The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has long been considered a critical asset for that country. As a result, the Israeli’s have always sought to maintain a qualitative superiority in their aircraft over those of the Arab states. And as Israel has in the past found itself fighting the air forces of not just neighbouring countries but even those of the wider Islamic world, this means they have long sort to acquire the best aircraft possible.
But historically this could be difficult for the Jewish state. In the 1960s, the IAF’s main fighter was the French Dassault Mirage III, with support from the earlier Dassault Mystere and Super Mystere. These were all used to tremendous effect when the Israelis launched their attack on June 6, 1967 – the “Six-Day War”.
However, even before this occurred the French, reacting to the tensions that ultimately led to the conflict, placed an embargo on the supply of weapons to Israel. Principle amongst these were fifty new Mirage Vs that Israel had ordered, which were intended to update the IAF’s attack capability.
After the war, the United States swiftly moved to fill the gap and began providing large number of F-4 Phantom fighters and A-4 Skyhawk attack aircraft. Both would provide the mainstay of the IAF in the 1970s. But for the Israeli’s the lesson was that ultimately, they had to be able meet as much of their own requirements as possible when it came to combat aircraft.
Initially, this was met be building their own unlicenced version of the Mirage V, which they developed into the Kfir, an upgraded Mirage with a more powerful American engine. Suffice to say the creation of the Kfir demonstrated that Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) was now able to produce advanced designs.
But though the Kfir was a very competent aircraft, it was still recognised that something better would soon be needed to replace both it and the Skyhawk as the primary strike aircraft in the IAF. Though Israel was sold both F-15 and F-16 aircraft in the 1970s, the Israeli government still had concerns in both maintaining supply and superiority.
These were aggravated in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter blocked the export of advanced US military aircraft. Though Israel was exempt from the ban, many other U.S. allies, generally with much longer and closer relationships to the United States than Israel, suddenly found themselves effectively cut off. With the pulling of French support barely a decade before, this again reinforced to the Israeli’s that they needed their own options.
But in some ways worse for Israel was the decision of Carter to also exempt both Saudi Arabia and Egypt from the export ban, these countries receiving the F-15 and F-16 respectively. While the Egyptian sale was permitted following the Camp David accords, which saw a peace deal between Israel and Egypt achieved, this still meant that Israeli aerial supremacy was questionable in the event of any future war.
In 1980 the Israeli government gave the go ahead for a remarkably ambitious project to develop a new multirole aircraft.
The IAI Lavi.
Preliminary work had been ongoing for a few years by this point, and at the official start of the development program the Lavi had gone from being a comparatively simple attack aircraft to a far more advanced concept.
Though the primary role was still to be a strike fighter, much more emphasis was now placed on the aircraft in the air-to-air role. This was because that in the event of a major conflict the Lavi would need to complement the IAF’s F-15 Eagle’s and F-16 Falcon’s for air superiority missions. And, because the potential existed that the Lavi – which means “Young Lion” – would have to go against the best American designs, it had to be better.
Full development began in late 1982 and by this point the intended design was shaping up to be an incredibly sophisticated machine. The Lavi used a delta wing configuration, which IAI was familiar with. But it combined this with a pair of large, steerable canards in line with the rear of the cockpit.
The delta wing provided space for considerable fuel and weapon load capacity, while the canards provided the Lavi with excellent manoeuvrability. This was combined with the fact that the aircraft was built inherently unstable and used a cutting-edge fly-by-wire control system.
In addition, the Lavi would use carbon fibre for the wing and fin structure, which was developed for them by Grumman, and a Hughes holographic heads-up display in a digital cockpit using multifunction displays. This was the sort of technology that was just appearing or projected in top-line fighters at the time.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the whole program is that Israel managed to not just get authorisation to import this sort of advanced technology, they managed to convince the U.S. Congress to pay for a major proportion of the development costs – about $2 billion!
But the effort both in building their own fighter, and the need to launch and maintain a heavy campaign of lobbying on Congress was considered worthwhile by important figures in the Israeli political establishment.
The Lavi represented not just greater independence from foreign suppliers, it was also providing the Israeli defence industry with a huge leap forward in technical capability. Additionally, there was also the possibility of export sales, potentially in large numbers.
IAI identified that on top of the IAF’s requirement for 300 single-seat and 60 two-seat aircraft, as many as four hundred could be sold to countries such as Taiwan, South Africa and Argentina. Development was rapid, with five prototypes being put into construction, the first two being two-seaters.
The reason for this was typically practical. Most manufacturers built two-seater trainer versions of their types by converting from the single-seat design, sacrificing some fuel and weapon capability. The Israelis’ expected the two-seat Lavi’s to retain practically full mission capability, as they would be expected to perform combat roles if necessary. They also recognised that building the single-seat fighters off the larger two-seat framework would provide the Lavi with ample room for electronics and additional equipment upgrades in the future.
On December 31, 1986, the first prototype flew. Handling was described as excellent, and a full flight program began. Three months later the second prototype, which featured additional equipment, also flew. Powered by Pratt & Whitney PW1120 turbofan engine, which had been custom developed for the Lavi and which generated 20,600 lbs of thrust, the aircraft demonstrated a top speed of Mach 1.85.
Superficially, the Lavi resembled a sort of “delta’d F-16” but there were many fundamental differences. Most notable of these from the pilot’s viewpoint was that instead of the distinctive side-stick controller and tilting seat on the F-16, the Lavi employed a more standard central control column.
There were also difference in the air intake to reduce radar and infrared signatures.
With testing ongoing and showing great promise, things looked rosy for the Lavi. But while the Lavi had powerful supporters, it also had powerful enemies – which included both the head of Israeli Air Force and the U.S. Department of Defense.
The former’s objections were based of the fact that nothing the Lavi did could not be done by the new F-16C that the IAF wanted to buy. In fact, the F-16 was immediately available and, quite frankly, cheaper than the expense that was being sunk into Lavi. For the United States, the issue of the amount of money being pumped into a foreign weapon program had become more and more of a political hot potato
Additionally, by this point President Reagan had rescinded the aircraft export ban and the United States was actively looking to sell their aircraft abroad. The Lavi, funded by the American taxpayer, was now a direct threat to those exports.
On August 18, 1987, the Israeli cabinet voted on whether to continue with the Lavi.
It was decided to cancel the aircraft, by a vote of 12-11.
And so, development was stopped. Of the five prototypes, the first of the single-seaters was completed using parts from the two flying aircraft. This flew in 1989 and is apparently still used as a technology testbed. The second air frame, stripped of all useful parts, is now on display at the Israeli Air Force Museum. The first prototype and number 4 and 5, which were still under construction, were broken up.
But the impact of the Lavi has reached an exceedingly long way. The huge influx of funding and technical knowledge made the Israeli defence industry absolutely world class. Indeed, many of the components developed for the Lavi, most notably the Elta EL/M-2032 pulse doppler radar, have gone on to become extremely successful in terms of export sales.
And, as a final footnote, there are some other questions about what else happened with the data from the program. In 2008 Jane’s, the leading defence journal, published a story that the Lavi had been instrumental in the development of the Chinese J-10 fighter, which certainly shares many visual similarities with the Israeli aircraft. Jane’s sources also alleged that the Chinese had one of the original prototypes at their development facility.
The Chinese deny this but seeing as the two countries defence industries had a very cordial relationship in the 1980s, with Israel selling several advanced technologies to China, including modern air-to-air missiles and radars, the transfer of some information or technology is a possibility.
And I should point out, plenty of other Western countries were doing the same thing.
As to whether the J-10 is a Sinicized Lavi or not, we will probably never know for sure. But it is possible that the “Young Lion” isn’t actually a “might have-been” aircraft, rather a transplanted one.