Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January 1996, pgs. 12, 96
U.S. Military Technology Sold by Israel To China Upsets Asian Power Balance
By Tim Kennedy
Israel's Lavi fighter-bomber was designed to be one of the deadliest weapons in the air. However, it now has been revealed that after Israel discontinued the largely U.S.-funded project, it sold China the plans for the Lavi and the associated secret U.S. technology. This has enabled the Chinese to build their own version of this new generation of fighter aircraft.
The illegal transfer of plans for the Lavi aircraft from Tel Aviv to Beijing first became known by the Pentagon when an American surveillance satellite orbiting over China spotted several new fighter planes on the runway of a Chinese air base traditionally used for the test and evaluation of prototype aircraft. Imagery experts at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) created rough sketches of the jet, then processed the graphic data through high-speed supercomputers in order to obtain three-dimensional representations of the prototype Chinese fighter planes.
CIA officials specializing in aviation technology were stunned at the 3-D images generated by the computers. China's newest fighter jet was in fact a copy of the Israeli Lavi, which itself was modeled upon the U.S. F-16 Fighting Falcon multi-role aircraft.
Although Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), Israel's biggest state-owned manufacturer of arms and defense technology, was the Lavi's prime contractor, nearly 90 percent of the Lavi was funded by the Pentagon. This is just one astonishing aspect of the story of the U.S.-Israeli aircraft, the evolution of which was almost as Byzantine as its surprise ending as the most formidable weapon in China's military arsenal.
The Lavi program, as conceived in the early 1980s by Israeli military planners and their supporters in the Pentagon and Congress, was intended as an exceedingly generous gift from America to the people of Israel. The Pentagon never had any intention of including the Lavi in its own military aviation fleet.
The thinking among U.S. Defense Department officials was that the United States, having provided Israel for two decades with some of America's best fighter aircraft—including F-4 Phantoms, F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons—now should give the Jewish state the ability to manufacture its own state-of-the-art fighter planes.
It took American military officials very little time to decide which American fighter plane should serve as the model for the Lavi. They chose the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
The F-16 was—and still is—the American fighter plane most sought after by foreign governments. Compact and with a highly maneuverable design, it has proven itself in air-to-air combat and air-to-surface attack.
General Dynamics, the prime contractor for the F-16, touts the Fighting Falcon as an "aircraft that provides a relatively low-cost, high performance weapon system...While operating in air combat role, the F-16's maneuverability and combat radius exceed that of all potential threat fighter aircraft. It can locate targets under all weather conditions and detect low-flying aircraft in radar clutter. In an air-to-surface role, the F-16 can fly more than 500 miles, deliver its weapons with superior accuracy, defend itself against enemy aircraft, and return to its starting point. An all-weather capability allows it to accurately deliver ordnance during non-visual bombing conditions."
Foreign military sales officials at the U.S. Department of Defense traditionally are tolerant of Israeli mismanagement of U.S. arms programs. However, as the delays, cost overruns and blatant moves by IAI to stamp "Made in Israel" on American-made Lavi avionics evolved, the Pentagon decided to terminate the program.
The U.S. Department of Defense therefore formally ceased sending money to Israel for the Lavi program in 1987, but only after American taxpayers had paid some $1.5 billion to fund the project. The interruption of cash flow effectively killed the program, but left Israel with two fully functional Lavi prototypes.
While the Lavi program was underway, China repeatedly initiated talks with U.S. government officials regarding purchase of the F-16. These requests always were turned down, largely because American defense officials feared China's possession of the F-16 could destabilize Beijing's relationships with its neighbors, specifically Taiwan, India, Russia, Japan, and the Philippines.
Unbeknownst to U.S. officials, however, at some point the Chinese also initiated talks with Israel. As a result, according to a declassified Air Force study obtained by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,, the Chinese version of the Lavi—which has been dubbed the F-10 by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—will be "built in large numbers" by the year 2003 "and will possess a radar-evading [read stealth] capability."
Currently, China's most sophisticated aircraft are domestically-produced copies of the Russian MiG-21 Fishbed fighter, a relatively slow, short-range day fighter which first saw service in 1956.
Morton Miller is a retired State Department intelligence analyst who formerly tracked sales to Beijing of other Israeli weapons, some of which also have involved illegal Israeli export of other sophisticated U.S. defense technology to China. He has told journalists that the close defense relationship between Israel and China dates back to the mid-1980s, and involves the transfer of "five billion dollars' worth" of U.S.-made computers, high-tech electronics and advanced manufacturing equipment used to create long-range missiles, nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
Ignoring these charges, the Israeli Ministry of Defense officially acknowledges that it is working with China to manufacture jointly an advanced fighter plane, but denies that any of the technology from the Lavi is used in the Chinese F-10. Nevertheless, IAI documents dating from 1985 credit the enormous role the Pentagon played in helping to build the Lavi, and acknowledge that "about 50 percent of the Lavi is built in the United States...The program is supported by the capabilities of no less than 120 American firms."
Pentagon sources revealed to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, that when U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry confronted Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with the allegations concerning transfer to China of U.S. stealth and other fighter aircraft technologies last year in Tel Aviv, Rabin promised to "resolve the issue." That was before Rabin's Nov. 4 assassination.
Requests to IAI by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, for further details on the Lavi technology transfer to China were stonewalled. "That's a story that's been going around for a number of years," said Lisa Gordon, assistant to the director of IAI's military aircraft office in Washington, DC. "We're just seeing it come around again," she said. "Beyond that, we aren't commenting on it."
The CIA, which for some time has been concerned about the increasingly close link between Israeli and Chinese defense industries, and the threat this alliance poses to world stability, has been similarly frustrated.
Former CIA director R. James Woolsey informed the U.S. Senate in late 1993 that he was "alarmed" by the military partnership between Tel Aviv and Beijing, and officially accused Israel of "illegally supplying China with classified defense technology from sources in the West."
Reading from a declassified CIA report while appearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Woolsey added: "We believe the Chinese seek from Israel advanced military technologies that U.S. and Western firms are unwilling to provide."
Woolsey revealed that Israel has been selling military technology to China for over a decade, and that the sales may amount to several billion dollars.
During subsequent testimony, Woolsey said the CIA is convinced China also is relying on its friends in Israel to assist in developing advanced engines for the next generation of Chinese combat vehicles. He said also that China will rely on Israeli expertise to create sophisticated airborne radar that employs super-secret technology that has been entrusted to Israel for another multibillion dollar joint project—production in Israel of the Arrow missile defense program which also has been funded largely by the United States.
"[These are] systems," concluded Woolsey in his testimony, "the Chinese would have difficulty producing on their own." Now it appears that, thanks to Israeli transfer of highly classified U.S. military technology, the Chinese have done just that, setting off alarm bells among China's neighbors, and America's allies, all around the rim of Asia.
Tim Kennedy is a free-lance writer specializing in military affairs based in Washington, DC.