Thirty years ago 26 government ministers had to decide the fate of the Lavi fighter – the world’s best fighter aircraft at the time and Israel’s crowning technological achievement. Most of the ministers had no idea of what made an aircraft fly or of the level of engineering expertise required to design and produce a modern fighter plane, probably the most complex engineering system produced by man.
There was a lot of behind-the-scenes political manipulation that contributed to the result: a vote of 13-12 for cancelling the program, and one abstention. But three arguments presented to the government made an impression on many ministers, and no doubt brought about the final result. They were lies.
The Israel Air Force representative threw a bombshell on the cabinet table. He announced that a reduction was planned in the number of fighter aircraft in its force structure, and that therefore if the Lavi program were to be continued, the IAF would need no more than 80 such aircraft. The Lavi program had been based on a production run of 120 aircraft.
Now that was something all ministers could understand. You did not need a calculator to conclude that this drastic reduction would double or triple the cost of each Lavi, making it considerably more costly than the F-16 aircraft. There was only one problem here. In the following years the IAF acquired more than 200 F-16 aircraft. The projected downsizing was just not true.
The IAF representative had another surprise for the ministers. He told them that the force was planning in the future to acquire the U.S. Advanced Tactical Fighter, which was then in an initial period of development. It was to be an aircraft considerably more advanced than the Lavi, so who needs the Lavi? The ATF, eventually named the F-22, became operational in the U.S. Air Force only 18 years later, has an astronomic price tag and has not been acquired by the IAF, nor is it likely that it ever will be. It was just not true.
Now it was the turn of the representative of the Ministry of Defense.
Aware that none of the ministers around the table would want to be responsible for laying off the engineering workers engaged in the Lavi project, an official now produced charts to show the ministers that not a single one would have to be laid off.
According to these charts, the ministry was going to launch a series of advanced engineering programs, named “Lavi alternatives.” Next to each such program the chart showed the number of engineers that would be employed. The sum total added up to the number of engineers working on Lavi. What a relief! No one would have to be laid off. But the list of the “Lavi alternatives” may now be found in the dustbin of the Ministry of Defense.
Hundreds of Israel’s best engineers had to be fired after the cancellation. There also was a bizarre, almost comical, element in the government debate that concluded with the tragic decision. Shimon Peres who had been instrumental in founding Israel Aircraft Industries, and was considered its patron for many years, now led the charge against the Lavi. He explained to the ministers that the Lavi aircraft was not sufficiently advanced. Therefore, he concluded, the program should be cancelled, and in its stead the development of a more advanced aircraft should be launched, which he named “Lavi 2000” on the spot. Ezer Weizman, the former IAF commander, on the other hand, explained that the Lavi was too advanced an aircraft and therefore the program should be cancelled.
And that is how the curtain came down on the Lavi, the world’s best fighter aircraft, designed by Israeli engineers, with the participation of many U.S. aircraft industries, and supported by Ronald Reagan, the president of the United States, and its Congress.