Lavi fighter
A Lavi fighter aircraft prototype. Photo by Courtesy of IAI
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For many years a basic tenet of Israeli defense policy was that its soldiers must have a qualitative advantage over its enemies in terms of the weapon systems at their disposal. The question was how to achieve that qualitative superiority.

Yitzhak Rabin once told me that victory on the battlefield could only be achieved with weapons acquired abroad, and this view was shared by many in the defense establishment. France was Israel's main source of advanced weapons in the 1950s, with the United States assuming that mantle thereafter. The claims by Israeli engineers that they could develop systems that were at least as good as anything available abroad were dismissed as pipe dreams.

Rabin's position came to the fore in 1987, when as defense minister he asked the cabinet to cancel the Lavi combat aircraft development program, which he had inherited from his predecessor, despite the fact that it was to be the most advanced fighter plane in the world at the time, and two prototypes were already undergoing flight testing. After squeezing the cancellation through the cabinet, Rabin ordered Israel Aircraft Industries (now Israel Aerospace Industries ) to close its engineering division lest it drag Israel into another "adventure." That division was one of the best fighter aircraft design departments in the world.

The Israel Navy became the first Israel Defense Forces branch to place its trust in a locally developed weapon system when it equipped its missile boats with the Gabriel sea-to-sea missile. In the Yom Kippur War the Gabriel was instrumental in the navy's decisive victory over the Syrian and Egyptian navies in the first missile battles in the history of naval warfare. The Israel Air Force was the first to utilize small unmanned aerial vehicles, which destroyed Soviet-made surface-to-air missile batteries during the first Lebanon War, without losing a single plane, and Israel's UAVs are still among the best in the world. But the IAF has remained adamant in its opposition to an Israeli-developed fighter aircraft.

Today, 24 years since the unfortunate decision to abort the Lavi project, the capabilities of the Israeli defense industry are known throughout the world. Rafael Advanced Defense Systems is first in the world when it comes to tactical missiles. Elta Electronics Industries' radar systems are the world's best, and most advanced, while the Merkava is the world's best main battle tank. The Arrow is the world's first operational ballistic missile interceptor, while Iron Dome is the first short-range missile interceptor. In any conflict, Israel's enemies will contend with many surprises that will demonstrate the qualitative advantage that locally developed systems can provide.

Yet the illusion remains that Israel is dependent on the United States for the qualitative advantage of its weapon systems. In fact, this is true only when it comes to manned aircraft. And while the incorporation of Israeli-developed systems into the aircraft acquired in the United States once gave Israel some advantage over the very same aircraft that were sold to Arab countries, that advantage has begun to disappear with the introduction of U.S. restrictions on the incorporation of Israeli systems into these aircraft.

The F-35, the latest U.S. fighter that Israel wants to acquire, will include no Israeli systems. The F-35 development program has been plagued by frequent delays and mounting cost overruns. The design compromises that have to be made to accommodate its goal of serving as a joint strike fighter that will be acquired by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and the Marines have limited its performance capabilities.

In the meantime, anti-stealth technology is being developed and may yet neutralize what is being advertised as the aircraft's major advantage before delivery or within its operational lifetime. Russia and Indian are developing a more advanced aircraft, the Sukhoi T-50, which is certain to be sold to Arab air forces and to face the IAF's aircraft in the future.

It is time to reexamine Israel's own capabilities in this area. In any event, IAI must not be permitted to allow our fighter-aircraft design capability to atrophy.