Beyond the mists of myth

How the single largest weapons development effort ever attempted by the State of Israel was shot down.

IAF navigator 370 (photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
IAF navigator 370
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
In its demise, the Lavi fighter has passed beyond fact into the realm of myth and legend – its struggles, its intent and its origin becoming obscured with the passage of time.
It is sometimes easy to forget how truly monumental this undertaking was. The Lavi was the single largest weapons development effort ever attempted by the State of Israel. It was an act of audacity: A small nation, no bigger than Belgium, had attempted to develop and produce its own jet fighter – an undertaking that nations boasting economies many times its size had often struggled to achieve. But the years since its termination have done little to bring clarity to the public debate surrounding this contentious program. Preset notions – on both sides of the debate – have become enshrined and mummified.
Yet the struggles and hurdles that the Lavi once faced are no less relevant today than they were when the program was launched, and canceled, over a quarter of a century ago.
Although the Lavi was developed during the 1980s, its genesis truly belongs to the 1970s: a program forever haunted by the ghosts of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the hours before the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched their invasion, the Israeli military and intelligence leadership belatedly recognized their peril. Some within the country’s military leadership – air force commander Benny Peled among them – would campaign for approval to launch a preemptive air strike against the Egyptian and Syrian armed forces.
It was a request denied by Israel’s political leadership, which was intent on ensuring that the country’s neighbors could not utilize such an air strike as an excuse for the invasion they already had planned. It was a decision that remains controversial to this day.
Gen. Raful Eitan commanded the Golan front during that war, where Syrian armored divisions overran his headquarters and very nearly plunged into the Galilee. For Eitan, the political decision to forgo a preemptive air strike was an unforgivable betrayal.
Afterward, prime minister Golda Meir, along with other politicians voicing the same line, explained that a preventive blow had been ruled out for political reasons, so that Israel would not be blamed for starting the war. I cannot conceive of any greater folly. When the existence of a nation is in the balance, its military is not mobilized, mass media are shut down because of Yom Kippur and there is no possibility of mobilizing the reserves via a public call-up, the political consideration has the lowest possible priority, and the question of what will be said about Israel is of absolutely no importance.
Eitan would go on to serve as IDF chief of staff when the Lavi program was eventually launched. As another Yom Kippur War veteran, Maj.-Gen. Ariel Sharon, would later recall: “We knew for sure that we wanted to build an aircraft that was based on our experience in the Yom Kippur War, when we had faced the most complicated problems of anti-aircraft weaponry. We believed that on the basis of this experience we could produce the best so-called second- line aircraft in the world, which would emphasize survivability.”
The decision to forgo a first-strike option in 1973 also left deep scars and divisions within the Israel Air Force.
Prior to the Yom Kippur War, the air force had developed a pair of elaborate battle plans for dismantling the surface-to-air missile networks on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts, code-named Tagar and Dougman V. At the time, electronic warfare was in its infancy, and the plans relied on a massive, dedicated deployment of Israeli air power in a carefully coordinated sequence, aimed at peeling back the opposing SAM batteries like the layers of an onion.
Once the Syrian and Egyptian invasions were under way, however, frantic calls from the front begging for immediate air cover meant that the carefully crafted plans had to be abandoned. Israeli pilots were instead asked to fly headlong into the jaws of a fully intact missile defense network, resulting in heavy casualties and numerous missions. Losses were particularly high among the IDF’s fleet of A-4 Skyhawk strike jets, where 53 aircraft – nearly a third of Israel’s close air support fleet – would be lost. A total of 26 Skyhawk pilots would never come home from that war. It was a terrible loss for the country’s small, close-knit community of fighter pilots.
Meanwhile, the conclusions drawn from this experience remain a source of controversy to this day.
Some, such as Col. Avihu Ben-Nun – one of the leading theorists behind the Tagar and Dougman V battle plans – would maintain that the anti-SAM strategy would have worked had it been allowed to go through as planned. Others, however, would counter that the battle plans were too complicated, when what was needed was a strategy that offered the individual pilots more flexibility. Years later, Ben-Nun would go on to become one of the leading critics of the Lavi – convinced that its unique features were unneeded. Others would go on to embrace the Lavi as providing a rare opportunity to convert the country’s wartime experience into a fighter-bomber attuned to Israel’s specific needs.
The Lavi was launched, therefore, during an era when, fueled by the nightmare memories of the Yom Kippur War, the country’s defense spending would soar to heights previously unknown. It was in this environment that indigenous Israeli defense firms would expand and diversify, delivering everything from small arms to sophisticated missiles, tanks, naval warships and even jet fighters. Anything seemed possible, and any sacrifice could be justified in the name of national defense.
By the later 1970s, Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) was evaluating a number of jet fighter concepts under what was broadly termed the Aryeh development effort (with both “Lavi” and “Aryeh” being Hebrew words for “lion”). Twin-engine and single-engine designs, air-to-air and multirole platforms, conventional and novel configurations: all were proposed and interrogated. Most of what was publicly leaked at the time tended to center around a rumored twin-engine concept that would have been partly bankrolled by the shah of Iran. As proposed, it would have been a heavy fighter indeed, rivaling America’s F-15. This concept would fall to the wayside when the shah was deposed in 1979. The rumors, however, would persist.
During this same period, the US had become firmly established as Israel’s principal source for major weapons systems. This role became firmly institutionalized when, following the Yom Kippur War, the US began to supply military aid to Israel in the form of forgiven grants, rather than loans that were expected to be repaid.
As was to be expected, American aid came with the understanding that it would be spent on US weapons systems. While IAI may have been promoting indigenous designs to meet Israel’s future air force needs, within the leadership of the IAF the preferred option was to obtain production rights for a US-developed fighter: the General Dynamics F-16. It offered a relatively inexpensive, single-engine fighter combined with the potential to adapt it to Israeli needs.
To that end, obtaining license production rights was seen as an essential part of Israel’s strategy at the time. Although the US would still, no doubt, have supplied most of the components, a local assembly line would have afforded the ability to incorporate modifications directly at the point of manufacture, while insulating fighter delivery schedules from the effects of short-term political disruptions. The only problem with this strategy was that the administration of then-president Jimmy Carter wanted nothing to do with supplying Israel with any measure of arms independence. An agreement was eventually reached for the supply of an initial batch of US-produced F-16s, but not for the local assembly of aircraft.
It was out of this confluence of events that the Lavi program was finally launched in March 1980. It was not, we should remember, the first choice of the air force leadership. But the alternative of locally producing the F-16 in Israel – affording the opportunity to modify it from the start to better meet the country’s unique defense requirements – had been denied. Moreover, the fighter program that eventually emerged was not a direct continuation of the same Aryeh concepts, as they had previously been leaked to the press. Rather, the configuration selected as the launching point for the Lavi, known as “Layout 33,” was among the smallest warplane designs that IAI had contemplated: a single-engine fighter with an empty weight even less than that of the contemporary F-16. It was this concept that held out the potential to grow into the configuration that the air force had wanted – a combination of capability and affordability.
To appreciate just what the Lavi was and the role for which it was designed, it is perhaps easiest to understand what it was not. The Lavi was not a direct, one-forone equivalent of the F-16, to which it was so often compared. The F-16 had its genesis as a lightweight air-to-air fighter, with a secondary air-to-ground capability that was gradually expanded over a period of decades. The Lavi, on the other hand, was the reverse of this trade-off: an air-to-ground fighter-bomber with a secondary air-to-air capability. The significance of this distinction would show in the performance metrics by which it was designed and built.
As was eventually revealed, the Lavi boasted a hi-lo-hi strike radius of some 1,150 nautical miles (2,130 km.), when carrying a 1,820-kg. bomb load and maximum external fuel, all packaged into a compact airplane with an empty weight of only 6,940 kg. In contrast, a contemporary Block 30 F-16C boasted a hi-lo-hi strike radius of only 760 nm. (1,400 km.), with an airplane empty weight of 7,620 kg.
The difference between the Lavi and its American counterpart was the difference between an unrefueled strike radius that could threaten Iran, and one that could only reach as far as Iraq. The Lavi was aiming for capabilities that the F-16 would achieve only decades later, in heavily modified and evolved versions such as the Block 52+ F-16I – which added further fuel capacity and boosted the strike radius to just over 1,000 nm. (1,850 km.), in an airplane with an empty weight of 9,530 kg. At the time the Lavi was under development, of course, the F-16I was not even a glimmer in the imaginations of its future US manufacturer.
At the heart of the Lavi’s design intent was battlefield survivability. Despite its small size, the Lavi boasted an electronics package that weighed in at some 590 kg., compared to only 320 kg. for a contemporary F-16. This extended electronics package was largely devoted to a comprehensive electronic warfare suite, aimed at providing the kind of self-protection jammers that the IAF had sorely lacked in 1973. The Lavi was not just a made-in-Israel alternative; it was aimed at meeting specific Israeli defense objectives, born out of the bitter memories and painful losses of the Yom Kippur War.
So if that was the case, future generations might ask, why was the program canceled? The answer to this carries with it a cautionary tale for Israeli policy-makers today, and in the future.
THE SIMPLE answers that have been bandied about for the Lavi’s demise are that it “cost too much,” or that it was terminated due to “US pressure.” But neither of these explanations is complete.
When the Lavi program was launched, Israel’s defense spending, measured as a fraction of the country’s GDP, was still at an elevated, post-Yom Kippur War intensity – totaling over 21 percent of the GDP in 1980. Projecting forward from these kinds of spending levels, the air force envisioned a requirement for 300 Lavi fighter-bombers.
On a production run of this size, developing an indigenous fighter-bomber was a realistic and affordable alternative.
Estimates that the US General Accounting Office published placed the unit fly-away cost for the Lavi at $17.8 million in 1985 dollars. It was estimated at the time that the unit fly-away price for an F-16C – equipped with an avionics suite derived from the Lavi – would have come to $16.9m. per aircraft, on a similar purchase of 300 such fighters. The marginally more expensive unit cost of the Lavi could therefore be justified, by virtue of the airplane’s added range, payload and battlefield survivability.
Israeli defense expenditures, however, could not be sustained indefinitely at these post-Yom Kippur War levels. The annual cycle of deficit spending placed a strain on the economy that eventually cascaded into a spiral of hyperinflation. At its peak in mid-1985, Israel’s monthly inflation rate would reach 28% – equivalent to an annualized inflation index of nearly 2,000%. It was this economic crisis, as much as controversy over the 1982 Lebanon War, that had led to the collapse of the government in 1984 and to a deadlocked national election that same year. The resulting national unity government that formed out of this impasse divided the cabinet evenly along Labor and Likud party lines. Severe budget cuts were necessary and inevitable – including deep cuts to defense.
A total of $600m. was slashed from the defense budget in 1985 alone, and the cuts did not stop there. Defense spending dropped from 19% of the country’s GDP in 1985 to 14% in 1986, a fraction that would continue to drop during successive years. By 1994, Israel’s defense budget would amount to less than 10% of its GDP, where it has remained ever since.
Although the implications of these cuts were not immediately recognized, in practical terms the country simply could not afford 300 new jet fighters over the next decade, regardless of which aircraft model they purchased. The IAF would have to settle for half that number at best. Applying publicly published cost estimation methods, reducing the production run of the Lavi from 300 to 150 aircraft would have increased the Lavi’s unit cost by some 56% – making it a far less attractive option than it had originally appeared.
The deep defense cuts also increased Israeli reliance on US military aid, giving the US a much stronger voice in Israeli defense decisions. At its height in 1986, US military aid to Israel accounted for 27% of the total Israeli defense budget. From its inception, the Lavi had relied on a combination of US and Israeli subcontractors as a means to tap into US security assistance funds to help defray the program’s costs. US firms supplied half of the value of each aircraft, providing everything from the jet engine, to the composite wings and tail, to the actuators that powered the control surfaces. The use of American military assistance to help fund the program, however, also made the Lavi a lightning rod for Israel’s political opponents.
This was where the myth was born that the Lavi was scrapped as a result of US pressure – and the Lavi certainly did have its detractors within the US government.
The concerted effort that then-secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger launched to “develop and implement a plan to terminate” the Lavi could fill a volume in its own right. But it would be a mistake to attribute the Lavi’s cancellation purely to this, or to other US pressure. If the Lavi had its critics inside the US government, it also had its advocates, including president Ronald Reagan himself – who had publicly endorsed the Lavi and the application of US military aid to help fund it in 1983.
An Israeli government that was wholly committed to the Lavi program could have navigated these and other minefields of the US political scene – if they had been so committed. The real political obstacle that the Lavi faced was that Israel’s leadership was itself divided on the subject.
The program was divisive on many levels, from the IAF – where outgoing air force commander Amos Lapidot had been among the early architects of the program, and where incoming commander Ben-Nun was a vocal critic – to the army and the Knesset floor – where various political interests sought to tap into the Lavi funding as a means of restoring budget cuts to their own pet programs. But it was the division within the national unity government that would ultimately determine the Lavi’s fate.
Pivotal to this eventual outcome was the role that defense minister Yitzhak Rabin played. When Rabin first stepped into the defense minister role in 1984, by all appearances he was a supporter of what was, at the time, a highly popular program among the general public. He also reacted angrily to the obvious pressure tactics that the Weinberger Pentagon was practicing, describing them as an effort to “get Israel” on the part of “some US agencies.” Conversely, however, Rabin had been an outspoken critic of the earlier Kfir fighter program, and in 1978 he had been one of only two MKs on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to vote against the development of a new indigenous Israeli fighter.
Despite these earlier misgivings, Rabin continued to voice support for the program in public up until mid-1987. As he would finally acknowledge in June of that year, “With the limits of the budget, it is impossible to go ahead with Lavi development.
So the government has to make a decision with a price tag on it.”
Rabin’s turnaround was the tipping point that ultimately spelled the program’s doom. When the final cabinet vote to cancel the Lavi came on August 31, 1987, it would be split along party lines: 12-11 with one abstention.
The shuttering of the Lavi sparked broad public protests. IAI workers stormed onto the runways at Ben-Gurion Airport, briefly shutting down operations. In Tel Aviv, the protests would last for three days. And in Jerusalem, demonstrators would carry coffins bearing the names of the Labor party leaders to the Western Wall. As one frustrated IAI engineer would lament, “The decision closed down aeronautic development in Israel for the next 25 years.”
Despite its hefty price tag, the Lavi had been highly popular among the Israeli public, with a poll conducted earlier that August indicating that 43.5% favored continuing the program, while 19.6% favored continuing it on a reduced scale, and only 27.6% were in favor of canceling it outright.
The protests eventually died down, but the controversy surrounding the Lavi has remained, sometimes shrouding the valuable lessons that might otherwise come out of this episode. There are many conclusions that one could draw from this experience, but perhaps the most central is that despite Israel’s wants and needs, its defense budget is simply too small to support the development cost of a major weapons system of this scale all on its own. It was not that the Lavi wasn’t a fine aircraft, or a matter of whether it was better suited to Israel’s defense requirements.
And it was not that the Lavi was not a cost-effective alternative on a production run of 300 aircraft or more, as was the original intent. But within the volume of fighter- bombers that the IDF could afford – some 150 aircraft or less – the Lavi was no longer an affordable option.
To make sense from a production volume standpoint, the Lavi desperately needed to find one or more major export customers to expand its production run. And at the time the Lavi was canceled, the only export customer that could have supported a sale of this magnitude was the US.
Nearly half of the Lavi was slated to be produced by US manufacturers as it was, and a US contractor – Grumman Corporation – had already been awarded a contract to set up a second assembly line for the Lavi in the US, to help support future export sales. The Lavi offered a number of features, including its strike radius, battlefield agility and enhanced sensor suite, that could have made it an attractive alternative for certain roles that the US also needed filled. Officially the US was contemplating a dedicated close air support and strike version of the F-16 at that same time – an airplane labeled the A-16 – but didn’t have the resources to develop the concept into a production airplane. The Lavi could potentially have fit nicely into this niche. There was no guarantee, of course, that such a sale would have been forthcoming. But it was not an unreasonable prospect, either.
Other Israeli weapons systems would later follow a similar path to commercial success, combining Israeli R&D and practical weapon systems know-how with a US-based production line. Examples have included Rafael’s LITENING targeting pod, which Northrop Grumman would produce in the US and of which over 1,000 would eventually be sold; and the AGM-142 Have Nap or “Popeye” air-to-ground missile, developed by Rafael and produced in the US by Lockheed Martin.
Exercising this alternative for the Lavi, however, would have required an Israeli political leadership that was unified, with the determination and creativity necessary to navigate the US political landscape. Rabin may have publicly protested the delaying tactics of Weinberger’s Defense Department, but he remained largely ineffectual at getting those restrictions lifted. This was in marked contrast to Rabin’s predecessor as defense minister, Moshe Arens. Arens had faced similar tactics on the part of the Weinberger Pentagon, but had successfully leveraged his connections as a former ambassador to obtain the support of secretary of state George Shultz in getting those restrictions lifted. Indeed, as participants in Weinberger’s Lavi termination campaign would later acknowledge, the prospect that the secretary of state might again intervene on Israel’s behalf was a constant source of anxiety.
Even with an Israeli government united around the objective of expanding the Lavi’s production base, success would have been by no means assured – but this was the only path that might possibly have made the Lavi into an affordable option: a reality of which future Israeli planners need to take careful note.
There will likely never again be a single Israeli defense program that will rival the scale and audacity of the Lavi. The bitter memories of the Yom Kippur War have receded from the public’s daily consciousness, and with them the public’s willingness to grant an open checkbook in the name of defense. Moreover, dissolving the Lavi has left the Israeli defense industry a shell of what it once was.
Lavi prime contractor IAI went from some 22,000 employees in August 1987 to 17,050 just one year later. Many of the skills needed to embark on another major weapons system of similar scale would be lost.
Today, Israeli defense planners are again faced with the prospect of having to deliver ordnance to sites more than 1,000 nautical miles distant, across hostile territory. They are also faced with yet another cycle of broad defense cuts, and there will again be other, future weapons programs that will tax the country’s limited resources. Now, no less than when the Lavi was launched, the Middle East remains a very dangerous neighborhood. Israel’s future security will depend on the ability of the country’s leaders to learn and adapt from the lessons of that notso- distant past.