Why the Israeli Air Force Destroys Its Enemies in Battle
But the military-technological environment had changed. Developing the Lavi from scratch (or virtually from scratch) required an enormous state investment for an aircraft that had marginal, if any, advantages over an off-the-shelf F-16. Moreover, the United States took export controls much more seriously than France, and had a much more dangerous toolkit for enforcing compliance. Despite initial optimism about the export prospects of the Lavi, it soon became apparent to Israelis that the United States would not allow the wide export of a fighter that included significant American components. That the Lavi would have competed directly against the F-16 only exacerbated the problem.
In August 1987, the Israeli cabinet killed the Lavi, which caused protests from IAI and the workers associated with the project. Nevertheless, a political effort to revive the plane failed, and Israel eventually acquired a large number of F-16s. In its afterlife, however, the Lavi helped kill the export prospects of the F-22 Raptor; out of concern that Israel had shared Lavi (and thus F-16) technology with the Chinese (leading to the J-10), the U.S. Congress prohibited any export of the F-22. This decision prevented Israel and several other interested buyers from acquiring the Raptor, and undoubtedly cut short its overall production life.
Instead of pursuing its own fighters, Israel has lately preferred to extensively modify the aircraft it buys from the United States. The F-15I “Thunder” and the F-16I “Storm” have both received major upgrades to optimize them for Israeli service. Both planes have increased range and improved avionics, enabling the IDF to fight effectively at great distance from its bases. The F-15I, a variant of the F-15E Strike Eagle, is the IAF’s most important long-range strike platform. The IAF has already undertaken steps to make the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter more suitable for Israeli service, including advanced software modifications.
IAI has continued to see great success, despite the lack of a major fighter project. IAI has thrived on developing and exporting components for domestic as well as export use, including munitions and avionics. IAI has also gone big into the UAV market, with major success both within Israel and abroad. And despite the failure of the Lavi, Israel’s high-tech defense sector has done well, will considerable spillover into the civilian economy. Israeli state industrial policy focuses on exactly this goal: supplying investment for high-tech innovation that facilitates both national defense and economic growth.
Israel’s current aerospace strategy depends on the health of its relationship with the United States. This is true both in terms of the availability of platforms, and in ongoing mutual technological development. Fortunately for Israel, there is little reason to believe that this aspect of the U.S.-Israel alliance will decay anytime soon. Concern over the security of the F-22 stopped export of the Raptor, but didn’t dent the overall relationship. And even if the unimaginable occurred, and Israel needed to look elsewhere from the United States, the proficiency of Israeli industry in developing components and support systems means that it would not lack long for a partner.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money, Information Dissemination and the Diplomat.
This first appeared in July 2016 and is being reposted due to reader interest.