Who would have believed it? Some years ago Israel was developing the world's most advanced fighter aircraft, the Lavi, while the Western world's aircraft manufacturers were beating their way to our door, eager to participate in the Lavi project, or trying to sell their competing plane to the Israel Air Force. And now Israel goes hat in hand pleading for a chance to be allowed to acquire the F-35 aircraft, at a price tag of $150 million each. But it's not only the astronomical price. Israel is told that the F-35 must be taken as is - no changes or modifications to suit Israel's specific needs, and absolutely no Israeli systems included. Take it or leave it.
Just imagine Israel's position today had the Lavi project not been canceled. The IAF would be operating the world's most advanced fighter, upgraded over the years to incorporate operational experience and newer technology. Much of Israel's industry would have moved a great step ahead, Israel Aerospace Industries would have become a leading developer of fighter aircraft, and most importantly, a number of options would be open to the IAF in choosing its next fighter.
What were the outlandish claims trumpeted by the opponents of the Lavi? The project, they said, was too big for Israel. These narrow-minded skeptics had not believed that we could convince the U.S. Congress to fund most of the project, and certainly were incapable of foreseeing Israel's economic growth in the years to come. Now they are staring at a $3 billion price tag for 20 F-35s. They said Israel should not be developing military platforms but only accessory systems to be mounted on the platforms. Now Israel will not be allowed to mount Israeli systems on the F-35.
And where would we be today if we had believed that nonsense about not developing platforms? Out of the satellite-launching and unmanned-aerial-vehicle business. Where are they today, the people who at the time foolishly led the crusade against the Lavi? Surprisingly, 23 years later, some are still involved in decision-making on national security. They were against the development of the Lavi, against the development of an Israeli reconnaissance satellite, and against the development of the Arrow ballistic missile interceptor. But unfazed, they continue on.
Do they admit they were mistaken? Admitting past mistakes is a rare human quality, but there are exceptions. Dan Halutz, a fighter pilot ace and former IAF commander and chief of staff, at the time like many senior IAF officers a supporter of the cancellation of the Lavi project, recognizes in his recent book that it was a mistake to cancel the project.
So what's the use of crying over spilled milk? Are there alternatives to swallowing our pride and shelling out $3 billion for 20 F-35s? (The original plan had been to acquire 75 aircraft, which would have brought the price above $11 billion, but that was too expensive. ) Before we make that commitment, a little intellectual effort should be invested in looking at other options.
Does Israel still have the technological capability to design a first-rate fighter aircraft? That needs to be examined in some depth. No doubt some of the capability that existed at the time of the Lavi project has been lost over the years, but as has been proved time and again, Israel has a world-class technological capability. Its success in unmanned aerial vehicles is only one of a number of examples.
If it turns out that the capability to design the IAF's next fighter aircraft does exist in Israel, where could we go from there? Not to the U.S. Congress in search of funding, because we would have to remind them that 27 years ago they were fools to invest $1 billion in the development of the Lavi that Israel decided it did not want. We would have to look for partners who are prepared to invest resources in such a project, who have the necessary technological capability, and who are not involved in the F-35 project.
Are there such candidates? In theory, yes. France, with a great aeronautical industry, chose not to participate in the F-35 project. India, with a considerable aeronautical capability and a meteorically growing economy, might be another candidate. And there is Russia. Perhaps none of them would be interested, and perhaps all of them would be. It's worth a try.