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.