Friday, October 2, 2015

The F-35, F-16 and Lavi - And History Repeating Itself

In March 1977 the Israeli government approached the Carter Administration with a formal proposal for license-production of the F-16 in Israel. Behind this request - above and beyond a desire to insulate the Israeli armed forces from the suspensions in arms deliveries that had accompanied past arrangements with France and the UK - was a desire to remold the F-16 into a more versatile strike fighter, with the range and payload that the Israeli armed forces needed. The United States had recently entered into a co-production agreement for the F-16 with its NATO partners in Europe, and in subsequent years would agree to the licensed production of the F-16 by Turkey and South Korea. It seemed, at the time, like a reasonable request.

For a variety of reasons however, the Carter Administration rejected the Israeli proposal. The Carter Administration was unwilling to grant the Israelis any degree of arms independence, prefering to maintain all possible leverage for future diplomacy. General Dynamics' Fort Worth Division, which produced the F-16 was also apprehensive that an Israeli-developed version of the F-16 might prove superior to the aircraft that were produced at its own plant, and could compete for foreign sales. It was an irrational fear - given that Israel would have been no more free to re-export the aircraft than were the European partners already producing the F-16 locally - but it was a fear nonetheless.

The Israeli armed forces had a long history of modifying the weapons that they used to better suit their specific needs. A decade earlier, they had entered into a co-production agreement with France's Dassault, to develop the air-to-air Mirage III into a more versatile strike fighter, labeled the Mirage 5 - with the range and payload that the Israeli armed forces needed. The request to develop a more capable version of the F-16 was therefore not unique. Developing the existing F-16 airframe into the longer-range strike platform that was needed to meet Israeli objectives was the option preferred by the Israeli armed forces. It would have been the cheapest means to meeting their goals.

The No. 2 Lavi prototype is rolled out (GPO)
The Israeli government approached the Carter Administration a second time in 1980 with a request to license-produce the F-16 in Israel. They were again turned down. Shortly thereafter, the Israeli government launched the Lavi fighter program, aimed at providing the type of strike fighter that the Israeli air force needed. Producing an indigenous fighter in Israel was a more expensive means to that end, but at the time it was the only option remaining. The aircraft developed featured the kind of range that the early F-16 models did not have. The kind of range needed to strike targets as far away as Iran. Launched to meet the specific IDF needs that the early F-16s could not fulfill, the Lavi eventually came to be seen as a potential competitor by some in the U.S. aerospace industry. Ultimately, after considerable expense and political maneuvering in both the United States and Israel, the Lavi would be cancelled in 1987.

The F-16I: An evolved F-16 with the range the IDF needed (USAF)
In the latter 1990s, as U.S. procurement of the F-16 began to wind down, the U.S. manufacturer of the airplane - now at Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth Division - began to see continued sales to Israel as a necessity for keeping their production line open. At the turn of the century, the Israelis finally received the F-16I: an evolved F-16 with the kind and range and payload that the Israeli armed forces had wanted to develop the F-16 into, back in the late 1970s.[1]

This past month, an Israeli delegation met with officials at Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth Divison, to explore options for developing an evolved version of Lockheed's newest fighter, the F-35. The Israeli officials are looking to develop a version of the F-35 with the kind of range and payload that the Israeli armed forces need.

The F-35: Israel is still negotiating to extend the fighter's range (USAF)
The first phase of this development process reportedly centers on the addition of specialized external fuel tanks. Conventional drop tanks separate from their aircraft, leaving behind a pylon that - for a stealth aircraft - adds significantly to the airplane's radar signature. What the Israelis are proposing - and what they have started development work to produce - is a drop tank wherein both the tank and the pylon would separate from the aircraft, allowing the F-35 to take advantage of its stealth features once it approaches a target.[2]

The longer-term planning, revolves around the development of low-observable, conformal fuel tanks that would add considerably to the range of the F-35, without compromising its stealth properties. The incorporation of this kind of capability in particular, however, will require significant modification to the F-35 airframe - to provide attachment points for the fuel tanks as well as plumbing for the fuel.[3]

Once again, the Israelis have come to the United States looking to develop an evolved version of a U.S. fighter, with the range and payload that the Israeli armed forces need. The kind of range needed to strike targets as far away as Iran. Once again, this same fighter is already being co-produced by U.S. partners in Europe. And once again, there are reports that the U.S. manufacturer of the fighter is concerned that an improved, Israeli-developed version of the F-35 could become a competitor for their own upgrade packages in the export market.[4] There has already been a considerable amount of wrangling, over whether to allow the Israeli Air Force to add its own electronic warfare and secure data-links to the F-35s that it purchases.[5] The latest revelations from this past month suggest that this debate is not yet over.

We can only hope that the U.S. government and U.S. contractors do not repeat the same mistakes that were made in 1977 and 1980. Particularly in this day and age, with the considerable focus on the threat posed by Iran, convincing the Israeli government that there is no U.S. alternative that will meet the needs of the IDF is not likely to have an inexpensive outcome - for anyone involved.

[1] John Golan, Lavi: The United States, Israel, and a Controversial Fighter Jet (Sterling, VA: Potomac, 2016).
[2] David Eshel, "Israel Will Be First Non-U.S. Customer to Fly F-35," Aviation Week Network (June 26, 2013).
[3] Barbara Opall-Rome, "Eyeing Iran, Israel Readies for Stealth Strike Fighter," DefenseNews (September 5, 2015).
[4] "Lockheed Worried About IDF Unauthorized 'Modifications' in F-35," Jewish Press (September 6, 2015).
[5] David Eshel and David Fulghum, "Israel, U.S. Agree to $450 Million in F-35 EW Work," Aviation Week Network (August 6, 2012).

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