Thirty-one years ago, on Aug. 30, 1987, an Israeli cabinet voted to terminate Israel’s Lavi fighter program, ending the largest single weapons development effort in the history of the Jewish state. It was a narrow, party-line vote in a divided “national unity” Cabinet. As the story behind this airplane has receded into history and its memory has faded among the succeeding generations, its broader meaning and significance to Israel’s national security has likewise been largely lost. The consequences of decisions not fully understood at the time that they were made will so often be visited upon the generations that follow. For the Lavi, the implications behind this program, and the ripple effects of its cancellation, continue to cast waves across Israel’s strategic standing even to this day.
The genesis of the Lavi has its origins in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War. In the weeks and months leading up to and following that war, Israel’s traditional arms suppliers in Europe would halt the flow of weapons to the Jewish state. This is a reality that the current generation, in both Israel and the United States, may find difficult to fathom: a time when there was no “special relationship” between the United States and Israel. The supply of Mirage fighters and Saar 3 missile boats from France, as well as a secret agreement for the supply of Chieftain main battle tanks from the United Kingdom, would all be suspended. It was out of this bitter experience that Israel’s leadership placed a renewed emphasis on the development of an indigenous Israeli arms industry—both to provide a safeguard against future interruptions in the supply of weapons and spares, and also to better respond to the unique and specific requirements of Israel’s armed forces.
It was from these initiatives that such Israeli weapons programs as the Shafrir and later Python air-to-air missiles were launched, as well as the Gabriel family of anti-ship missiles, the Saar 4 missile boats, the Merkava main battle tank, as well as the Nesher and later Kfir family of fighter-bombers. Moreover, while the United States would eventually step in as Israel’s benefactor and primary source of arms, subsequent delays and suspensions in U.S. arms deliveries would only serve to reinforce the value of an indigenous Israeli arms manufacturing capability. This occurred in 1975 for example, when the United States suspended the delivery of jet warplanes to Israel as a pressure tactic during negotiations for Israel’s withdrawal from the western Sinai. This was but the first of many incidents, whereby the supply of weapons would be tied to concessions in Israeli policy. These domestic arms capabilities could never fully insulate Israel from future arms embargoes. However, they could and did help to blunt the impact of shorter-term policy squabbles as the United States became Israel’s sole major supplier of arms.
It is in these terms, of course, that the story of the Lavi is most often related: Israel Aircraft Industries (today’s Israel Aerospace Industries) was charged in the latter 1970s to develop concepts for a new indigenous fighter-bomber to replace the earlier Kfir. This effort culminated in the launch of the Lavi fighter program in February of 1980—a program that was eventually canceled following the budget crises and deep defense cuts of the mid-1980s. And there is a certain truth to this narrative. IAI’s fighter-manufacturing capability was indeed developed as an outgrowth of the 1967 weapons embargoes, which had left deep scars among many in Israel’s military and political leadership. But there were also profound, underlying objectives at play, shaping the kind of warplane that was being built and the significance behind it.
Beginning in the latter 1960s, the Israeli arms industry had been charged not only with providing an Israeli alternative to foreign arms, but also with responding to the unique and specific needs of Israel’s armed forces. Despite superficial similarities between weapons of the same variety, Israel’s unusual strategic position also meant that Israel’s war planners would have their own specific needs in mind. It is here that the narrative behind the Lavi program continues to have the broadest implications for Israeli policy makers today.
Where possible, the IDF has historically sought to modify foreign weapons systems to meet its own specific requirements. Taking advantage of existing production lines—whether for aircraft or warships or submarines, was usually far less expensive than developing a new major weapons platform on their own. Only where this was not possible or where no similar capability existed elsewhere did an indigenous Israeli weapons system become the preferred alternative. During the 1960s, for example, Israel had contracted France’s Dassault—the manufacturer behind the Mirage III fighter that then formed the backbone of Israel’s air force—to develop a specially configured, air-to-ground version of the airplane known as the Mirage V. The Mirage V increased the airplane’s available weapons stations from three to seven and increased the airplane’s maximum bomb load from 2,000 to 9,260 pounds (from 910 to 4,200 kilograms). It also added an extra 110 gallons (420 liters) of fuel capacity to the airplane. It was only when the French government embargoed deliveries of these Mirage fighters to Israel that the Israeli government exercised clandestine means to acquire the blueprints for the fighter’s Atar engine and proceeded to manufacture the airplanes, and their engine, in Israel as the Nesher fighter-bomber. This manufacturing experience became the basis for the subsequent Kfir fighter program, which further increased the airplane’s range and payload. Similarly, the Israeli government concluded that modifying the existing U.S.-developed F-16 fighter jet would have been the preferred alternative toward meeting Israel’s fighter-bomber needs in the 1980s and ’90s. In 1977 the Israeli government proposed that Israel be allowed to assemble locally 200 copies of the airplane in Israel. Local production would have allowed the aircraft to be modified to meet specific Israeli strike-fighter requirements. At the time, the F-16 was already being co-produced at assembly plants in Europe, so the Israeli proposal was not without precedent. Moreover, the F-16 would later go on to be manufactured in South Korea and Turkey, and Japan would produce an advanced derivative of the airplane years later labeled the F-2. It was only after these proposals to locally produce the airplane in Israel had been rejected—once in 1977 and again in 1980—that the Israeli government authorized the launch of the Lavi program. The Lavi was therefore meant to be a substitute not for the F-16, but for an F-16 modified to meet Israel’s specific needs.
Foremost among the realities that Israeli war planners have long had to address has been Israel’s lack of strategic depth—in both territory and manpower. This bitter reality has meant that Israel’s military doctrine has of necessity come to emphasize offensive tactics: carrying the war to the enemy and away from Israel’s population centers as quickly as possible. Range and payload capacity was already being emphasized in Israeli fighter-bombers at a time when much of the world still saw fighter jets as being primarily air-to-air instruments of war. The adage of “not a pound for air to ground” was still being widely professed as a religion within the U.S. Air Force, at a time when Israeli weapons engineers were being tasked to further expand the air-to-ground repertoire of the Mirage-derived Nesher and subsequent Kfir fighter jets. Moreover, Israel’s lack of depth in terms of manpower has also meant that Israel would forever remain extraordinarily sensitive to casualties. For a nation so small, this was a strategic reality, not merely an expression of sentiment. It was not merely a question of the value that Israeli society might place on the lives of individual soldiers. Israel had no vast manpower reserves to call upon. Trained soldiers—and pilots in particular—were a commodity that could not be so easily replaced.
These were the realities that would forever shape the design and development of Israeli weapons systems. During the 1970s, for example, at a time when other national armies were emphasizing increased firepower or increased mobility in their new main battle tank designs, Israel was developing the Merkava with an emphasis on crew protection. Virtually every other tank to come out of the latter 20th century would place the crew compartment in front of the engine, to afford maximum visibility and hence mobility on the battlefield. The Merkava, in contrast, would place the crew behind the engine, so that if its armor was ever pierced it would be the engine that was sacrificed and not the crew. It was the beginning of an armored design philosophy that lives on to this day, with the introduction of ever-improved armor for successive models of the tank, and more recently, with the deployment of the Trophy missile defense system for the Merkava Mk IV.
This same set of priorities and emphases came to be seen in the design of the Lavi. Although the airplane would have a lighter empty weight than its nearest American counterpart, it would incorporate an avionics package that was 80 percent larger by weight than that afforded by the earlier F-16A. Most of this difference would be absorbed by the Lavi’s sophisticated, Israeli-developed electronic countermeasures (ECM) package, intended to shield the airplane from opposing surface-to-air missiles. Israeli developers had become renowned for their electronic warfare expertise, ever since the U.S.-supplied ECM systems of the early 1970s had so utterly failed Israeli pilots during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. For an airplane such as the F-16, however, which had never been intended to incorporate a countermeasures package of this breadth, adding so many new subsystems would have necessitated that they be incorporated externally, in pods. The Lavi in contrast was intended to incorporate this entire ECM package internally—freeing up space under the wings for additional weapons. Also unlike its U.S.-developed counterparts, the Lavi was expected to take the fight deep into enemy territory when called upon. The airplane would boast an unrefueled combat radius in a hi-lo-hi strike mission of some 1,150 nautical miles (2,130 km), some 50 percent greater than the Block 40 F-16C, all packaged into an airframe with an empty weight that was 20 percent lighter than its American counterpart. This range capability was the difference between an airplane that could only just barely stage an air strike on a nuclear reactor outside of Baghdad, and a platform with the ability to strike targets in Iran. Once again, the Lavi was an Israeli answer to uniquely Israeli challenges.
The design of the Lavi therefore reflected Israeli weapons development priorities, not those of a foreign supplier. As a consequence, canceling the Lavi has left Israel’s future weapons planners with a gap in both their options, and their bargaining position. In many respects, this has proven to be the deeper, more enduring impact from canceling the program.
As a bulwark against suspensions in foreign arms supplies, the Lavi would have been an imperfect defense. Some 40 percent of the airplane’s components were expected to be sourced from U.S. suppliers. Everything from the engine, to the composite wings, to the fly-by-wire computer, to the actuators that moved the control surfaces, were all developed and produced by U.S. manufacturers. This had been done to allow the Lavi to take advantage of U.S. military aid, but also to minimize the development cost for the airplane. Where possible, the Lavi had utilized off-the-shelf technologies and subsystems, rather than attempting to recreate them.
Contrary to the impressions promoted by many of the program’s detractors, development costs for the Lavi were actually quite reasonable given the ambitious objectives behind the aircraft. An assessment performed at the time by the U.S. General Accounting Office (today’s Government Accountability Office) projected that the entire Lavi development effort—including all design, prototype and flight-test activities—was expected to cost no more than $1.9 billion in 1985 dollars. To put this into perspective, the U.S. Navy’s original F/A-18 development program had totaled some $3.38 billion in equivalent 1985 dollars. Similarly, translated into 1985 dollars, Japan’s F-2 fighter, developed as a stretched derivative of the existing General Dynamics F-16, would total some $2.31 billion in development expenses. The Lavi had been a bargain in contrast. The development team behind the program had succeeded in controlling costs in large part by utilizing off-the-shelf components and technology where appropriate and devoting any all-new subsystem-development efforts to those technologies and features that would truly provide a tactical advantage.
Where the Lavi fell vulnerable was not in the capabilities that it delivered, nor even in the development costs behind it, but in the unit delivery costs associated with such a small production run. The unit cost of a complex weapons system such as the Lavi will be highly sensitive to the number of aircraft being procured. As originally proposed in 1980, a total of no less than 300 Lavi fighters were expected to be delivered to the IDF. As assessed by the U.S. GAO, the unit fly-away cost for the Lavi was expected to total $17.8 million in 1985 dollars, on the basis of a 300 aircraft production run. This compared favorably to the $16.9 million fly-away cost projected for an F-16C fitted with an avionics package derived from the Lavi. For a relatively small increase in unit cost, the Lavi offered a significant performance advantage in terms of range, payload and survivability. As the Israeli defense budget was successively cut throughout the mid-1980s, however, the projected aircraft buy had to be slashed accordingly. On a 150-aircraft purchase, the unit fly-away cost of the Lavi was expected to increase by 55 percent. And at the cabinet meeting where the Lavi was ultimately canceled in August of 1987, the opponents of the program would quote the unit cost for the aircraft on the basis of an even smaller, 80-aircraft purchase—ensuring that it appeared even less attractive.
To remain a viable alternative, the Lavi’s proponents would have needed a plan that would increase the total aircraft production run to something closer to the 300 aircraft envisioned at the program’s inception. This was not, however, as unlikely of a scenario as it might seem at first glance. There were relatively few prospects for major export sales of the Lavi abroad, but there was a very real possibility for marketing additional airplanes to the program’s other partner nation: the United States. Nearly half of the Lavi was already intended for manufacture at U.S. facilities. This was part of the reason why the application of existing U.S. military assistance to help fund the Lavi had been endorsed by President Ronald Reagan in November 1983, and was subsequently approved by the U.S. Congress. In the words of Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., who had been instrumental in gaining approval for that funding, “The aircraft could have both the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes as its insignia. It is a joint venture in a very real sense with a number of American aerospace companies directly participating.” Moreover, the Long Island-based Grumman Corp.—which had produced the F-14 and A-6 fighter and attack aircraft for the U.S. Navy, and which had designed and built the composite vertical tail and wings for the Lavi—had signed a contract for exclusive rights to set up a parallel, U.S.-based final assembly line, from which to offer the Lavi as an alternative for the U.S. Air Force. At the time, the USAF was exploring options for a lightweight strike aircraft—a role for which the Lavi would have been ideally suited. After the Lavi was canceled, the USAF would eventually purchase some 271 Block 50/52 F-16CJ aircraft to fulfill the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) or “Wild Weasel” air-to-ground mission. These aircraft would be delivered between 1991 and 2001—precisely when the Lavi was expected to be in production. It was an opportunity that could very well have heralded the sales needed to bring the Lavi unit costs into alignment with its original goals—and would have delivered the U.S. Air Force a strike aircraft that had been designed for the mission from the first day, not as an added-on afterthought. This opportunity, of course, was lost when the program was canceled in August 1987.
In the immediate aftermath of the Lavi cancellation, Israel Aircraft Industries laid off more than 4,000 employees, including over 1,500 engineers. To put the magnitude of this event into perspective, for the United States to have had a layoff of similar magnitude in proportion to its population, over 220,000 aerospace workers would have had to lose their jobs. This erosion in experienced manpower would continue to cripple Israel’s aerospace industry in succeeding years, as Israel’s defense budget continued to dwindle. IAI would go from a total work force of 22,000 in 1987 to fewer than 14,000 by 1994. To this day, Israel’s aerospace sector has never completely recovered, with an IAI work force of just over 16,000 as of 2013.
This, then, has been the enduring legacy of the Lavi cancellation. It’s not merely the loss of an indigenous manufacturing capability, but more importantly of the capacity to posit an Israeli alternative that would meet Israel’s unique requirements. In the absence of an Israeli industrial capability today, Israel’s air force has struggled to find a balance that will meet its future fighter-bomber needs over the next 30 years. On the one hand, Israel has been the first foreign customer to take delivery of the United States’ new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, as well as the first air force anywhere in the world to deploy the stealthy F-35 in operational roles over hostile air space. Israel has already taken delivery of the first 12 F-35 aircraft out of a total of 50 aircraft on order. Despite this seeming success, however, the IDF has reportedly prioritized the purchase of 20-25 additional, non-stealthy F-15I fighters-bombers to overcome the payload and range limitations of the supposedly superior, stealthy F-35. Israeli officials have been seeking alternatives for several years now, to extend the effective range of the F-35 and make the airplane more relevant to a potential showdown with Iran. They have been looking for the kind of range needed to reduce the burden on Israel’s small fleet of midair refueling tankers, the kind of unrefueled strike radius that existing Israeli F-15I platforms—as well as the Lavi—could already deliver.
According to persistent, published reports, Israeli attempts to develop and integrate conforming fuel tanks into the F-35 have been met with resistance by the U.S. developers of the airplane. Adding attachment points and plumbing for such fuel tanks, without compromising the airplane’s low observable characteristics, would require significant design modifications. This has been compounded by a refusal to allow Israel to fully integrate an Israeli avionics suite into the new airplane. Past generations of aircraft, including the F-15s and F-16s delivered in decades past, have been heavily modified by Israeli developers to incorporate Israeli mission computers, sensors, and navigation systems. Under the F-35 program, however, only the communications gear, and those electronic warfare systems that can act as stand-alone packages installed within the confines of the weapons bay, have been permitted. Lockheed Martin, the U.S. developer of the F-35, has little incentive to be more forthcoming in this regard. As a stealth platform, the F-35 is the only game in town for the foreseeable future. The air-to-air oriented F-22 stealth fighter was never offered for export—to Israel or anyone else. The F-35 has been a take it or leave it proposition.
The aircraft that the IDF truly needs is neither the F-35 nor the F-15I—but one that would combine the low observable characteristics of the F-35 with the range and payload capabilities of the F-15I. Unfortunately, no such aircraft exists today, nor is there an alternative that Israeli industry could hope to offer. Developing a complex platform such as a fighter jet requires a combination of design skills and experience that Israel’s aerospace industry was purged of in 1987. Recreating that pool of talent and experience would require a supreme national effort.
The value of having such a design alternative—even if it is never fully utilized in production—was not foreseen by the politicians and strategists that advocated canceling the Lavi more than 30 years ago. It has not, however, been lost on strategic planners elsewhere in the world. In the 1990s, for example, the British government funded the development of a full-scale, stealth fighter airframe under the code name of “Replica.” This program not only demonstrated that British industry could produce its own stealth fighter design if called upon to do so, but also ensured that the U.K. was afforded a unique position when they agreed to forego their own development effort and instead became a partner in the U.S.-developed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. To this day, the U.K. is the only foreign F-35 customer that is authorized to perform its own repairs on the airplane’s stealth coatings and features. All other customers, including Israel, are required to return damaged or worn components to a U.S.-managed depot for repair or replacement. More recently, the Japanese government has been funding the flight test of their own subscale stealth fighter prototype labeled as the X-2 Shinshin. The demonstrator aircraft first flew in April 2016. This past July, the Japanese government was briefed on a unique opportunity to participate in the development of an F-22/F-35 hybrid, featuring an airframe derived from the stealthy F-22 air superiority fighter, with an avionics suite derived from the more recent F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. An opportunity that could only materialize, of course, if Japan chooses to cancel any follow-on development program that might have grown out of the X-2 demonstrator. For both the British and Japan, having the ability to prototype some or all elements of an advanced fighter jet can often buy its way into influence over the eventual shape and design of a multinational fighter jet program that would otherwise never have been afforded.
The story behind the Lavi is a broad and complex tale. Many contributed to making it into the extraordinary technological accomplishment that it was: a more survivable platform, with a strike radius that far outstripped what its diminutive size might have suggested. It was an airplane that delivered a uniquely Israeli answer to overcome uniquely Israeli strategic challenges. Many others contributed to its eventual demise. The tale of these people, the tale of this aircraft, could fill a volume in and of itself. Indeed, it already has. But whether that decision was right or wrong, Israel’s war planners and Israel’s industry will today have to face the future with the consequences of a decision made more than 30 years ago.
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John W. Golan is the author ofLavi: The United States, Israel, and a Controversial Fighter Jet.