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Scrapping the Lavi

September 03, 1987

Seven years ago Israel determined that the jet fighter it wanted as the backbone of its air force in the 1990s should be Israeli-designed and built.In pursuit of that goal the government so far has spent about $1.5 billion to develop the Lavi, from all accounts a good plane but not one markedly superior to the U.S.-made F-16 that the Israeli air force now relies on. Over the years, costs of the Lavi project have soared. Israel Aircraft Industries, the manufacturer, now estimates that the 300 planes that Israel's air force wants to buy would cost up to $68 million each--about four times the initial estimates. This week a bitterly divided Israeli cabinet finally was forced to accept the reality that the Lavi had become uneconomical, and it voted to scrap the project.

The plane, never a military necessity for a country that has a solid military-supply relationship with the United States, had clearly become a prideful self-indulgence. Leaders of the armed forces had soured on the Lavi, fearing that the additional billions of dollars that it would consume over the next decade would steal scare resources from other essential military needs. The finance ministry similarly had reached the reluctant conclusion that the Lavi was unaffordable.

The Israeli government's support for the Lavi had been prompted in no small part by concern that the abandonment of the project would lead to severe unemployment in the aircraft industry and to emigration of significant numbers of highly skilled technicians. But maintaining employment by continuing to build the Lavi would have meant subsidizing jobs to an extent that made no economic sense. The United States, which provides Israel with $3 billion a year in military and economic assistance and which has paid for about 90% of the Lavi's costs, has been suggesting for the last two years that the project be dropped. Those urgings undoubtedly carried weight. Of greatest weight, though, was the belated and realistic appreciation that the Lavi was a luxury unsuited to Israel's limited means and unneeded to safeguard its security.

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