Lavi rising: An Israel-UK-India stealth fighter?

An Indian-Israeli-British stealth fighter project sounds like a science fiction concept, doesn’t it?  However one of the most effective ways to move the strategic relationships between the three countries up a level is for these technical giants to co-operate on a new generation stealth fighter.

Some Israelis associated with aerospace may remember the Lavi, a daring and pioneering aircraft project from the 1980s to provide Israel with a modern and sophisticated jet fighter, with the capabilities to rival the latest American designs such as the F-16. It was to pull Israel into a new era of high tech engineering.  Thereby solidifying the country as a giant of modern aerospace technology. Surprisingly, it was cancelled. Under intense American pressure, the ambitious project was terminated. No doubt the US aerospace industry did not take too kindly to the prospect of a potent Israeli competitor in an industry worth billions of dollars and lobbied for the end of the Lavi. Working on a new project today for a so-called ‘fifth generation’ stealthy fighter would surely be a great raspberry to the domineering behaviour of the US.

For all three countries, India Israel and Britain, such a cutting edge project would instil a sense of national pride and hope. India, a fast developing country still eager to reclaim old glories as a modern day superpower. Britain looking for a new role after Brexit, also eager to gain greater autonomy from the US beneath the surface. Israel looking to expand into a lucrative and challenging new level of access to the international aerospace market. Each has something to gain but the common aspect uniting all three countries is the real prospect of strategic independence from a superpower – the US – in a high technology field that is worth hundreds of billions.

There is potential precedent for such an ambitious undertaking. Britain has already approached India about a new generation stealth fighter called Tempest and discussions are believed to be ongoing. If Project Tempest fructifies, then there will be ample scope for Israel to join as a peer power with a highly developed industrial base of its own. Indeed Israel has shown itself to be among the most advanced technical powers, selling billions of dollars of weapons to countries like India and occasionally even exporting to Great Britain and the US. Each of the three countries would bring something unique to a collaboration on a rival to the American F-35 stealth jet, a variant of which Israel operates today. India possesses a large and talented workforce which offers potentially lower production costs on the outcome of any collaboration. Britain is a pioneer in modern technology generally and could bring decades of solid project management, including experience of multinational collaborative projects such as Eurofighter. Israel has one of the most well-known and respected security and aerospace industries worldwide and could bring to the table operational experience of using a stealth fighter in an air defence system heavy environment in places like Syria, something which would be invaluable in designing a newer fighter in its turn.

Solid strategic reasons for such a collaboration project naturally exist. A jet fighter with an Israeli imprint could be modified by Israel without American permission, enabling the IDF to carry out sensitive missions without needing US oversight, something which would enthuse the IDF considerably.  It would not be fundamentally plugged into US computer networks making it more difficult for the US to oversee how the fighters are being used. The same rationale exists for India, which does not always see eye to eye with the US. Even Britain may welcome some measure of strategic autonomy from America, asserting itself once more as a great Power in the post Brexit environment.  Furthermore there is the commercial aspect. The lifetime cost of the American F-35 is worth literally trillions of dollars. Even with the F-35 selling like hot cakes there is probably a market worth billions throughout Asia, South America and even the Middle East, as many countries that don’t need, want or can’t afford an ultra-modern F-35 look for a cheaper but still capable alternative to it. That is where the three countries can step in.

The diplomatic framework for such a partnership already exits, as there is close bilateral counterterrorism and intelligence sharing co-operation between the each of Israel, India and the UK. The ambition certainly exists, as Israel and India have sent/are sending probes to the Moon for example while Britain still builds the famous Eurofighter. The economic and strategic rationale is there also. There is no reason the three countries in a potent partnership can’t change the shape of the global military aerospace market permanently.

Technically, politically and diplomatically there is ample scope for a trilateral co-operative project with positive industrial spin offs. The famed Lavi was one of the reasons that Israel has such a rich and influential defence industry today. Its potential successor could really change the world of the vast aerospace market.  There is no time like the present to seize new opportunities. Brexit and the new Modi in India government offers the chance for Israel to work on such a daring project.

About the Author
Jeevan graduated from the London School of Economics with a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies, specialising in counter-terrorism and political violence. Regular tweets can be found @jeevanvc.
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