Seeing Over the Horizon

It is unbelievable, but true, that a single officer, who headed Military Intelligence, declared that there was no operational requirement for an Israeli spy satellite, thereby blocking funding for the program.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared inHaaretz on June 11, 2002.)

At 2 A.M. on Friday, January 18, 1991, the first Scuds launched from western Iraq struck Israel. The following day, I asked then U.S. secretary of defense Richard Cheney to send us aerial photographs of western Iraq that would provide us with the necessary intelligence information to mount Israel’s military response to the attack. I also asked for Patriot ground-to-air missile batteries that were, at the time, reported to be successfully intercepting Scud missiles in Saudi Arabia.

The Americans deliberately took their time in sending us what turned out to be outdated satellite photographs, and the Patriot missiles were ineffective when it came to intercepting the Scuds.

The made-in-Israel systems for the job – the Ofek spy satellite and the Arrow ballistic missile interceptor – were already under development at the time, but were not yet ready. Their availability would have been the Israeli defense minister’s dream. More than 11 years later, Israel is in a far better position to counter any ballistic threat. The Arrow is deployed operationally, while the latest, improved version of Israel’s spy satellite, Ofek (Horizon) 5, has begun transmitting photographs of what it sees as it circles the earth.

It is unbelievable, but true, that a single officer, who headed Military Intelligence, declared that there was no operational requirement for an Israeli spy satellite, thereby blocking funding for the program. Only the support of successive defense ministers and the possibility to obtain outside funding enabled the program to proceed. The Arrow program, too, met with stiff opposition from a number of senior Israel Defense Forces officers, who considered the program over-ambitious and preferred to rely on American technology. Only its adoption as part of the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, which provided partial American funding for the program, and my unreserved support as defense minister allowed the program to survive.

It was the same with the Lavi fighter jet program. Although the program represented the high point of U.S.-Israeli cooperation in defense and defense-related technology, no sooner had I left the Defense Ministry than a number of IDF generals began a campaign to scuttle the program. Their campaign found a willing partner in Caspar Weinberger, then U.S. secretary of defense, and not one of Israel’s greatest friends, who disagreed with the support for the Lavi program voiced by former president Ronald Reagan, then secretary of state George Shultz, and the U.S. Congress.

Their hints to American officials that this fighter aircraft, financed largely by the U.S. taxpayer, was not wanted by the Israel Air Force and that it would prefer to continue to procure fighter aircraft in the United States served to undercut support for the program in the Washington.

But the real blow was struck at home. At a series of cabinet meetings and by way of private lobbying, senior IDF officers tried to convince government ministers that the Lavi program should be canceled, even though a number of prototypes of the aircraft were already flying and the aircraft’s performance was excellent.

Anyone reviewing the minutes of those cabinet meetings will be astounded by the disinformation and misinformation presented to the ministers by opponents of the program. The incoming commander of the IAF declared that the numbers of fighter aircraft were going to be cut drastically and that as a result, only 75 Lavi fighter jets would be needed, rather than the 200 originally planned for. The projected cost of each aircraft was, therefore, more than doubled. The fact of the matter is that since then, the IAF has procured more than 150 F-16 fighters – the aircraft that the Lavi, superior to the F-16, was intended to replace.

That same officer announced that within a few years, the IAF would begin acquiring the U.S.-made F-22, an aircraft designed to be significantly more advanced than the Lavi. That was in 1987, some 15 years ago. Not only has the IAF not acquired the F-22, but the U.S. Air Force has yet to purchase any either.

The ministers’ concern for the professional future of the thousands of engineers and technicians involved in the Lavi program was allayed by the submission of intricate schedules for the development of alternative weapons systems (the “Lavi alternatives”) in the framework of programs that would absorb all of the Lavi’s engineering staff. In fact, cancellation of the Lavi project led to the dismissal of thousands of IAI engineers and technicians, who received very generous early-retirement benefits.

The coup de grace was delivered by then leader of the Labor Party Shimon Peres, who turned the debate into a political issue, obligating all Labor members of the national unity government to vote in favor of cancelling the program, thereby securing a one-vote majority for scrapping it.

In a recent interview, the current commander of the IAF, Major General Dan Halutz, said that he now realizes he was wrong when he opposed the Lavi program at the time. Such courage has yet to be demonstrated by all the others who were instrumental in killing the Lavi and almost brought about the cancellation of the Ofek and Arrow programs. Their ability to see over the horizon was very limited.


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