LOD, Israel — In a specially guarded hangar at the headquarters of Israel's largest industrial company, engineers and technicians fitted a metal box about the size of a small filing cabinet into the rear seat of what will soon be the first flyable Lavi jet fighter-bomber.
Bright orange wires wound like veins beneath the partially completed greenish-yellow skin of the aircraft, linking the box--a flight-test instrument package--to sensors throughout the plane.
"So, you're supposed to test-fly it in September?" a visitor asked his guide, the project's chief test pilot, whose name may not be divulged under military censorship rules. "Not 'supposed to test!' " the flyer responded sharply. "I will test-fly it."
Such sensitivity reflects the controversy over what is by far the biggest and most expensive industrial project in Israel's history. The debate has intensified even as the first full-scale development prototype of the Lavi, which means lion in Hebrew, nears completion.
Already, the project has consumed more than $1 billion in development costs over four years, a bill that has been paid almost totally by the American taxpayer as part of the annual $1.8-billion U.S. military aid package. And promoters of the project are counting on the United States to underwrite several billion dollars more to produce 300 aircraft.
U.S. Pays Most of Cost
Even with Washington picking up the lion's share of the tab, however, critics say the Lavi is a luxury that Israel cannot afford at a time when almost every other military and civilian government program is being scaled back because of the country's severe economic crisis.
"There is a definite risk that the Lavi may ultimately be not so much a lion as a huge white elephant," the English-language Jerusalem Post said in an editorial not long ago.
Despite its critics, the project recently escaped some last-minute swipes of the budget cutter's ax before the beginning of Israel's new fiscal year April 1.
"It survived," Menachem Meron, director general of the Defense Ministry, said in an interview. "The Lavi is alive and kicking."
Meron acknowledged, however, that "the battle is never over until the end of the program." And he said the next six to 12 months, when critical decisions regarding the Lavi's production are expected, will be particularly fateful for the plane.
The object of the controversy is a surprisingly small and sleek-looking multipurpose fighter that officials here at Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) say is designed to carry the country's air force into the 21st Century.
Measuring only about 50 feet long, with a 28-foot wingspan, the Lavi will fly at about 1,300 miles an hour and will be a veritable laboratory of the latest computer and avionics technology, the project test pilot said. Its small size is "one of the biggest advantages," helping to make the aircraft difficult to detect by enemy radar, he added. By comparison, the U.S.-built F-4 Phantom, a fighter of an earlier generation that the Israeli air force still uses, is about 63 feet long and has a 38-foot wingspan.
The prototype currently being loaded with instrumentation in IAI's special hangar here is known as "B-1" and is scheduled for its first test flight in five months. If all goes according to plan, the first production aircraft are to be built in late 1990 or early 1991, with output quickly reaching a targeted 24 to 30 planes per year.
When operational, the Lavi is expected first to replace the U.S.-made A-4 attack bombers now being flown by the Israeli air force and then the Israeli-made Kfir fighter-bombers. The Kfir, modeled roughly after France's Mirage III, has been in production since the mid-1970s.
IAI President Moshe Keret said in an interview that, including development and so-called initial procurement items such as spare parts and training, each Lavi will cost about $30 million.
He added that he believes the Lavi will cost less--"but, if not, it is in the same ballpark"--than the American-made F-16, which is often cited as a comparable aircraft, Keret said.
Even if his projections are correct--and there is considerable argument that they are far too low--the cost of the Lavi project is enormous in relation to the Israeli economy. By some estimates, the Lavi at its peak will devour as much as 5% of Israel's gross national product, the entire value of goods and services produced here each year.
It already represents "about one-quarter of our activity," said Shmuel Peretz, IAI's deputy vice president for finance. With more than 20,000 employees and annual sales of more than $900 million, IAI is Israel's largest enterprise.
Relative to the size of the country, the economic impact of the Lavi program compares to that of the American race to land men on the moon during the 1960s.