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September 19, 1986 - Image 37

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1986-09-19

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191

kine. "In the event of war, it would take
a hundred hours for the reserves to be ful-
ly mobilized and moved into battle. Ben-
Gurion declared that in that valuable per-
iod it would be up to the air force to pro-
tect the nation and carry the battle to the
enemy."
Ben-Gurion's strategy was carried out
to perfection on the morning of June 3,
1967, when those cannon-firing Mirages
blitzed the Egyptian air force before it
even left the ground. With the skies under
their control, Israeli pilots were free to
support the army's swift movements on
the ground — particularly tank thrusts all
the way to the Suez Canal.
Whole batteries, pristine in their desert
sites, were captured by the onrushing
Israelis. The Tel Aviv command was
seduced into believing that its air force
would always have a free ride in the sky.
But the Arabs began to get their act
together. During the so-called War of At-
trition (1969-70), more than three dozen
Israeli warplanes were shot down either by
improved SAMs or by anti-aircraft bat-
teries. Still, the Israeli planners didn't
seem too concerned about surface-to-air
missiles.
Then came the Yom Kippur War. From
Mount Hermon in the north to the Suez
Cancel in the south, Israeli ground forces
took a surprise bashing in the first hours
of the fighting. Quickly, the-air force took
to the skies, expecting once again to
demolish its foe. This time, however, the
Arab SAM crews were highly motivated
and had the new SA-6 at their disposal. In
the next two weeks the Israeli air force lost
a quarter of its planes.
Israel came close, in those first days of
the Yom Kippur War, to its first — and
what would probably have been its final
— defeat. Out of this near calamity arose
the concept of a fighter-bomber "priori-
tized" for surviving the missile threat. "In
the First World War, the sky was an ab-
solute sanctuary," says one official. "In
the Second World War, the sky was a
relative sanctuary. If you flew enough
bombers high enough, you'd accomplish
your mission. But now we have entered an
age in which the ground defenses can get
the edge. There's no more sanctuary."
Two home-built aircraft have preceded
the Lavi. The first was the French-licensed
Fouga Magister, a butterflytailed'trainer,
introduced in 1960. The second was the
Kfir ("Lion Cub"), whose genesis was a set
of detailed blueprints of the Mirage V's
engine stolen by a Swiss engineer on
behalf of Israel in 1968. The year before,

in an attempt to improve relations with
the Arab countries, Charles DeGaulle had
impounded 50 Mirage V's built to the
specifications of the Israeli air force and
already paid for in cash. (They were then
sold to Egypt and Libya.) As a result of
his embargo, Israelis sometimes call
DeGaulle the father of Israel's aircraft
industry.
If DeGaulle is the father of the Israeli
aircraft industry, the father of the Lavi is
Moshe Arens, a former Israeli defense
minister and a minister without portfolio
in the present coalition government. For
many years the American-educated Arens
(an aeronautical engineering degree from
MIT in 1947) was a professor of aeronau-
tical engineering at the Technion, Israel's
premier science university. "After the
Kfir, we asked ourselves what should be
next," Arens says. "Back then, the go-
ahead process was informal. There was a
fellow in charge of research at the Ministry
of - Defense who asked how much we
needed to get started. We said, 'How
about one-point-five million dollars?' And
he said, 'You got it.' That was the whole
process."
What Weizman had in mind then was a
simple, inexpensive fighter-bomber that
Israel could both use itself and sell at a
bargain price to Third World countries.
But Arens was determined to build a
fighter in which technology would be max-
imized. "Ezer wanted to feed into the bot-
tom of the pile, and I wanted to feed into
the top," says Arens.
Had these powerful members of the
Israeli establishment locked horns direct-
ly, either might have won. But Arens's vi-
sion prevailed because the last, two prime
ministers — Menachem Begin and Shimon
Peres — have also supported a deluxe
fighter. And Weizman, once a persistent
critic of the Lavi, now restrains himself.
"The government had made a decision,
and I'm not going to comment on it," he
said edgily during a recent telephone in-
' terview. When pressed, Weizman slammed
down the phone.
In the beginning, the Israelis intended
to finance most of the Lavi's development
themselves. But then their shaky economy
was all but busted by the Lebanon War
and the ensuing three-year occupation.
The dream of the Lavi would have been
finished had it not been for a savior from
a most unlikely quarter. He was Charles
Wilson, a Democratic congressman from
East Texas — hardly the epicenter of pro-
Israeli sentiment. Wilson had struck up a
friendship with Arens during Arens's tour

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