Killing the LAVI
Simply put, the Western alliance, based upon current planning and available equipment, does not have, and will not have, a ground support aircraft that can also survive a sophisticated combat environment well into the year 2000. It appears, despite rhetoric to the contrary, that Israel does have such an aircraft. In fact early test results have been so promising that the “kill the Lavi” proponents are making even greater efforts to terminate this aircraft both economically and politically.
The Lavi, although being assembled in Israel, is primarily American. Using American technology, the Israelis designed the first aircraft to recognize, defeat and survive a dangerous missile environment on the deck and in the air. After it completes its mission, that of close ground support, it can also enter the realm of air superiority and take out aircraft designed primarily for air‑to‑air combat. This aircraft is made to fly in and out alone.
The Lavi was developed after the 1973 War with the Egyptians. Israel ran into a wall of Soviet missiles. They lost over a hundred aircraft in a few days and for the heretofore undefeatable Israeli Air Force that was intolerable. With that shock came knowledge. The Soviets had pushed the state‑of‑the‑art in missiles because they could not keep up with the technology and expense that the West poured into its air platforms. A similar shock was experienced by the Allies’ bombers during WWII when the German Luftwaffe caused unacceptable losses, forcing a change from accurate daylight bombing to nighttime inaccurate bombing resulting in quadrupled missions with less effect.
The introduction of the F‑16 increased survivability in the air, but now the ground support element is lacking. The F‑16, designed before smart missiles made their debut as a known and understood combat hazard, simply could not survive a ground support mission. The need for such a craft grew, particularly in Europe where the Soviets could field armor, men, artillery and missiles in far greater numbers than could NATO.
To stay within the envelope of conventional weapons, the A‑10 ground support aircraft was selected. This aircraft was literally a flying cannon and it could shoot the top off of a mountain. Regretfully, while it met the tests as an aggressor, it could not survive the rapidly advancing technology of smart missiles and computer directed rapid firing guns. The U.S. has 700 A‑l0’s which are new but currently obsolete. The Soviets found it easier and cheaper to advance missile technology year by year whereas any air platform has to live with its basic configuration for its lifetime of 20+ years.
Apparently the performance of the Lavi, along with comprehensive secret briefings by the Israel Aircraft Industry to U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s advance men, caused the Pentagon to have second thoughts about its own plans. A $20 million dollar study was initiated to explore anew the arena of close ground support aircraft. This study will likely take a year or more to complete and another year or more to analyze. If it is concluded that a close ground support aircraft is needed, the development will take the usual 5 to 10 years, depending on how much off‑the‑shelf technology is used. Regretfully, due to politics and competitive corporate maneuvering, the U.S. has not chosen to adopt what is easily within reach.
The Israelis have been in constant war since the State developed. As most military analysts can tell us, actual combat experience cannot be replaced by simulation. The entire mindset changes; the technological sense rotates at higher speeds; and the perception of survival in combat changes. This is axiomatic both for the user and the designer. American technology would have progressed in the same fashion if we had the dubious privilege of a hot war every 7 to 10 years. But, we did not and the Israelis did. Their cutting edge is sharp and they have used American hardware to advance the state‑of‑the‑art. The feed‑back on our equipment in combat has proven invaluable and could not be replaced by war game maneuvers or even field testing.
Pilot involvement in design and engineering must be factored in. Their dashing spirit is still a driving force, but time moves on and things change. Pilots have two primary motivating forces drawing them. One is to push their aircraft to the outer limits of its technological envelope and the other is to outwit, outfight an opponent in actual air-to‑air combat. Regrettably, this jousting is becoming too lethal for close contact; so much of it is done at distances where only instruments are reaching out for contact.
Today’s aircraft meet pilot expectation and in fact are often designed for pilot approval. But will a pilot-engineered aircraft fairly meet the need for a ground support design, particularly where risk goes up and recognition down. Where air‑to‑air combat is clear and dashing, ground support is dirty, dangerous and you get no kill marks for shooting up a column of tanks or missile sites. Close air support does not make you an ace and, therefore, close air support aircraft and tactics are generally not a top priority for most of the nations’ air forces.
Unfortunately, with the proliferation of conventional weapons on the ground, we need ground support weapons that will blunt a massive armor attack covered with mobile missiles. The army needs a dedicated, integrated, ground support aircraft that will move organically and flow with ground action. The skies need to be controlled above the combat zone and our F‑16s, F‑15s and AWACS do that job superbly. But the F‑16 or any modified version of it cannot and will not do this dirty but vitally necessary job on-the-ground.
The Lavi can be an almost off‑the‑shelf aircraft that will fill this vacuum. As we did in modifying the British Harrier for the Marines, we can take the proven technology, modify or upgrade to our specs. The five years of critical design, testing, debugging has already been done.
Those clever Israelis have taken our best technology, moved the parts around and developed, in coordination with U.S. manufacturers, a terrific aircraft. We need this aircraft now. With the Soviets making irresistible (political) concessions on short and medium range missiles, NATO needs all the conventional backup we can give them. We will have to adopt the Israeli stratagem that everything that flies, fights.
The Lavi is also configured as a controversial “hot” trainer-fighter. Pilots will be trained sufficiently on simulators and other craft, but then they top it all off early with “hot training” on the Lavi. Israeli pilots must come out of the incubator fully combat ready on day one. They will be flying against the world’s best aircraft, Soviet, American, French, English, plus a mix of increasingly intelligent missiles from even more countries. The learning curve is straight up.
Israel has expressed its desire to be our partners . . . so let them. Since most, if not all of the craft is already manufactured stateside, there is not a penny lost. We have already granted a billion dollars in U.S. development funds for the R&D, paid out both in Israel and the U.S., so it’s merely taking advantage of our expenditure and with Israeli encouragement. Should the U.S. agree to continue co‑production of the Lavi, it can be expected that America can stretch the technology envelope as we did with the British Harrier or as we are presently doing on the experimental X‑31A with Rockwell and General Electric on one side and Messerschmitt, Bolkow and Blohm, a German consortium, on the other.
Certainly it must be recognized that companies like General Dynamics, Lockheed, Grumman, McDonnell‑Douglas are locked in a life-and-death competitors’ struggle. They rightfully attempt to influence every decision‑making body possible. It is becoming hard to tell the players without a score card. In Congress, prime contractors and their subs are lobbyists, all assisted by bright former Air Force officers, each fighting for their fair share of the business. Sometimes the lobby is so good that we end up with weapons systems that should have been aborted in their early stages of development. Sometimes we pass up superb systems merely because the salesmanship was not up to their competition.
The Lavi is just such a situation. Frankly the Israelis are the world’s worst salesmen. Even when they showcase a weapon in actual combat and it performs as specified, the Israelis often have a difficult time selling it. When the Israelis showcase an American weapons system, the American manufacturer artfully uses the Israeli‑demonstrated combat performance to sell millions to billions in profitable transactions. The Israeli stamp of approval often causes its most dedicated enemies to select that same system . . . including Israeli improvements.
The technological envelope for the Lavi was designed with planned expansion. The Israelis take apart newly arrived F‑16s and F‑15s, modify them to carry heavier loads and yet remain combat worthy. They have gutted the old F‑4 Phantoms and added another 10 years to this workhorse of the Israeli Air Force. Combat and limited funds have forced innovation not thought possible. The Lavi has absorbed this lesson of progressive change and is planned to telescope its technology into the year 2000 while remaining fully combat effective in a changing missile environment. The Israelis have recognized the fact that an aircraft must have the capability of numerous metamorphoses in order to keep ahead of the much faster advancing missile technology, not to mention extending the cost amortization of increasingly expensive aircraft.
At some point in the future, manned air platforms of today will not survive against super intelligent missiles or other devices moving at astonishing speeds. Manned aircraft, as we know them, may very well be phased out of a direct contact role in a “future war”, relegated to stand‑off positions, launching intelligent missiles.
But, until that time, the U.S., NATO, and Israel must have an air superiority/close ground support fighter bomber like the Lavi to fill that interim gap. The U.S. military must discover what major corporations have known for years: Large corporations move slower than smaller corporations and even slower than the individual entrepreneur.
Japan has proven that axiom sufficiently and now dominates many industries. Israel has asked the U.S. to be its partner in the Lavi, and many other technological endeavors. Can we really afford to turn down the developing genius of this willing partner because of narrow parochial interests? It makes sense to invest in their R & D so we can reap the rewards of better, cheaper planes, more jobs for Americans, and a self-sufficient strong ally in the geo‑strategic crossroads of the Middle East.