Sunday, September 18, 2016

Lavi - A Retrospective Journey

In the words of former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens, the Lavi was "Israel's single most ambitious and important technological program." It was not only Israel's largest defense program throughout the 1980s, but the largest technological undertaking by the State of Israel either before, or since.

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
The Israel Defense Force has a long history of modifying the weapons systems that is procures to meet its specific defense requirements. A case in point is provided by the Dassault Mirage 5 fighter-bomber, an evolved version of the French Mirage III interceptor with added fuel and payload capacity, intended to transform the air-to-air Mirage into a more versatile, air-to-ground platform. The Mirage 5 was developed to meet Israel's specific requirements during the latter 1960s, with final aircraft assembly to take place in Israel. Deliveries, however, were suspended when the French government imposed an arms embargo on Israel following the 1967 Six Day War. The French would go on to sell the Mirage 5 to Israel's neighbors, including both Libya and Egypt - but not to Israel. Israel's cooperative experience with the co-production program, however, would nonetheless provide the basis for later Israeli domestic fighter aircraft production, including the manufacture of both the Nesher and Kfir fighter-bombers.

One of the first F-16As to be supplied to Israel.
By the mid-1970s, however, the Israeli government had refocused its fighter aircraft procurement efforts towards acquiring U.S.-developed aircraft, with the General Dynamics' F-16 becoming the primary focus for future Israeli fighter modernization efforts. In 1977 the Israeli government proposed a co-production scheme whereby the first 50 Israeli F-16 fighters would have been procured directly from the United States, with a further 200 to be manufactured locally in Israel. This would have provided the Israeli military with an opportunity to optimize the F-16 to meet specific Israeli needs, including the incorporation of additional air-to-ground capabilities and munitions. The proposal, however, was rejected by the Carter administration, as well as being opposed by the airplane's manufacturer, General Dynamics.

An Israeli Merkava Mk 2 - first developed in the 1970s
Israeli weapons requirements have been unique, and different from those of the United States or other major weapons suppliers due to Israel's unique tactical and strategic situation. Foremost among these influences have been Israel's small size, and sensitivity to casualties. This reality is perhaps best embodied in the design of Israel's Merkava main battle tank. Developed in the 1970s to meet Israel's specific requirements, at a time when tanks under development elsewhere in the world were emphasizing either mobility or firepower, the Merkava was designed with an emphasis on crew protection. In addition to its advanced armored protection system, unique among modern tank designs, the Merkava was designed with the engine located in front of the crew - so that if the tank's armor were ever to be breached, an exploding shell would be more likely to damage the engine than the crew. This design was no accident, but was rather an outgrowth of Israeli sensitivity to casualties on the battlefield. The tank could be repaired or replaced. Its crew could not.

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
Moreover, due to its small size, Israel's air force is constantly on the front line of Israeli's defenses, with opposing fighters operating from air bases only minutes away from Israeli population centers. In the words of one Israeli Mirage fighter pilot, some decades ago,
"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
Much of the controversy that would subsequently surround the Lavi centered on the application of U.S. military assistance funds to help finance its development. This financial support was an outgrowth of the extensive U.S. industrial involvement in the program, with roughly half of the aircraft expected to be manufactured in the United States. Wherever possible, off-the-shelf components had been leveraged to reduce the overall cost of the program. Everything from the airplane's fly-by-wire control computers, to actuators, to the composite wings and tail were contracted to U.S. suppliers.

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
President Reagan's endorsement of the Lavi , however, was vigorously opposed by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who had a long history of opposing U.S. cooperation with Israel, of whatever variety. Weinberger had been a repeated proponent for suspending the delivery of weapons to Israel, including the delivery of jet fighter aircraft, in response to various U.S. and Israeli policy disagreements. This occurred following Israel's Osirak reactor raid, for example, which had eliminated Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons plant, as well as during Israel's 1982 Lebanon War. Weinberger would similarly go on to forbid the U.S. Navy from seeking Israeli assistance in staging a rescue attempt for the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, which was hijacked by PLO terrorists with American citizens on board. Going further, Weinberger would cemented his anti-Israel bias during the negotiations for the withdrawal of the PLO from Lebanon, where he passed along secret U.S.-Israeli understandings to Saudi officials, who in turn passed the information along to the leadership of the PLO to improve their bargaining position.

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
To lead his campaign to terminate the Lavi, Weinberger appointed Dov Zakheim as his Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Planning and Resources. An accountant by training, Zakheim campaigned against the Lavi exclusively on the basis of the program's purported costs. Zakheim was also an orthodox Jew who spoke fluent Yiddish and Hebrew, which facilitated his multiple trips to Israel to lobby for the program's termination. Significantly, at no time during this lobbying campaign did the question arise as to what aircraft would best meet Israel's defensive requirements. When presented with a list of aircraft and work-share agreements that would be presented to Israel's officials as alternatives for canceling the Lavi, Caspar Weinberger's only question had been, "What will the Saudis think?" Which aircraft would best meet Israeli national security needs was never an item for consideration.

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
Within Israel the Lavi program was also controversial, due to its large price tag and the potential threat that it placed on funding for Israel's other military needs. The Lavi had both supporters, and opponents within the Israeli government and military. Among its supporters were two successive Israel Air Force chiefs, a Chief of Staff, and two successive Ministers of Defense. By the latter 1980s, however, the tide had begun to turn against the program. Foremost among the program's detractors was Minister of Defense Yitzhak Rabin.

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.

When initially launched, the Israeli military projected a requirement for 300 Lavi fighters. In studies conducted by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), it was projected that at this production level, the unit fly-away cost for the Lavi would amount to approximately $17.8 million in 1985 dollars, as compared to the cost for an F-16C outfitted with Israeli avionics, which was projected to cost around $16.9 million per copy. On this basis, the Lavi was indeed cost competitive with the F-16 or other alternatives. As Israel's defense budget began to shrink during the latter 1980s, however, and Israel's military contemplated smaller aircraft buys, the unit cost of the Lavi - with its much smaller production run - began to escalate. On a 150 aircraft purchase, it was projected that the unit cost of the Lavi would increase by some 55%, making it a much less attractive option. The only means, therefore, to maintain the cost objective for the Lavi would have been to obtain additional, export orders for the aircraft.

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 Lavi program was ultimately canceled in a vote by the Israeli Cabinet on August 30, 1987 in a narrow vote that largely followed party lines - with 12 votes in favor of cancellation, 11 opposed and one abstention. Protests by Israeli aerospace workers would last for days. Israel Aircraft Industries would layoff 4,000 employees in the immediate aftermath of the vote, including some 1,500 engineers. To put that total into perspective, as a fraction of the total population, this would have been equivalent to the United States laying off over 220,000 aerospace employees - a huge impact to the local economy.

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
As for the Israeli Air Force, it would be the turn of the century before an evolved, long-range version of the F-16 became available - in the form of the Block 52+ F-16I. But while the F-16I boasted a strike radius some 50% greater than the earlier Block 40 F-16C, it was able to achieve this only with an empty weight that was some 10% greater than the earlier F-16C model. From a performance and survivability, standpoint the evolved F-16 still could not fully match the capabilities of the Lavi, in the role for which it had once been developed.

The F-35 - 33 of which are on order by Israel
To this day, many of the issues which surrounded the Lavi development program and the decision to launch it still remain. Today, for example, the Israel Defense Force has been actively lobbying the developer of the F-35 - Israel's next new fighter - to offer a version with additional range and payload. According to media reports, these overtures have been met with little enthusiasm on the part of Lockheed Martin - which assumes that the Israelis have no other aircraft options and will accept whatever U.S. product they are offered.

And to add a few words about the process that went into writing and publishing this book, I would start by pointing out that no one writes a book like this because they believe it will lead to their financial fortune. You write a book like this because you have something to say.

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.

Taking to heart the feedback that I had received from the one publisher that had actually reviewed the original manuscript draft, I continued to refine and expand the book over the succeeding decades, fleshing out those areas where the original manuscript had required further elaboration. By the time that I was ready to resubmit the manuscript for publication in November of 2013, it had grown to over 170,000 words in length. The book was subsequently picked up by the second publisher that I had submitted it to, and a contract was signed in April of 2014. Signing the book contract was not the end of the publication process, however, but only the beginning. What followed was a series of milestones which eventually led to publication:
  • 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
In short, the process of publishing a book can be a significant task, above and beyond writing the original book manuscript, in and of itself.

A word should also be added about the relationship between the publisher and author. In this electronic age where would-be authors can independently publish their works electronically, if they choose to do so, the importance of an experienced publishing house is sometimes overlooked. As a first-time author, the contract terms will not be as generous for a new author as they might be for an established, well-known author or celebrity, and the temptation may exist to abandon traditional print media. Despite this temptation, however, an experienced publisher can be essential to opening doors, getting your book exposed and on book shelves, and ensuring a quality finished product - all opportunities that would never be available to the self-published author. It should be remembered that both author and publisher have something to bring to the table, towards making the book an eventual success, and I was fortunate to have found a good publisher that helped to make my own book into a reality.

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.

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