What Israel Lost When It Stopped Making Its Own Fighter Jets

Oct. 17 2018

In the first decades of its existence, Israel imported most of its sophisticated arms—fighter jets, tanks, missile boats—from France and Britain. But in the weeks surrounding the Six-Day War, both countries imposed an embargo on the Jewish state. In subsequent years, once the U.S. became Israel’s main supplier of arms, it, too, would use them as leverage. Jerusalem thus decided in the 1970s to produce its own weapons systems, many of which—such as the Merkavah tank—are still in use. Israeli engineers also began developing an advanced line of fighter-bomber jets in 1980, known as the Lavi, but it was canceled and finally killed for good in 1987 amidst a budget crisis. John W. Golan argues that it was not independence alone that Israel thereby sacrificed:

Foremost among the realities that Israeli war planners have long had to address has been Israel’s lack of strategic depth—in both territory and manpower. This bitter reality has meant that Israel’s military doctrine has of necessity come to emphasize offensive tactics: carrying the war to the enemy and away from Israel’s population centers as quickly as possible. Range and payload capacity were already being emphasized in Israeli fighter-bombers at a time when much of the world still saw fighter jets as being primarily air-to-air instruments of war. . . .

Moreover, Israel’s lack of depth in terms of manpower has also meant that Israel would forever remain extraordinarily sensitive to casualties. For a nation so small, this was a strategic reality, not merely an expression of sentiment. . . . Trained soldiers—and pilots in particular—were a commodity that could not be so easily replaced. . . .

This set of priorities and emphases came to be seen in the design of the Lavi. . . . In the absence of an Israeli industrial capability today, Israel’s air force has struggled to find a balance that will meet its future fighter-bomber needs over the next 30 years. On the one hand, Israel has been the first foreign customer to take delivery of the United States’ new F-35 joint strike fighter, as well as the first air force anywhere in the world to deploy the stealth F-35 in operational roles over hostile air space. [But] the IDF has reportedly prioritized the purchase of 20-25 additional, non-stealth F-15I fighter-bombers to overcome the payload and range limitations of the supposedly superior F-35. . . .

The aircraft that the IDF truly needs is neither the F-35 nor the F-15I—but one that would combine the low observability of the F-35 with the range and payload capabilities of the F-15I. Unfortunately, no such aircraft exists today, nor is there an alternative that Israeli industry could hope to offer. Developing a complex platform like a fighter jet requires a combination of design skills and experience that Israel’s aerospace industry was purged of in 1987. Recreating that pool of talent and experience would require a supreme national effort.

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More about: IDF, Israel & Zionism, Israeli history, US-Israel relations

What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy