This Week in History: Israel’s fighter jet is cancelled

Project came along when Israel was suffering from a shaky economy and would have consumed nearly third of country’s military budget.

September 2, 2011 09:23
4 minute read.
F-16 fighter jet in flight

F-16 Fighter Jet 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)


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On August 30, 1987, a cabinet resolution passed by only one vote that canceled the first and thus far only attempt at producing an Israeli-made fighter jet, the Lavi. Ordered by the government at the beginning of the 1980s, the Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) project was to be a source of technological pride and was expected to make the Israeli Air Force (IAF) more independent, placing it at the forefront of military aviation for decades to come.

But the Lavi program was not entirely a Blue and White initiative and this was a factor, among others, in its eventual demise. The United States government was funding some 40 percent of the project and a number of its components were to be manufactured in the US.

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In the summer of 1987, the Reagan administration began placing heavy pressure on Israel to cancel the program, partly because it no longer wished to fund it but also because the Lavi would have become a competitor for the massive American arms industry, which produced the F-16 at the time. Additionally, due to American participation in the project, the US was worried about the transfer of American technology to third party powers should the Lavi be exported by Israel.

However, aside from the American pressure to abandon the single-seater long-range multi-role aircraft, there was also tremendous domestic pressure inside Israel to cancel the multi-billion dollar project. A significant number of officials and officers in the IDF and IAF were opposed to the expensive project. Several months before the decision to cancel the Lavi was made, The Jerusalem Post reported that the General Staff of the IDF itself proposed canceling the project in order to buy the cheaper F-16 and using the savings to develop different Israeli manufactured weapons systems.

The project also came along at a time when Israel was suffering from a shaky economy plagued by high inflation, and many in the government simply could not justify the massive cost of producing the jet, which would have consumed nearly one third of the country’s military budget.

Nonetheless, the Lavi was then and is still today praised by aviation experts for the technological advancements it made and the ability of such a young and small country – then with only four million residents – to produce its own fighter jet.

The Lavi was smaller than the F-16 but was expected to be more easily maneuverable and capable of carrying larger payloads longer distances. Its design and technological features, built with great input from experienced Israeli fighter pilots, was lauded as being one of the most advanced planes (almost) in production at the time.

But despite the national pride and technical achievements in the development of the Lavi, seven years after the program’s inception, its future was determined by economics.

Under US political and Israeli economic pressures, then-foreign minister Shimon Peres proposed canceling the program but faced resolute opposition from his coalition partners in the Likud Party. Ministers in the government accused Peres and the Labor Party of giving in to American political pressure at the expense of Israeli technology and independence.

Then-industry, trade and labor minister Ariel Sharon called the decision to cancel the Lavi at the time an “example of weakness,” saying that the Labor government was dancing “to the flute of foreigners,” The New York Times reported.

The vote on the cancellation at the end of August 1987 was split down party lines, with only one Likud minister voting to axe the Lavi program. The finance minister, Moshe Nissim, along with nearly all other economic and finance officials, was the sole dissenter in the Likud, tipping the vote in favor of the Labor proposal.

Today there are two Lavi fighter prototypes still in existence. One is on display at the Israeli Air Force Museum in the Negev and the other at an IAI facility where it has been used to showcase the company’s aviation technology.

While the Lavi was and would have burgeoned into an even larger source of national pride should it have been mass produced for use in Israel and around the world, its development itself was also a major accomplishment and had lasting positive effects on the Israeli economy and its defense industry.

The initial money invested in the Lavi program prepared a generation of engineers to enter the private market, many of whom would go on to help build the Israeli hi-tech industry that drove massive growth in Israel in the two decades following the cancellation of the Lavi fighter.

Although it was a difficult decision, canceling the Lavi program ultimately freed up money for the development of other Blue and White weapons systems. Additionally, continued US military aid and loan guarantees have enabled Israel to maintain the most advanced air force in the Middle East by buying US-manufactured jets and retrofitting them with Israeli technology, some of which was originally designed for the Lavi.

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