Friday, January 8, 2016

Lavi: The Lost Chapters - A Future and a Hope

The Lavi Technology Demonstrator - the last of a breed
I am often asked: could it happen again today? Could Israel develop its own fighter aircraft once more? The answer to this, like so many things, is not a simple one. It is a matter not merely of technological capability or even political will, but of the strategic imperative that might necessitate such a program.

In terms of technological capability, the difficulty that would be faced in reviving Israel’s fighter design and development expertise should not be underestimated. The last fighter jet to be successfully designed and manufactured in Israel was the Kfir, of which only 212 were built. The last Kfir rolled off the assembly line in 1986.[1] The Lavi, of course, never got past the prototype stage. Only three prototypes were ever completed, and the flight test and qualification program was cut short. Moreover, all of the engineers and technicians that worked on the Lavi have long since retired and left the industry. Ovadia Harrari, the Lavi’s Project Manager and Chief Engineer, retired from IAI in 2005, and passed away in July 2012.[2] Akiva Peled, one of the lead engineers behind the Lavi program, and who would later go on to become IAI’s Deputy Manager for Preliminary Design, retired in 2014.[3] If Israel were ever to launch a new jet fighter development program, all of that accumulated expertise, from the development of the Kfir, through the Aryeh concept studies, to the Lavi development and flight test program, would have to be recreated. Everything from the practicalities of structural design, systems integration, fly-by-wire control systems development, and manufacturing processes would all need to be relearned once more. Aircraft design is not something that can be learned by wrote from a textbook. It is a skill set that is learned by execution, by making the often painful mistakes and hard-earned lessons necessary for future success. Reviving Israel’s atrophied fighter design experience would be a monumental undertaking.

That being said, if it was a true, national priority for Israel to undertake such a development effort, no one should underestimate the ability of Israeli developers to supply whatever means are necessary to ensure Israel’s national defense. Israeli industry has succeeded in developing a wide variety of extremely complex weapons systems, from airborne early warning and control systems, to anti-ballistic missile systems, to an array of unmanned air vehicles. Israeli radar, avionics, sensors and missile systems remain global leaders to this day. And Israel continues to supply major airframe components for a variety of applications – including manufacturing the wings for the F-35 “stealth” fighters scheduled for delivery to Israel beginning in 2016.[4]

Technologically speaking, if need be, Israel could surmount the challenges to developing a new indigenous fighter program. But many of the same challenges would still remain that had likewise existed at the time of the Lavi. Israel is not, nor can it expect to be a leading developer for jet engines. Like many other indigenous fighter programs throughout the world, including Sweden’s JAS-39 Gripen, India’s Tejas, Japan’s F-2, Taiwan’s Ching-Kuo, or South Korea’s FA-50, Israel would remain reliant on a U.S.-supplied jet engine. But the greater obstacles that any future Israeli fighter program would face would be those same challenges that ultimately doomed the Lavi program – including the challenge to identify the necessary development resources and sufficient production volume to justify such an ambitious program.

Most if not all of the indigenous jet fighter programs developed over the past half century have been fueled by national pride rather than by strategic necessity. Those smaller nations that have gone on to develop and procure their own fighters have invested far more resources than would otherwise have been needed, had they chosen to procure off-the-shelf aircraft from the United States or Western Europe. Moreover, very few of these local fighter efforts offered any real capability advantage over their existing competitors, with the vast majority producing indigenous aircraft with less range, less payload, and poorer air-to-air qualities than could have been afforded by an existing or modified aircraft.

But while arguments of national pride might be sufficient motivation to propel national fighter programs elsewhere, they are not sufficient in Israel. The national security challenges that Israel faces are real, not theoretical, and there is no place in Israel’s defense budget for exercises in national pride. Israel’s military might is expected to be used, and used intensively, either as a deterrent to war, or in operational, wartime missions.

Where local Israeli weapons systems have been procured instead of their U.S. counterparts, it has been because there was a specific, tactical or strategic advantage afforded by the Israeli weapons. Israel has continued to procure Python 4 and 5 missiles, not because they were cheaper than the U.S.-produced Sidewinder, but because they delivered a tactical advantage and enhanced kill envelope that their U.S. counterparts did not. Likewise, Israel’s layered missile defense system – from the short-range Iron Dome to the intermediate range David’s Sling to the long-range Arrow missile systems – was developed precisely because there was no equivalent capability available in the U.S. or elsewhere. No other nation lives with the very real threat of ballistic missile bombardment against their major population centers, by neighbors that have pledged to wipe them off the map. And to this day, Israel continues to procure and enhance the Merkava main battle tank – precisely because there is no direct equivalent to be had.

Taking the Merkava as an example, Israel has continued to develop new and enhanced capabilities for their armored corps at a time when investment and innovation in armored vehicle technology has largely stagnated elsewhere. Beginning in 2010, Israeli developers began adding the Trophy active protection system to the Mk. IV version of the Merkava main battle tank – offering yet another layer in protection against anti-tank missiles. The Trophy system combines an array of radar sensors to detect and track incoming missile threats, together with a battery of explosive, pellet discharge systems that promise to detonate incoming missiles in a cloud of debris before they ever reach the tank’s armor. Beginning with confrontations in Gaza in 2011 the Trophy system has proven its worth as the first battle-tested system of its kind.[5] The Merkava continues to be an example of the priority that Israel’s armed forces place on crew protection that is unequaled in the world.

In stark contrast to this, Israel has migrated away from producing its own large missile boats, seeking instead to procure platforms from established shipyards overseas. The Israel Shipyards that produced the Saar 4 and 4.5 missile boats during the 1970s and 1980s, were left vacant when the Israeli navy went on to procure the Saar 5 missile boats from the United States in the 1990s, or the Saar 6 missile boats, which are being procured from Germany today.[6] Unlike the Merkava, Israeli defense officials concluded that Israeli hull designs offered no unique advantage over their foreign-built counterparts, and focused instead on outfitting foreign-designed warships with Israeli electronics and weapons systems. Practical need, not national pride, has of necessity dictated Israeli procurement decisions.

What is therefore lacking is not just the technological or political means for developing another Israeli fighter, but the strategic necessity that might drive such a decision. The Lavi was launched at a time when there was no U.S. lightweight fighter capable of achieving the combat radius or payload demanded of the Lavi. Today, Israeli F-15I and F-16I fighters fulfill that same role, negating one of the primary motives behind launching the Lavi program. The Lavi was also designed to be more survivable than its U.S. counterparts – although some of that advantage has likewise been eroded as Israeli electronics and weapons packages have been redesigned to integrate into U.S.-built airframes.

Whether this situation will forever remain true in the future, of course, is impossible to foresee. Israeli officials have reportedly already approached Lockheed-Martin, the manufacturer for the F-35 “stealth” fighter, with proposals for extending the useful combat radius of the F-35 to match that of the earlier F-15I and F-16I platforms. The Israeli proposals reportedly fall into two categories: shorter-term concepts, centering on a drop-tank arrangement whereby both the drop tank and pylon would be jettisoned – restoring the low-observable, “stealth” characteristics of the fighter once it approached its target zone; and another, longer-term concept, involving the addition of low-observable, conformal fuel tanks, reportedly already under development in Israel. The latter option, in particular, would require extensive modification to the F-35 airframe, both to supply suitable plumbing for fuel as well as mounting points for the conformal tanks.[7] Lockheed Martin has reportedly been cold to such proposals, fearing that an Israeli-developed, evolved F-35 could become a competitor to Lockheed-Martin’s own proposals for F-35 upgrades.[8]

It therefore remains to be seen as to whether Israel will ever again re-enter the fighter jet business. The obstacles to such a program are immense. Like the Lavi, to be practical, such a program would likely require the identification of a U.S. partner to co-manufacture the airplane – allowing it to compete for sales in the U.S. and increase its production volume to a more practical level. Like the Lavi, without a specific strategic objective in mind – an objective that could not be met by an off-the-shelf or modified U.S. fighter – it is unlikely that such a proposal would ever be endorsed within Israel’s military leadership. Such a confluence of events is highly unlikely. Nor is it necessarily a desirable outcome. Israel’s strategic interests would be better served by purchasing more aircraft, not fewer – provided that the U.S.-supplied weapons platforms meet Israel’s minimal tactical and strategic objectives. It has been the hope behind this book that the lessons of the past may yet be learned. The likelihood of a future Israeli-developed fighter jet is remote. In our uncertain and troubled world, however, it also still remains a distinct possibility.

[1] Raanan Weiss and Shlomo Aloni, IAI Kfir in IAF Service (Bat-Hefer, Israel: IsraDecal Publications, 2007), 15.
[2] “Ovadia Harari, Former Executive Vice President & COO of Israel Aerospace Industries and Director of the ‘Lavi’ Fighter Aircraft Program has Passed Away,” Israel Aerospace Industries, July 16, 2012,
[3] Itai Kaufman (IAI) to John Golan, April 28, 2015.
[4] Barbara Opall-Rome, “Accent on U.S.-Israel Alliance as IAI, Lockheed Launch F-35 Wing Line,” DefenseNews, November 4, 2014,
[5] Yuval Azulai, “Rafael’s Trophy System has Intercepted Five Anti-Tank Missiles Aimed at Armored IDF Vehicles in Gaza,” Globes, July 20, 2014,
[6] The Saar 6 is a version of the “Meko” class missile corvette, also produced as the K-130 for the Germany navy. Under the terms of the deal, the German government is expected to subsidize 25% of the cost for the four Saar missile boats on order. Tamir Eshel, "Germany, Israel Sign €430 Million Contract for 4 Meko Class Corvettes," Defense Update, May 11, 2015,
[7] Barbara Opall-Rome, "Eyeing Iran, Israel Readies for Stealth Strike Fighter," DefenseNews, September 5, 2015,
[8] "Lockheed Worried About IDF Unauthorized 'Modifications' in F-35," Jewish Press, September 6, 2015,

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