Wrong on Every Count

The crusaders for canceling the Lavi were also the ones who opposed developing the Arrow missile interceptor system and an Israeli reconnaissance satellite. It turns out they were wrong on all three counts.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on Apil 21, 2009.)

Israel’s difficulties in the negotiations for procuring the F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, were to be expected. Israel was not permitted to be a partner in developing the aircraft, unlike Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Turkey, Australia, Norway and Denmark. None of these countries’ aircraft industries have anything like Israel’s technological capabilities in fighter aircraft, yet Israel was kept out. The very concept of the F-35’s development made it almost impossible to include Israeli systems in planes to be procured by the Israel Air Force, even though Israeli industries are the world leader in a number of airborne systems.

Long gone is the close technological cooperation between the United States and Israel that existed during the development of the Lavi fighter. For many years Israel has been told to take U.S.-made fighter aircraft as they are. In the latest batch of F-16s bought by Israel, Israel was not allowed to incorporate Elta radar, even though it was better and cheaper than the U.S. radar that came with the plane. Had the Lavi program not been canceled, it would have been the IAF’s backbone in recent years, continuously upgraded based on the IAF’s operational experience and giving it a clear qualitative edge over potential enemies’ aircraft. That, unfortunately, is water under the bridge.

It’s hard to believe that those who 22 years ago exerted themselves to sway the opinion of Israeli cabinet members to vote for canceling the Lavi program have not had second thoughts about this unfortunate decision. It passed by a one-vote majority.

The world’s most advanced fighter aircraft, the crowning achievement of the Israeli aeronautical industry, with much of the development already completed, was killed. A prototype used in flight testing can now be seen at the air force museum in Hatzerim.

It was not logic that created the one-vote majority to cancel the program. Protocols of government meetings show that mendacious arguments were presented to the ministers, many of them swallowed whole. Add to that the Finance Ministry’s traditional opposition to most large expenditures, and the die was cast.

First, the government was told that the IAF intended in the near future to procure the F-22, at the time known as the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF), and that this aircraft would be superior to the Lavi. Actually, at the time, 22 years ago, the ATF was only going through a competitive evaluation phase between two potential suppliers. In addition, the development program was going to stretch over many years and the chances of the IAF procuring this plane instead of the Lavi were zero. The F-22 became operational with the U.S. Air Force in 2005; by that time its price tag had become astronomical, and in April this year U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for phasing out the aircraft’s production. So much for the F-22.

Second, the ministers were told that the IAF was going to get smaller and that only 80 rather than the planned 150 Lavi aircraft would be needed. That, of course, would have tripled the cost of each aircraft. A look at the IAF’s size and the procurement of fighter aircraft in the ensuing years shows that this claim was far from the truth.

Third, on the subject the ministers were most sensitive about, they were told there would be no need for layoffs after the Lavi’s cancellation because everyone working on that plane would be employed on “Lavi alternative programs” that would provide advanced sophisticated weapons systems for the Israel Defense Forces. Actually, thousands of highly qualified engineers and technicians lost their jobs, and the much-touted alternative programs were hard to find.

The crusaders for canceling the Lavi were also the ones who opposed developing the Arrow missile interceptor system and an Israeli reconnaissance satellite. It turns out they were wrong on all three counts.

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