Emanuel A. WinstonEmanuel A. Winston is a Middle East analyst and commentator with the Gamla and Freeman organizations.
The Lavi was a superb Israeli creation of a needed operation ground support and air superiority fighter aircraft. These are the types of wars wherein Israel has always needed specialized equipment to defend herself against Arab/Muslim massed assaults. Israel has always faced Arab nations who can pour in high numbers of troops, accepting vast casualties, and still have more fresh reserves to relieve their battalions.[1, 2, 3]
Once Weinberger, and his consultant Dov Zakheim, saw the successful performance record of the Lavi, they began pressuring Israel to cancel the Lavi for a wing of F16s made by General Dynamics. Not only did Weinberger want additional sales for the F16, but he did not want a superior, yet cheaper, aircraft in the marketplace competing with U.S. products. Weinberger tasked Dov Zakheim, supposedly an Orthodox Jew, to undermine and subvert Israel?s self-confidence to continue from successful prototypes to co-production of the Lavi - and by the way, various projects for the Israeli Navy that were on-stream.
The F16's airframe dated back to the ?60s and was not designed for close ground support. Although Israel needed a ground support aircraft for the type of wars she has always had to fight, the pressure to buy the F16 (which was rather clumsy at low altitudes) forced Israel to eat the change and deep-six the Lavi. Clearly, the Lavi was a far superior aircraft in terms of combining both close ground support and air superiority, with outstanding Israeli electronics and avionics. To this day, neither the U.S. or the Europeans have been able to design one aircraft that can competently do both jobs.
The Lavi would have cost $17 million, as opposed to at least twice that for any current fighting jet from any country, inclusive of spare parts. The Lavi was lighter than the F16, 10% faster ?on the deck?, had a smaller radar cross section and could carry a heavy load of armaments. It was also designated as a hot trainer, which became combat operational at the flip of a switch. America could have used a U.S. Lavi as a complement to its air-stack of F15s and F16s.
Having been briefed about the superior capabilities of the Lavi and the fact that its development would create hundreds of American jobs, the American Congress had voted the needed appropriations. Almost immediately after that, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin twisted his cabinet into voting 12 to 11 to kill the Lavi project, virtually compromising Israel?s strategic relationship with the American Congress, as well as destroying thousands of man-hours of strenuous R&D, and torpedoing hundreds of jobs of high level Israelis.
Now the Merkava, like the Lavi, is to be eliminated, probably because Boeing needs a customer for a grouping of light-weight vehicles that, collectively, are supposed to equal the Merkava. Although the U.S. does need armor like the lightweight ?Stryker? that can be easily transported via air, Israel does not have that requirement. All of Israel?s enemies can bring troops and equipment to her nearby borders. The 70-ton Merkava battle tank was designed specifically to face this threat.
Of course, the M1A2 Abrams tank (now America?s main battle tank) will be part of the package at twice the price of what a Merkava costs. The Merkava was designed in the 1970s for desert warfare, for the rocky terrain of the Golan Heights and, as its primary goal, to protect its crew. The Abrams still has major problems with sand sucked up by its engine, as well as too few tank miles between maintenance for suspension, tracks, engine, firing systems, etc. The Abrams was primarily designed for battle in the European theater and not on the sands of the Middle East.
The Merkava has seen action in every military campaign of the last 20 years and is the combat weapon of choice for IDF commanders confronting organized terrorist resistance in the PLO-controlled territories. No other system affords soldiers better protection from small-arms attack, roadside bombs and shoulder-fired missiles. Strangely, the U.S. would have had a better tank to fight with (especially in the desert), while securing better protection for its crews, had it adopted the Merkava, but the NIH (Not Invented Here) factor dominated. Merkava 5 is the latest version, which incorporates battle-tested systems, making it the most advanced tank in the world.
Some of the Merkava?s many innovations are improved reactive armor (that absorbs the kinetic energy of an incoming shell, and explodes it before it can penetrate the tank and hurt the crew). The Merkava also has a 120mm. smooth-bore gun capable of firing guided munitions, an enhanced gun stabilization system, state-of-the-art night-fighting and fire-control sensors, a positive pressure crew compartment that allows the vehicle to fight in a biological or chemical environment, and even air conditioning. The Merkava is also designed for rear entry, enabling it to double as an infantry transporter. But, if certain U.S. business interests prevail, it will never be produced.
What hasn?t been published (yet) were results of the Joint Operations (Military Games) where American forces with M1A1s faced off against Israelis in their Merkavas. The results were so one-sided and embarrassing that they were never discussed in military journals. Maj. Gen. Israel Tal, the developer of the Merkava, instructed all involved Israeli personnel to remain silent on these exercises. (It happened more than once.)
Currently, Israel fields 3,900 armored vehicles. This is less than 50% of those fielded by Israel?s enemies, who continue to build up their armor arsenal, among them Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. These countries can field over 8,700 tanks among them. Egypt?s force is the most menacing. Over the last dozen years, Egypt?s President Hosni Mubarak has undertaken a massive upgrade of Egypt?s tank fleet, acquiring more than 880 M1A1 tanks. These vehicles are provided to Egypt as ?kits? and assembled in a billion-dollar plant, built by - guess who - Caspar Weinberger, just outside Cairo.
Weinberger exceeded his authority as Secretary of Defense to build this plant without securing an approved budget from Congress. Weinberger?s original intention was to have Egypt build its own M1A1 tank out of sight of congressional overview. Egypt would not only supply tanks for its own use, but then use excess production to become the supplier of other Arab nations as a side benefit. However, Egypt was not capable of manufacturing the tank, which is why finished components were sent as kits and only ?assembled? in Egypt with U.S. technical overview.
Recently, the U.S. government has given the go-ahead for the upgrading of some Egyptian tanks to the more potent M1A2 configuration. On top of that, Washington approved the sale of new, more lethal 120 mm. armor-piercing rounds to Egypt for its M1 tanks. This deal, worth $54 million, is for 10,040 non-standard APFSDS-T shells. The Pentagon and State Department have a standard line for these sales: ?It will not alter the military balance in the region.? Although, of course, it always does.
Egypt has made no secret of its aim to achieve military parity with the Jewish State and to have a regional military projection capability. Cairo has acquired new and more powerful weapons systems, including surface-to-surface missiles from China and North Korea, WMD capability, fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, naval vessels and, of course, tanks. With no country threatening its borders, only Israel appears to be the likely target of the Egyptian build-up. Some may recall during the prior US administration, while Secretary of Defense William Cohen was observing Operation "Bright Star" (Joint Military Games between U.S. and Egyptian troops), a high ranking Egyptian General said: ?We are preparing for war with Israel.?
Dr. Yuval Steinitz, Chairman of Israel?s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset, made this point: ?Israel has no strategic depth.? Israel is 50 miles wide at its maximum and only 9 miles wide where President Bush insists another Arab Palestinian State is to be located. Steinitz also spoke of Israel?s diminishing qualitative edge, which numerous American Presidents have ?pledged? to maintain. That pledge has diminished, along with the unkept promised ?qualitative? edge, as Arab nations have the same equipment as is being sold to Israel.
Israel?s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is under severe pressure to close down more than 220 Israeli firms, contractors and sub-contractors in order to transfer Israel?s tank manufacturing jobs to Boeing and their sub-contractors. Israel would lose an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 jobs. Many of these are engineers, scientists and skilled factory workers. This would lead to an acceleration of the overseas migration of Israel?s intellectual capital and bring ruin to a key component of Israel?s research and technological base. It would also further erode Israel?s deterrent posture and another vital element of military self-sufficiency.
Effects of this possible shutdown would also be felt in the U.S., where 22% of the Merkava?s content is fabricated. General Dynamics Land Systems, the largest U.S.-based Merkava contractor, is slated to produce 400 engines for the tank at a cost of just under $200 million. Cancelling that contract requires Israel to forfeit 90% of this amount in compensation.
Rumors are circulating that the U.S. has offered to provide Israel with used Abrams tanks that were withdrawn from the Iraqi theater of operations. The U.S. no longer maintains an assembly line for new M1 tanks. In the highly unlikely event the line were to be restarted, the unit cost of an M1 would probably be in excess of its original $9 million cost - which is millions more than the cost of a comparable Merkava. Relying on spare parts from an overseas supplier, even (especially) the U.S., reduces Israel?s military flexibility and control in wartime, which can place great strains on an all-important strategic relationship.
Regrettably, Israel will likely be short-changed into buying the M1A2 at twice the cost of the Merkava. It is a direct replay of the killing of the Lavi, with its cost of $17 million, to take on the F16 at a cost of (then) $23 to $26 million in addition to multi-millions in spare parts. Add this to the cost of re-employing all those who were then making the Lavi.
Israel has invested approximately $6.5 billion in the Merkava. The Merkava R&D served as a test-bed for innovations not only for land combat, but for air combat as well. Many of the technologies now appear in the IAF fighter jets, including some of the most advanced systems for battle management, multiple target acquisition, platform survivability, the deployment of active and passive counter-measures, command and control, as well as situational management.
The survival of the Merkava is integral to the maintenance of Israel?s qualitative military edge. Terminate the Merkava and the Jewish State loses an essential part of her military readiness. It takes about 40 months to field a Merkava tank from the day the first steel is cut and the first welds are drawn. The Israel Defense Ministry has sub-components on order for production roll-out through 2007, new contracts must be signed now to ensure the continuity of production past 2007.
Merkava components and technologies amount to over $200 million in annual export sales by Israel. Add to this the $800 million that Israel is to receive for the upgrade of 170 Turkish M60A1 tanks and the millions more it expects for future Merkava sales. All of this would be lost if the Merkava is cancelled. Without producing the Merkava, according to Brig. Gen. (Res.) Ze?ev Bar-Gil, ?Israel will lose its status as one of the leaders of the world in tank technology and will, therefore, lose projects of co-development and co-production of armored systems with other nations.?
Unfortunately, Israel never obtained the air superiority/close ground support aircraft she needed. The F16 was a wonderful ?air superiority? aircraft, but, unlike the Lavi, which was designed both for air superiority and as a ground support aircraft, Israel was forced by Cap Weinberger to take General Dynamics slightly altered F16.
But, as they say, ?Sorry Charlie, business is business.?
1. "Israel Eyes Merkava MBT Replacement: Cuts Could Force Closure of Local Line" by Barbara Opall-Rome, U.S. Defense News, November 10, 2003.
2. "Save the Merkava" by Rand H. Fishbein, Jerusalem Post, December 11, 2003.
3. See the author?s original assessment of the Merkava in "The Merkava: The Tank A Jewish Mother Would Love" in Israel Today, December 12, 1983, and American Jewish Life, December 21, 1984, and Southern Jewish Weekly, January 11, 1985, and Center Talk, Charleston, South Carolina, April 19, 1985.
4. "Weinberger?s Decision to Sacrifice Marine Lives" by E.A. Winston, Jewish Post & Opinion, November 9, 1983.
5. "Zakheim Announces U.S. Cuts Israel Naval Co-production (to Kill Lavi Also) by E.A. Winston, Ma?ariv, February 2, 1987.
6. "The Growing Threat to Israel?s Qualitative Military Edge" by MK Dr. Yuval Steinitz, in the publication of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, December 11, 2003.
7. See the series of articles by the author on the Lavi, as part of a public relations battle for Israeli sovereignty over her own defense equipment & survival: "Theatre for American Technology", in the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs bulletin, February 1985; "Lavi: The Lion of the Skies", Israel Today, July 3-6, 1986; "Lavi: The Lion" , The Caucus Current, October 1986; "Lavi: A Look Ahead, A Leap Forward: Co-production of Fighter Makes Good Sense for America, Israel", U.S. Defense News, April 6, 1987; "The Lavi: A Lion That Can Fly", Washington Jewish Week, August 14, 1986; "Building Israel?s Front-Line of Defense" (with a photo of the Lavi jet roll-out for its inaugural ceremonies, July 1986), Sentinel, September 11, 1986; "Jerusalem Makes Decisions Re: Lavi", Ma?ariv, January 11, 1987; "Israel?s Lavi Fighter: Good for America, Too: Israeli Innovation, American Genius: A Partnership", U.S. Defense News, July 13, 1987 and Jerusalem Post, July 16, 1987; "Moshe Arens , the ?father; of Lavi", Janes?s Defense Weekly, August 29, 1987.
8. "Recognizing the Egyptian Threat" by the author, Southern Jewish Weekly, August 31, 1984, and "?The Wind?: U.S.-Egypt Maneuvers", Israel Today, September 17, 1986 and the Boston Jewish Times, October 16, 1986.