Has Israel's U.S.-Funded Lavi Jet Been Reborn as China's J-10 Warplane?

By Gee, John | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Has Israel's U.S.-Funded Lavi Jet Been Reborn as China's J-10 Warplane?


Gee, John, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


CHINA HAS unveiled an aircraft that some observers suggest bears a suspicious resemblance to the Lavi, a jet that Israel developed in the 1980s and then decided not to produce. China says that the J-10 was designed and produced by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation. It entered service with the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in 2004 and its existence was officially confirmed when the PLAAF issued photographs of the aircraft on Dec. 29, 2006. The official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, later distributed them.

The Lavi is like one of the undead in a vampire story: killed off, it obstinately refuses to be laid to rest.

Israel wanted to develop an advanced fighter aircraft of its own that would come into use in the 1990s. Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) took on the job. It was an ambitious project. Israel had previously produced the Kfir, but that was essentially an adaptation of the French Mirage III: the Lavi was intended to be Israel's very own creation. As such, its production became a matter of national pride, and it also promised to enhance considerably IAI's international standing.

Israel soon discovered that it needed U.S. cooperation, however, and therein lay the cause of the Lavi's (possibly temporary) demise. It was not feasible for Israel to develop one of the world's most sophisticated aircraft on a self-sufficient basis, as originally hoped. The Lavi project consequently involved joint research, the use of some U.S. components (such as Pratt and Whitney engines) and U.S. taxpayers' money.

Some $1.3 billion of U.S. aid went into the Lavi before alarm bells went off in Washington: why was the U.S. paying Israel to develop and produce an aircraft that would compete on the international arms market with planes produced by its own companies and put American workers out of their jobs? The Reagan administration, averse to putting pressure on Israel over issues such as stopping settlement construction in the West Bank, leaned on the Israeli government, which duly caved in: the Lavi project was cancelled in 1987.

There were reports soon after that both South Africa and China were interested in taking over the Lavi project, but those about China remained vague and unsubstantiated at the time. …

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