An Israeli F-16 I fighter jet takes off during an air show at Hatzerim air force base in the Negev desert in 2012. (Jack Guez / AFP via Getty Images)
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — More than a quarter century after cancellation of the US-Israel Lavi program, a key figure in that traumatic chapter of bilateral relations continues to blame opponents of the mega project for lasting damage to Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Israel’s largest aerospace and defense firm.
In commentary published Oct. 1 in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, three-time former Defense Minister Moshe Arens said the 1987 termination “sentenced IAI” — prime contractor for the defunct, delta-winged fighter — “to remain a medium-sized player” in the global aerospace industry.
Had the Israeli government not heeded US pressure to nix the program, IAI could have “fulfilled its potential of becoming a rival to Boeing, Lockheed, Grumman or General Dynamics,” Arens wrote.
Arens, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and one-time vice president at IAI, was a principal driver behind the Lavi, a single-engine fighter that became both a symbol of national pride and a source of acrimony between and within the two governments.
It began in 1980 as a low-cost, low-end replacement to Israel’s aging A-4 and Kfir ground attack aircraft, but was redesigned in 1982 to more closely mimic performance of US F-16s sought by the Israel Air Force. After years of rampant cost growth, high-profile lobbying for and against the project; and intense diplomatic strain, the program was killed by a 12-11 vote in the Israeli cabinet.
Washington invested more than $2 billion in a 7-year program that yielded only two prototypes. In its aftermath, Congress appropriated significant increases in annual aid levels, which Israel used to underwrite multiyear purchases of F-16s.
But in his Oct. 1 commentary, Arens assailed as “primitive and archaic” arguments that the Lavi program was too big and would bankrupt a small country like Israel. He disparaged the “technological ignorance” of those espousing the “bizarre theory” that Israel should focus development efforts on systems rather than platforms.
In his piece titled “A tale of two aerospace companies,” Arens compared IAI, Israel’s largest aerospace and defense firm, to Brazil’s Embraer, with nearly twice the annual turnover and five times annual profit. “While IAI has almost abandoned the manned aircraft business, which used to be its core specialty, Embraer has succeeded in penetrating an important segment” of the global market, he noted.
The venerable Israeli public figure — who served earlier in his career as IAI vice president — said the Lavi termination led to the loss of Israel’s “best engineers “who are now working for aerospace companies worldwide.
IAI’s “inevitable decline,” Arens said, is also the result of “years of mediocre leadership” at the corporate and management levels.
Due in large part to the dumping of Lavi, IAI will never rival Lockheed, Boeing and other top-tier firms. “The question IAI management should now be pondering is: Can it catch up with Embraer?”
IAI declined to comment on its former champion’s claims.
Dov Zakheim, a former deputy undersecretary of defense for planning and resources who led Lavi assessment efforts on behalf of then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, said he was not surprised by Arens’ residual resentment.
“Obviously he remains emotionally involved, even after all these years. And that’s understandable since, from the start, it was his baby. When it’s your baby, you never get over it,” said Zakheim.
In an Oct. 1 interview, Zakheim said most Israelis now believe the country benefitted enormously from the Lavi’s termination. “Had Israel pursued the Lavi, it wouldn’t have had money to develop the Arrow missile defense system, its satellite industry and submarines which are so critical to its security. It also wouldn’t have been able to afford new versions of the Merkava main battle tank.
“In other words, Israel would have bought an airplane that essentially was not as good as US aircraft, and would have lost all the 21st century capabilities that has made it a state-of-the art presence on the global market,” Zakheim said.