to power the prototype and initial batch while it develops an indigenous turbofan.[13]

With the PAF apparently eschewing fighter imports through the 2020s, it would need Project Azm to come online by the 2030s so as to build parity with the Indian Air Force (IAF). In other words, the PAF is not in a position to sustain extensive delays outside of the core fighter design work, which it is undertaking locally through the Aviation Research, Innovation and Development (AvRID) Secretariat.

Thus, the PAF could decouple Azm’s progress from indigenization. So, for example, the prototype and/or initial tranche could use a foreign engine, while an indigenous turbofan is developed for a later variant. In a sense, this approach would be a continuation of the PAF’s ‘block building’ strategy with the JF-17, except now, later Project Azm blocks would not only feature improved capabilities, but greater localization.

One aspect to keep in mind is to observe the extent of China’s participation in the project. While there is little doubt of the PAF contracting Chinese assistance (especially from Chengdu Aerospace Corporation as it already has a serving fifth-generation fighter and the fact that the PAF is familiar working with it), Azm is wholly Pakistani-owned. It is not a joint-venture like the JF-17.

In other words, the PAF is controlling the management of Azm at every step, and it is solely responsible in terms of protecting the design work and technology of the program. Thus, there might be scope for Azm using Western technology where available, especially at the prototype stage. This fact may explain why the PAF is apparently open to working with Turkey on the TF-X. They may be scope for collaborating with the Turks on developing inputs (e.g., gas turbines, electronics, etc) for use on Project Azm.

Interestingly, these are apparent luxuries that the PAF enjoys which the SAAF did not have when it had embarked on Carver. However, with less (in terms of resources and accessibility), South Africa did have a potentially viable fighter program. With more access to technology as well as strategic urgency, one could argue that the viability of Project Azm is much stronger at this point.

[1] Darren Olivier. “Project Carver emerges from the shadows.” African Defence Review. 14 November 2016. URL:

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Alan Warnes. Interview with Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan. Asian Military Review. 10 January 2019. URL:

[13] Burak Ege Bekdil. “General Electric beats Rolls-Royce to power Turkey’s indigenous fighter jet.” 31 October 2018. URL:

Show CommentsClose Comments

Leave a comment