A November 1977 United Nations embargo on the delivery of weapons to South Africa forced the South African Air Force (SAAF) to place a high priority on a mid-life upgrade of the aircraft surviving from the 74 Dassault Mirage IIIs and related types received during 1963-70. The upgrade made extensive use of Israeli technology (a fact that was officially denied) and produced aircraft with similar capabilities and avionics to the Israeli Kfir.
Some 16 Mirage IIIEZs were converted to Cheetah E standard, roughly equivalent to Kfir-C7, while 11 two-seater Mirage IIIDZs and D2Zs were modified as Cheetah Ds, being similar to the Kfir-TC7. Five more Cheetah Ds may have been produced from Kfir or Mirage airframes supplied by IAI.
Cheetah D entered service with No 89 CFS from 1 July 1986, the single seat Cheetah E following it into service with No 5 Sqn from March 1988. Cheetah D may also have briefly flown in the nuclear strike role in 1990, At a time when the SAAF's Buccaneers were phasing out of service and before South Africa dismantled its six nuclear weapons in 1992.
With the retirement of the multi-role Cheetah E in October 1992, began the introduction of the previously secret Cheetah C. Equipped with a modern pulse-Doppler, track-while-scan EUM-2032 radar, this aircraft is formidable air defence aircraft, while the Cheetah E, with its simple ranging radar was optimised for ground attack. Cheetah C also introduces advanced avionics, a glass cockpit and HOTAS controls and employs an array of sophisticated weapons. Cheetah C entered service from late 1992 and deliveries were completed in June 1995. All 38 Cheetah Cs were built using Israeli-supplied airframe components (perhaps from surplus Kfirs or new-build) and used Atar 09K50 engines from South Africa's Mirage F1s, rather than the 09C engine of the earlier Kfirs. Surviving Cheetah Ds have been upgraded with the more powerful engine and other features of the Cheetah C. The Cheetah will continue in SAAF service until its final replacement by BAE Systems Hawk 100 and Saab/BAE Systems Gripen aircraft in 2012.