In his op-ed on the Lavi fighter plane (“The three lies that shot down the Lavi,” September 28), Moshe Arens sinned against the truth, apparently due to a lack of understanding. It wasn’t three lies that killed the Lavi, but two weighty and correct considerations, which saved the country from both an economic Holocaust and a critical error in building its military force.
While the Lavi project was in operation, I served as head of the air force’s Weapons Department. Thus together with my superiors, I bore the burden of deciding what planes the air force should buy in the future, and whether the Lavi was suitable for inclusion among those planes. My vehement opinion, both then and now, was that the Lavi was neither operationally nor economically appropriate for the air force.
Before beginning my explanation, it should be said that the Lavi as planned, and as demonstrated in several prototypes, was a plane laden with cutting-edge, ambitious technology and was an extremely impressive feat of engineering on an international scale. But that isn’t enough.
The main problem was the management of a project of this scope, a problem Arens didn’t understand then and, as evidenced by his op-ed, still doesn’t understand today. A project like this has a magic triangle consisting of cost, performance and supply time. During the Lavi’s development and test flights, new information was discovered that required changes, and these disrupted the original plan, requiring it to be altered.
In the situation we were in, even the existing budget was beyond our capabilities and there was no possibility of increasing it. The timetable for supplying the air force was already tight and couldn’t be extended. The only leg of the triangle where “flexibility” was possible was that of performance. But given the cumulative changes, it was clear that at the end of the project, we’d get a plane whose performance was no better than that of the F-16, and perhaps not even as good. The air force didn’t need a plane like that.
The second critical problem related to budgetary planning for building our military force, and it seems this, too, has slipped Arens’ memory. The cost of building the prototype planes, and of the development plan that resulted from their flights, equaled the cost of hundreds of planes in regular production. Therefore, to make the development and production program break even, it would be necessary to build and sell thousands of planes.
But the air force didn’t need more than 200. And fantasies about exporting the Lavi were ridiculous, because the United States – which had veto power over its export, since critical parts were American, including the engine and the complex-materials frame – never had and never would have allowed competition with exports of its own planes.
Another issue was that a complete ground system would have had to be built and acquired for the Lavi, whereas the system for the F-16 already existed. So altogether, acquiring and operating the Lavi would have cost between $10 billion and $15 billion more than the F-16.
This kind of money didn’t exist, and if it had somehow been found and spent on the Lavi, then today (or 20 years ago), in the best case, we would have been unable to develop the world’s best missile systems – products that are made by the thousands, and which even a small country like Israel can therefore afford to develop on a limited budget. In the worst case, the state might be facing bankruptcy.
Therefore, I met with cabinet members prior to the decisive meeting, by that time as a demobilized civilian. With ministers capable of understanding the operational issues, like Shimon Peres, I discussed those issues, while with others, like Shoshana Arbeli-Almozlino, I discussed the economic issues. My modest contribution to making the decision wasn’t based on any lies, Mr. Arens, and I’m proud of it.
In general, two important principles governing the technological and economic aspects of technological national defense projects must be understood. When planning a new project that is vitally needed and has been carefully considered, we should classify it based on the possibility of buying the product from a foreign manufacturer.
If no such possibility exists, then the only question that remains is our ability to finance it. If it’s available for purchase from abroad, then the foreign product’s performance and cost must be compared to those of a product developed and manufactured here. This requires ensuring that the quantities we expect to produce will cover the costs of development and even earn a profit.
In the case of the Lavi, it turned out that the cost of 200 F-16s over the course of their lifetime would be much lower than the cost of 200 Lavis, while the Lavi’s performance wouldn’t be any better than the F-16’s. Given this, under no circumstances should we have embarked on this venture.
In contrast, the development of ancillary technologies for the Lavi, whose cost was significantly lower and whose prospects for export couldn’t be blocked by, say, the Americans, produced advanced electronic systems that improved the American planes we bought, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in export revenues, thereby earning significant profits for the defense industry. The technologies developed for the Lavi were also later used in the development, mass production and export of drones, a field in which Israel is among the world leaders in both technology and market share.
The defense industry is an important component of the high-tech industry on which Israel’s economic future depends. The high-tech industry is Israel’s only chance for long-term economic independence, and it is developing despite the government’s activity, not because of it.
Kobi Richter was head of the air force’s Weapons Department from 1983 to 1986.
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