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U.S. Says Israel Gave Combat Jet Plans to China

December 28, 1994|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Seven years ago, in the face of mounting costs, the United States withdrew from an elaborate project to help build an advanced combat aircraft for Israel. The idea was scrubbed--or so it seemed.

Now, to the consternation of U.S. officials, much of the American know-how and initial planning for the canceled "Lavi" fighter plane are about to be put to use in China.

U.S. government officials have recently concluded that China and Israel are collaborating to develop and produce an improved fighter for the Chinese air force. Comparable to an American F-16, the new plane will be based on the Lavi and will incorporate extensive technological innovations derived from that project, according to U.S. government experts on the Chinese military.

China and Israel already have finished work on a prototype, and production will probably start soon at a plant in the Sichuan province capital of Chengdu, U.S. officials said. The plane's deployment is seen as a major step in Beijing's effort to modernize its air force, and some observers believe it has negative implications for China's longstanding rival, Taiwan.

"This plane would fit in with a scenario for (conflict over) Taiwan 10 years from now," one U.S. government expert said. "And for someone to help the Chinese build a production line, a turnkey facility, for this aircraft is ominous."

The U.S. government's confirmation of Israel's role in developing the new Chinese plane could create tensions between Washington and the Jewish state. The joint work on the plane is the latest in a series of military projects in which Israel has helped China over the past 15 years.

Although China's impending production of the Lavi-style fighter has been closely monitored and discussed in the U.S. intelligence community in recent months, White House and State Department officials say there has been no official diplomatic protest to Israel about it.

Some Administration officials are said to believe the issue is of no great concern. While the plane represents a big step forward for China, they say, it is based on 1980s-era technology and will not be placed in service for several years.

Marvin Klemow, vice president for government affairs of Israeli Aircraft Industries International, the Washington subsidiary of Israel's state-owned export firm, denied that his company is transferring U.S. technology to China.

"IAI does not transfer any technology illegally. Any U.S. technology that requires a license (from the United States), we apply for that license," Klemow said. "And we have not applied for any license for any Lavi-associated technology for China."

Klemow would not say whether his company is providing China with other, non-American aircraft technology from the Lavi project. "We never confirm or deny who we do business with," he said.

An official at the Israeli Embassy in Washington also denied that Israel had passed on U.S. technology based on the Lavi.

For several years, there was speculation that China and Israel were working together on a new plane based on technology from the Lavi project.

But the first report that the plane is nearing production came in November in a British aviation publication, Flight International. U.S. officials confirmed that report in recent interviews.

"The plane is in the prototype stage. The prototype has been built," one U.S. official said. "It is a very capable aircraft. It uses extensive U.S. technology." The official said the combat fighter will be ready for flight-testing in about a year and will be in full service in China's air force about a decade from now.

The plane, which China intends to call the F-10 fighter, represents the latest in a prolonged effort by Beijing to obtain modern combat planes and to be able to manufacture them on its own soil.

Most of China's current combat planes are 1960s-era aircraft based on Soviet designs. In 1986, the Ronald Reagan Administration agreed to provide modern-day electronics, navigation and radar equipment for some of those Chinese planes in a $550-million project called Peace Pearl. The project was suspended when the George Bush Administration imposed sanctions on military sales to China after the 1989 Tian An Men Square crackdown. China, which became increasingly irritated by mounting costs associated with Peace Pearl, pulled out of the deal in 1990.

It was after Peace Pearl's cancellation that China turned to Israel, apparently aiming to obtain indirectly some of the American-style military technology it could not obtain from the United States itself. The principal U.S. defense firm in the aborted Peace Pearl project, Grumman Corp., was heavily involved in the Lavi project too, according to U.S. experts.

By producing the new plane, China's once-antiquated air force will take a quantum leap forward, U.S. officials said.

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