Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2007, page 42

Islam and the Near East in the Far East

Has Israel’s U.S.-Funded Lavi Jet Been Reborn as China’s J-10 Warplane?

By John Gee

A Taiwanese Defense Ministry official briefs reporters in Taipei Jan. 23 in front of a screen displaying China’s deployment of its newly developed J-10 fighters (AFP photo/Sam Yeh).

CHINA HAS unveiled an aircraft that some observers suggest bears a suspicious resemblance to the Lavi, a jet that Israel developed in the 1980s and then decided not to produce. China says that the J-10 was designed and produced by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation. It entered service with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in 2004 and its existence was officially confirmed when the PLAAF issued photographs of the aircraft on Dec. 29, 2006. The official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, later distributed them.

The Lavi is like one of the undead in a vampire story: killed off, it obstinately refuses to be laid to rest.

Israel wanted to develop an advanced fighter aircraft of its own that would come into use in the 1990s. Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) took on the job. It was an ambitious project. Israel had previously produced the Kfir, but that was essentially an adaptation of the French Mirage III: the Lavi was intended to be Israel’s very own creation. As such, its production became a matter of national pride, and it also promised to enhance considerably IAI’s international standing.

Israel soon discovered that it needed U.S. cooperation, however, and therein lay the cause of the Lavi’s (possibly temporary) demise. It was not feasible for Israel to develop one of the world’s most sophisticated aircraft on a self-sufficient basis, as originally hoped. The Lavi project consequently involved joint research, the use of some U.S. components (such as Pratt and Whitney engines) and U.S. taxpayers’ money.

Some $1.3 billion of U.S. aid went into the Lavi before alarm bells went off in Washington: why was the U.S. paying Israel to develop and produce an aircraft that would compete on the international arms market with planes produced by its own companies and put American workers out of their jobs? The Reagan administration, averse to putting pressure on Israel over issues such as stopping settlement construction in the West Bank, leaned on the Israeli government, which duly caved in: the Lavi project was cancelled in 1987.

There were reports soon after that both South Africa and China were interested in taking over the Lavi project, but those about China remained vague and unsubstantiated at the time. The South African connection seemed more probable, given the record of military cooperation between Israel and South Africa, which included work on developing nuclear weapons and Israeli help in the development of the Cheetah, a South African version of Israel’s Kfir fighter aircraft. Many Israeli technicians who had worked on the Lavi were reported to have migrated to South Africa.

The collapse of the apartheid regime rolled down the curtain on Israeli-South African military cooperation, and if there were any plans to create a South African version of the Lavi, that is when they would probably have been shredded.

The Chinese J-10 has no U.S.-made parts: the engine is Russian-made, and nearly everything else is made in China. According to military affairs writer Tim Kennedy, however, “after Israel discontinued the largely U.S.-funded project, it sold China the plans for the Lavi and the associated secret U.S. technology.” (See “U.S. Military Technology Sold by Israel to China Upsets Asian Power Balance,” January 1996 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 12.)

Despite the fact that Israel’s collusion with China over the production of the new Chinese aircraft has been a cause of friction with Washington for over a decade, Tel Aviv apparently decided nevertheless to help provide weaponry to China that would strengthen Beijing’s position against Taiwan and give it the marketable aircraft that U.S. manufacturers did not want Israel to produce.

Just as the Jewish state looked to the U.S. when France no longer was willing to provide it weaponry, Israel may be looking to the future, and a China ascendant as an emerging world superpower. 


John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Southeast Asia, and the author of Unequal Enemies: The Palestinians and Israel, available from the AET Book Club.

Additional information