The following summary provides a retrospective overview for the Lavi program, covering its political and historical chronology. It is intended to act as a supplement to the technological survey that I published online previously, and draws heavily from the book on the Lavi program that was published earlier this year.
To provide a little background about myself, I have been an engineering analyst and manager in the U.S. aerospace industry for over two decades, involved in the development and support of propulsion systems for a variety of U.S. and international aircraft programs - including the F-15, F-16, F-22 and F-35. The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my employers, either past or present.
|An Egyptian Mirage 5 Fighter at Cairo West|
|One of the first F-16As to be supplied to Israel.|
|An Israeli Merkava Mk 2 - first developed in the 1970s|
Similarly, Israel's small size and lack of strategic depth have translated into a military strategy that relies on transferring the battle onto enemy territory, and away from Israeli population centers, as quickly as possible. Similarly, unlike the United States, Israel cannot rely on having friendly air bases in close proximity to the command and control centers of every possible opposing adversary - meaning that Israel must rely on multirole aircraft to fulfill both short-range, air support and interceptor duties, as well as longer-range strike roles.
|Flight times to Israel's population centers from neighboring air bases, at Mach 0.6 and 20,000 ft|
"At fifty thousand feet, in a supersonic Mirage, I can fly only north and south; otherwise, I’d be out of the country in a matter of seconds. You can see on one side Cyprus, Turkey – on the other Iraq and Sharm el-Sheikh. You have no trouble spotting the Suez Canal. But your own country is very difficult to see; it’s under the belly of your plane. You have to turn around and look back to see it. You become very aware of its smallness."
|The 2nd Lavi prototype at the official roll-out ceremony|
The Lavi program was consequently launched in February 1980, to meet Israel's specific fighter needs for a more versatile fighter-bomber platform. As originally envisioned, it would have been a small, short-range close-air-support aircraft. However, the airplane's size was increased in May 1981 to allow it to also fulfill the long-range strike role. The first prototype flew in December 1986. As designed, the airplane offered a platform with 50% more strike radius than a contemporary Block 40 F-16C, while maintaining a 20% lower empty weight. It also reserved volume for an avionics suite that was 80% larger by weight than that featured on Israel's original batch of F-16As - allowing it to internally integrate a sophisticated, Israeli-developed electronic warfare suite that made it be far more survivable in contested airspace.
|President Reagan endorses Lavi funding|
This extensive U.S. involvement led then President Ronald Reagan to formally endorse the application of U.S. military assistance funds towards the Lavi development effort in November of 1983. This public endorsement was subsequently codified as part of the U.S. military aid package to Israel under the Kemp-Long Amendment, which allowed Israel to apply existing security assistance funds towards the Lavi program.
|Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, hijacked by the PLO in 1985|
Added to this was Caspar Weinberger's longstanding rivalry with Secretary of State George Shultz. Shultz had gone on record as a key supporter for applying U.S. military assistance funding to help finance the Lavi. Shultz's endorsement alone would have marked the Lavi as a continued target for Weinberger's displeasure.
|Dov Zakheim (right) greets Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir|
As part of this campaign, Zakheim had also arranged for all of the Lavi-related contracts with U.S. suppliers to be channeled through his office for review and approval, taking advantage of the Pentagon bureaucracy to delay the contract review process, and further hobble the program's progress. In Zakheim's own words, once the contracts arrived in his office, "We sat on them for at least a week." This delay was later extended into a full halt on all the contract reviews and approvals, at the personal direction of Caspar Weinberger. This halt would not be lifted until the threat of direct Congressional intervention arose.
|Israeli Air Force Chief Amos Lapidot points out Lavi|
cockpit features to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres
To understand why the Lavi went from being a cornerstone of Israeli weapons development and defense strategy, to being the subject of intense budget debates, it is essential to understand that the Lavi was launched in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Following this war, Israeli domestic defense spending skyrocketed to new heights. In 1981 when the Lavi program was launched, Israel's domestic defense budget consumed some 23% of Israel's GDP, constituting a greater share of Israel's national income than either the Vietnam War or the Korean War had consumed in the United States, and far more than the 6% of America's GDP that was devoted at the height of the Reagan defense buildup. This heightened level of Israeli defense spending, however, was unsustainable.
Obtaining these additional orders was not out of the realm of possibility. The Long Island-based Grumman Corp. had been contracted as a U.S. partner for the program, with provisions that should additional export orders for the airplane emerge, Grumman would be authorized to set up a second assembly line in the United States. Such an arrangement could easily have facilitated the submission of the Lavi as a contender in U.S. procurement competitions, where the U.S. was actively looking for a new close air support and Wild Weasel platform - roles that the Lavi had been intended to fill.
|IAI workers protest the cancellation of the Lavi|
The cancellation was a blow from which the Israeli aerospace industry has never recovered. In August of 1987 Israel Aircraft Industries employed over 22,000 workers. Today, they employ just over 16,000 - even after decades of population growth.
|F-16I fitted with conformal fuel tanks|
|The F-35 - 33 of which are on order by Israel|
Writing this book was a process that spanned decades. I first began to explore the story behind the Lavi decades ago, as a graduate student and teaching assistant for a senior-level engineering class in airplane design. It was at that time that I first began to evaluate the trade studies that had gone into shaping the Lavi, leveraging my knowledge as an aerospace engineer to assess the airplane's design features and how they had evolved. Out of this grew the first draft of my book on the Lavi, which I submitted to a series of eight publishing houses in 1993. At that time, the manuscript was a little over 86,000 words in length. None of the original eight publishing houses were interested in the book at that time.
- April 2014 - book contract signed
- July 2014 - final manuscript submitted (reduced to 115,000 words in length at the request of the publisher)
- May 2015 - copy-edited manuscript received from the publisher (reviewed, edited and approved by the author in June 2015)
- September 2015 - proof copy received from the publisher (reviewed, edited and approved by the author by the end of September)
- October 2015 - book index submitted by the author
- December 2015 - book submitted to the printer for release in January of 2016
Finally, I will emphasize again that no one writes a book like, believing that they are going to become wealthy or famous in the process. The market for history books does not lend itself to making famous authors. You write a book like this because you have something to say. It has been, and continues to be my hope that the lessons of these past events may yet go on to inform generations to come, and that the mistakes of the past need not be repeated.