More than three decades after Jerusalem scrapped plans to field its own domestically produced combat aircraft, Pakistan announced last week that it was purchasing a squadron of 25 Chinese J-10 jets widely believed to be based on the canceled Israeli Lavi fighter.
Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad announced the purchase of the jets, which he said will serve as a counterweight to new French Dassault Rafale fighters soon to be fielded by rival India.
According to Forbes, neither China nor Pakistan has officially commented on Ahmad’s statement regarding the jets, which many believe to be based on technology developed by Israel Aircraft Industries in the 1980s.
The development of the controversial multi-billion dollar Lavi was halted in August 1987 when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s cabinet voted 13 to 12 to discontinue the project, adopting a compromise proposed by then-vice premier Shimon Peres to end it while allocating $100 million to Israel Aerospace Industries for the development of “future technologies.”
Steadily mounting costs and U.S. pressure doomed the project, with the Reagan administration strongly urging the project’s termination, telling Israel that the U.S. would help it maintain a high level of technological research and development once the Lavi was scrapped.
In a letter sent before the cancellation, the U.S. offered to help Israel develop research and development infrastructure for defense industries. It also offered to continue helping finance Israeli test flights of the Lavi prototype to develop avionic systems.
In 1988, then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin denied a Sunday Times of London report that Israel had agreed to sell advanced missile technology to China, and to help Beijing develop a combat fighter plane using technology derived from the Lavi. The two countries did not yet have formal diplomatic ties at the time. The J10 made its first flight in 1998.
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Writing in Haaretz in 2017, Moshe Arens, one of the Lavi’s main backers in the Shamir government, contended that the cancellation was the result of “behind-the-scenes political manipulation” and accused an air force representative of lying to the cabinet regarding the project’s feasibility.
In response, Kobi Richter, the former head of the air force’s Weapons Department, wrote that canceling the jet had “saved the country from both an economic Holocaust and a critical error in building its military force.”
Israel’s fleet of combat aircraft consists exclusively of U.S. jets. Last February, Israel announced that it was purchasing four new refueling aircraft and another squadron – Israel’s third – of 25 F-35 fighter planes.
JTA and the Associated Press contributed to this report.