The Next-Generation IAF Fighter

Everything would have been different had the senseless decision to cancel the Lavi fighter program not been taken 18 years ago. Unlike previous procurement of U.S.-manufactured aircraft, this will not be an aircraft tailor-made for Israel. The F-35 will have to be bought as is.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on April 26, 2005.)

F-35 is the designation given to the next generation fighter now in development for the U.S. Armed Forces. It is also labeled the Joint Strike Fighter, because the same basic aircraft is intended to serve the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marines, and the U.K. Navy. This commonality is expected to significantly bring down the unit cost of the aircraft when they go into production some years from now.

The fly-away unit target price at present is $28 million. Accepted as “full partners” in this grand development program are: Britain, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, and Australia. Conspicuously missing from this list is Israel. Until last week Israel was an associate partner, but it has now been suspended from this minor role, because of American suspicions that Israel is engaging in technology transfer to China.

The F-35 had its configuration frozen during the design phase, which effectively means that Israeli systems and subsystems, including air-to-air and air-to ground missiles, will not be incorporated in any versions of the aircraft. This is most likely to be the case even if Israel will be permitted to procure the F-35 at some future date. The only exception will be the pilot’s helmet-mounted display to be provided by a partnership of the U.S. Kaiser Electronics and Israel’s Elbit companies. Considering the many partners in the F-35 program, it is not impossible that the aircraft will in time find its way into the inventory of the air forces of some of Israel’s neighbors.

This leaves the Israeli aeronautical industry with a problem regarding the market for its products in future years, and the Israel Air Force in a quandary regarding its next generation fighter aircraft. Could it possibly be the F-22 which is scheduled to attain Operational Capability in December 2005? But if and when this aircraft will be available for procurement by Israel, its unit cost is most likely to be way over $100 million. That may well be a prohibitive price. Or will the F-16 be the last manned fighter aircraft in the IAF, to be followed by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)?

Everything would have been different had the senseless decision to cancel the Lavi fighter program not been taken 18 years ago. The IAF would for some years now have been flying the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world, the Israeli aeronautical industry would have received a great boost, and there would have been a significant incentive to include Israel as a full partner in any new aircraft project in the U.S. So where is the former Air Force general who at the time told the assembled government ministers that the IAF would be acquiring the F-22 in a few years and therefore had no need for the Lavi? Where are the “experts” who lectured the government that Israel should only be developing systems but not platforms? How was the unique capability that Israel had developed to design top-of-the-line fighter aircraft squandered?

The IAF can now await the completion of the F-35 development in anticipation that it may be permitted to procure this aircraft, possibly some 10 years from now.

Unlike previous procurement of U.S.-manufactured aircraft, this time it will not be an aircraft tailor-made for Israel. It will have to be bought as is. Or the IAF may resign itself to the fact that the F-16 will be the last of its manned aircraft, and concentrate on the development of UAVs. Israel is one of the leaders in this field, and should be able to come up with advanced and competitive systems.

Or else, Israel can try to put together a consortium of countries that are not partners in the Joint Strike Fighter program, for the development of a new generation fighter aircraft. France and India might be potential candidates for such a program

By now everybody should have learned that fighter development and production stretches over many years, and long-term planning is required. There is a little time for thought and discussion, but not too much.

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