Books: Who shot down the Lavi?

Moshe Arens takes a close look at John Golan’s book on the controversial fighter jet.

Proud IAI workers crowd around the Lavi after the rollout ceremony at the Israel Aircraft Industries complex in Lod in 1986 (photo credit: NATI HARNIK/GPO)
Proud IAI workers crowd around the Lavi after the rollout ceremony at the Israel Aircraft Industries complex in Lod in 1986
(photo credit: NATI HARNIK/GPO)
On August 30, 1987, the Israeli government – by a vote of 12-11 – decided to cancel the Lavi fighter aircraft project.
The Lavi was the best fighter aircraft in the world at the time, the result of the work of thousands of engineers, scientists and technicians at Israel Aircraft Industries and at many other plants around the country, a source of pride for most Israelis. Two prototypes were already in flight test when the decision was made.
Who shot down the Lavi, the crowning achievement of Israeli technology? John W. Golan’s book, Lavi: The United States, Israel, and a Controversial Fighter Jet, provides the answer in illuminating detail.
The Lavi followed IAI’s successful production of the Mirage aircraft (renamed the Nesher) after France embargoed aircraft shipments to Israel on the eve of the Six Day War, and the production of the Kfir fighter, an improvement of the Mirage, which was engineered at IAI. It was designed to specifications determined by the Israel Air Force that were based on the experience that had been gained by its pilots in the Yom Kippur War and was meant to give Israel a degree of independence in the acquisition of fighter aircraft.
The program really took off after the support of the US government and the US Congress had been obtained. This support included the allocation of $250 million of annual US aid for engineering development in Israel, plus $300m. for Lavi development in the US. Even more important was the permission that was granted for the use of American technologies in the aircraft and the participation of American companies in the project.
The result was that the Lavi was in effect a joint Israel-US project. With the explicit support of president Ronald Reagan and a large majority of the Congress, the program seemed assured of success. The degree of US-Israel technological cooperation on defense system development reached at the time has not been equaled since.
But, as related by Golan, there was one man, US secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger, who was determined to kill the program. Golan describes how Weinberger mounted a “rogue offensive to kill a program that had been given the president’s stamp of approval,” by charging Dov Zackheim, a middle-level financial analyst at the Pentagon, with the mission of terminating the Lavi. From that point the plot thickens.
Yitzhak Rabin, who succeeded me as defense minister and inherited the Lavi project, had never been a proponent of Israeli defense projects, preferring acquisition of weapon systems abroad to investment in the local defense industry.
When some senior IDF brass expressed their concern that the Lavi project might come at the expense of some of their pet projects, they found a listening ear. When Avihu Ben-Nun, the air force commander designate, told him that purchasing aircraft in the US was preferable to backing a homegrown fighter, he really perked up.
So now along comes Zackheim, who knew little about aircraft, but was a whiz at figures, waving estimates based on the cost of developing fighter aircraft in the US, and the seemingly inevitable cost overruns, showing that the cost of the Lavi project was going to be astronomic. A little hesitant at first, Rabin finally bought Zackheim’s sales pitch hook, line, and sinker.
Golan does not go into the details of some of the internecine strife taking place in the air force over the Lavi project.
Ben-Nun felt he had been passed over to command the air force when David Ivri completed his term and supported Amos Lapidot to be his successor. Ivri and Lapidot supported the Lavi project; therefore Ben-Nun was determined to scuttle it. He had the support of some senior air force officers who preferred purchasing aircraft in the US to having IAI as a partner in aircraft acquisition decisions.
Many years later, Dan Halutz, who at the time supported the cancellation of the Lavi, and who went on to command the air force and serve as the IDF’s chief of staff, wrote: “After many years holding the most senior positions in the air force and in the IDF, I became convinced that the cancellation of the Lavi was a strategic mistake made by Israel’s decision-makers. I have no doubt that continuation of the Lavi development would have bolstered our position as worldclass technological innovators. It would also have improved our ability to deal with immediate threats, and Israel’s deterrence would have been strengthened.”
Golan describes the Byzantine intricacies that were involved in mustering the one-vote majority for the cancellation of the Lavi in the national unity cabinet chaired by Yitzhak Shamir, the prime minister at the time. Initially, Rabin’s motion to cancel the Lavi was not backed by a majority in the cabinet. At first among the most enthusiastic supporters of the program was Shimon Peres, a longtime patron of IAI and traditional supporter of Israel’s defense industries. It was his about-turn that created the momentum that eventually led to the cancellation decision.
Peres was an old friend of Al Schwimmer, the founder and for many years the boss of IAI, who had been forced out when the Likud came to power in 1977 and Ezer Weizman became defense minister.
Although Schwimmer was not an engineer, Peres saw him as an oracle on all things having to do with aircraft. When Peres asked him for his advice, he told him that the Lavi was not sufficiently advanced and that the program should be canceled in favor of a new program to develop a “next-generation” aircraft. Peres took his advice and began leading the campaign against the Lavi in the cabinet.
During the cabinet debate we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of Peres arguing for the cancellation of the Lavi because it was not sufficiently advanced, while Weizman argued for the cancellation because the Lavi was in his opinion too advanced an aircraft.
Peres turned the issue into a political contest, demanding all Labor Party ministers vote for canceling the program.
The last holdout was the health minister, Shoshana Arbeli-Almozlino, who broke down under Peres’s incessant pressure and finally, with tears running down her face, abstained in the vote. That was enough to obtain the one-vote majority needed.
Little noticed at the time, Shamir did not apply the same kind of pressure to all Likud ministers. Why? Shamir never told anyone. If you don’t know, you don’t need to know, was his motto. Moshe Nissim, the Likud finance minister, voted with the Labor Party ministers for cancellation of the program.
Golan writes that Weinberger was forced to quit as US secretary of defense less than three months after the Israeli government’s decision to cancel the Lavi. Without him at the Pentagon, it would have been smooth sailing for the Lavi from then on.
All this and much more are well described in Golan’s excellent book. And for those interested, the book contains an appendix explaining the fundamentals of fighter aircraft design.
The writer is a former defense minister, foreign minister and ambassador to the US. He previously served as a professor of aeronautics at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and as deputy director-general at Israel Aircraft Industries.