U.S. Military Technology Sold by Israel to China Upsets Asian Power Balance

By Kennedy, Tim | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January 1996 | Go to article overview

U.S. Military Technology Sold by Israel to China Upsets Asian Power Balance


Kennedy, Tim, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


U.S. Military Technology Sold By Israel To China Upsets Asian Power Balance

By Tim Kennedy

Israel's Lavi fighter-bomber was designed to be one of the deadliest weapons in the air. However, it now has been revealed that after Israel discontinued the largely U.S.-funded project, it sold China the plans for the Lavi and the associated secret U.S. technology. This has enabled the Chinese to build their own version of this new generation of fighter aircraft.

The illegal transfer of plans for the Lavi aircraft from Tel Aviv to Beijing first became known by the Pentagon when an American surveillance satellite orbiting over China spotted several new fighter planes on the runway of a Chinese air base traditionally used for the test and evaluation of prototype aircraft. Imagery experts at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) created rough sketches of the jet, then processed the graphic data through high-speed supercomputers in order to obtain three-dimensional representations of the prototype Chinese fighter planes.

Stunning Images

CIA officals specializing in aviation technology were stunned at the 3-D images generated by the computers. China's newest fighter jet was in fact a copy of the Israeli Lavi, which itself was modeled upon the U.S. F-16 Fighting Falcon multi-role aircraft.

Although Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), Israel's biggest state-owned manufacturer of arms and defense technology, was the Lavi's prime contractor, nearly 90 percent of the Lavi was funded by the Pentagon. This is just one astonishing aspect of the story of the U.S.-Israeli aircraft, the evolution of which was almost as Byzantine as its surprise ending as the most formidable weapon in China's military arsenal.

The Lavi program, as conceived in the early 1980s by Israeli military planners and their supporters in the Pentagon and Congress, was intended as an exceedingly generous gift from America to the people of Israel. The Pentagon never had any intention of including the Lavi in its own military aviation fleet.

The thinking among U.S. Defense Department officials was that the United States, having provided Israel for two decades with some of America's best fighter aircraft--including F-4 Phantoms, F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons--now should give the Jewish state the ability to manufacture its own state-of-the-art fighter planes.

It took American military officials very little time to decide which American fighter plane should serve as the model for the Lavi. They chose the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

The F-16 was--and still is--the American fighter plane most sought after by foreign governments. Compact and with a highly maneuverable design, it has proven itself in air-to-air combat and air-to-surface attack.

General Dynamics, the prime contractor for the F-16, touts the Fighting Falcon as an "aircraft that provides a relatively low-cost, high performance weapon system...While operating in air combat role, the F-16's maneuverability and combat radius exceed that of all potential threat fighter air-craft. It can locate targets under all weather conditions and detect low-flying aircraft in radar clutter. In an air-to-surface role, the F-16 can fly more than 500 miles, deliver its weapons with superior accuracy, defend itself against enemy aircraft, and return to its starting point. An all-weather capability allows it to accurately deliver ordnance during non-visual bombing conditions."

Foreign military sales officials at the U.S. Department of Defense traditionally are tolerant of Israeli mismanagement of U.S. arms programs. However, as the delays, cost overruns and blatant moves by IAI to stamp "Made in Israel" on American-made Lavi avionics evolved, the Pentagon decided to terminate the program.

The U.S. Department of Defense therefore formally ceased sending money to Israel for the Lavi program in 1987, but only after American taxpayers had paid some $1.5 billion to fund the project.

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