John W. Golan, Lavi: The United States, Israel and the Controversial Fighter Jet. Lincoln NE: Potomac Books, 2016. Index. Maps. Figures. Tables. Images. Appendices. HBK. 416 pp.
Reviewed by Richard Shimooka
John Golan’s Lavi is a unique and welcome contribution to the field as the history of defence procurement, in general, remains a somewhat esoteric research area. Golan’s work focuses on the Israeli designed Lavi, a purpose-built close air support aircraft designed to replace the venerable Douglas A-4 Skyhawk in the Israeli Armed Forces (IAF) service. It had a short, bright life before the project reached an ignominious conclusion with a high stakes Israeli government cabinet meeting. Golan’s book chronicles the project’s history, drawing from a wide variety of primary sources, including documentation, interviews, and secondary sources. He effectively conveys Israel’s unique security environment and the need for a strong indigenous industrial base, which helped guide the programme’s development.
Golan’s unique background as an aviation engineer infuses his work with a different perspective than other accounts. He sews together many of the programme’s technical aspects with the project’s political, diplomatic, programme management, and doctrinal dimensions. That synthesis is rare in many accounts, which examine one or two areas and only make perfunctory acknowledgements of other areas. Lavi avoids that trap and is one of the most comprehensive treatments of a recent procurement project. The book starts by exploring the strategic and doctrinal history of the IAF that led to the project and the development of the country’s aviation industry that enabled its creation. A crucial part of these sections is how Golan highlights the experiences of various personnel, such as Benjamin Peled (p. 24) and Ezer Weizman (p. 37), who both played important roles during the Lavi’s gestation. The book then moves onto the programme’s project management, political, and technical dimensions, tracing its development until its demise. The book’s last third covers some of the post-cancellation fallout and effects.
One part of the book bears special mention: the appendixes. While most authors use them to elucidate topics not adequately addressed in the text, Golan adds nearly 100 pages covering various aspects of fighter design, performance, construction, and industrial considerations. No such comparable study exists that collects all these considerations in one place. It is the icing on top of the author’s already excellent book.
However, the account has a few shortcomings. The most apparent is how Golan addresses the factors and decision-making that led to the programme’s collapse. The book catalogues the wide array of factors that led to its cancellation, such as the desperate state of Israeli public finances in the late 1980s. However, the book largely relegates them as contributing factors throughout its narrative. Golan reserves much of the blame surrounding the programme’s collapse to US Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger. In particular, the secretary’s anti-Israeli perspective and dogged bureaucratic approach are noted as being particularly effective at convincing already reticent Israeli authorities to cancel the programme. Golan prioritises Weinberger’s agency over all other actors and seems to give his role the preponderance of blame for the outcome.
While Weinberger undoubtedly played an obstructionist role, the Israeli government was not the only one to encounter his department’s intransigence towards multinational fighter projects. For example, the development of the Japanese Mitsubishi F-2 programme experienced similar levels of strife. Thus, any multinational programme would encounter political hurdles within the United States.
Nevertheless, Golan’s focus on the political and diplomatic aspects of the programme’s cancellation slightly underplays some of the other dynamics that affected the outcome. One is the economic and industrial trends that affected all western fighter development programmes during the latter half of the Cold War. The number of Western fighter manufacturers started to decline between the 1960s to 1980s, largely due to the rising cost of developing and producing fighters, which far outpaced normal inflation.
In isolation, Israel might have been able to absorb these cost increases. However, the fiscal realities of the state were dire, as Golan described:
At the time that Israel’s National Unity Government took office, the nation was undergoing an economic earthquake. Decades of extended defense budgets had taken their toll. Defense expenditures had always been a leading element in Israel’s national budget. In the aftermath of the 1973 war, however, Israeli defense expenditures had skyrocketed – consuming an average of 24 percent of Israel’s gross domestic product during the decade that followed. In comparison, the United States – even at the height of the war in Vietnam – devoted less than 10 percent of its GDP toward defense. The burden on Israel’s economy was unbearable, driving budget deficits and inflation to unprecedented levels. (p. 101)
Golan’s characterises the factors pertaining to the Lavi’s demise as chess pieces employed by Weinberger and his staff to cancel the fighter. However, given these desperate economic realities, it is difficult to see how the programme would continue even after the fateful cancellation of the fighter on August 31, 1987. Already there was significant support for either cancelling or curtailing Lavi purchases within the Israeli cabinet. If purchases were reduced, this would create a phenomenon known as a death spiral, where decreasing lot purchases result in higher unit costs, often leading to further reductions.
Another significant dynamic unexplored in the book is the major, ongoing doctrinal shift in the close-air support mission. Golan’s work is effusive in its praise for the Israeli fighter, often pointing out its ability to undertake this mission. However, the book fails to cover the changing threat landscape, which would pose significant challenges for the aircraft’s viability in its assigned mission.
It should be noted that these are relatively minor issues in an otherwise excellent book. Very few accounts have synthesised such a disparate but relevant array of facts to create an authoritative account of the programme. Golan’s weighting of these factors may invite some critique and debate, but that should by no means discourage anyone from reading this outstanding work.
Richard Shimooka is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada. He was a Senior Fellow at the Defence Management Studies Programme at Queen’s University from 2007–2012, and a Research Fellow at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute from 2012-2017. Richard works’ cover a diverse array of topics, including Canadian and American foreign and defence policy, modern air power and defence procurement.
Header image: IAI Lavi B-2 prototype at Muzeyon Heyl ha-Avir, Hatzerim, Israel. 2006. (Source: Wikimedia)