In the late 1970s, Israeli thinking began to focus on upgrading its stock of aging Douglas A-4 "Skyhawk" and IAI "Kfir" fighters / fighter-bombers through a more modern design centered on low-cost and low-complexity. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) requirement was for three hundred such aircraft with a collection of these to include two-seat trainer types. As Israel lived in a constant state of war with its Arab neighbors, time was of the essence.
Development began in early 1980 and the general design was initially influenced directly by IAF input. The new lightweight aircraft would carry inherent ground attack functionality while retaining full air-to-air combat capabilities and there grew the possibility to evolve the design into an advanced jet trainer. It was hoped that much of the aircraft could be developed and produced locally to help make Israel militarily more self-sufficient (and add to its economic power). Because of experience with Pratt & Whitney engines in other IAF aircraft, this brand would power the new jet.
Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) had a history producing sound, viable military platforms for the IAF and the company headed development of what became known as the "Lavi" ("Young Lion" in Hebrew). Engineers elected for a "canard delta" planform in which the wing mainplanes were of considerable surface area so as to negate the need for horizontal tailplanes. Canards, small, variable-angle wings were affixed ahead of the mainplanes near the cockpit offering exceptional agility. The nose assembly was well-pointed and housed radar with the cockpit seated aft of this under a large, clear canopy offering excellent vision. The fuselage became well-contoured for extreme aerodynamic efficiency and large ventral strakes were fitted under the tail with a single vertical fin over it. Powered by a single turbofan engine, a single exhaust port was featured at rear with a ventral intake located under the cockpit floor. The undercarriage was of a conventional tricycle arrangement. An integral in-flight refueling probe was to become a standard fit for the aircraft. Composites were used in about 22% of the aircraft's construction.
The wing mainplanes were given sweepback along both their leading and trailing edges - the former more so than the latter. Wingtips were reserved for short-range Air-to-Air MIssiles (AAMs) of the AIM-9 "Sidewinder" family or similar. The large-area wings also promoted multiple (eleven total with five under-fuselage and four under-wing) weapon stations supporting munitions from the Israeli inventory - mainly with a Western flavor. Some positions, mainly the centerline mount, was plumbed for jettisonable fuel tanks for extended ranges. Beyond its fixed 30mm DEFA internal cannon, the aircraft was slated to carry upwards of 16,000 pounds of externally-held stores in the way of AAMs, ASMs, conventional drop ordnance and rocket pods.
The form of the Lavi was very much in tune with that of the American General Dynamics (now Lockheed) F-16 "Fighting Falcon" save for the use of a delta-wing configuration (it was also lighter and dimensionally smaller). Many other design qualities seemed to come from the F-16 which is of no surprise - the IAF adopted the lightweight multirole fighter and put it through its paces in the many Israeli-Arab conflicts in the decades that followed. The United States also served as a major partner to the Lavi's development. The F-16 - along with the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F-15 "Eagle" still form the primary over-battlefield component of the IAF pending the arrival of more advanced types such as the Lockheed F-35 "Lightning II".
Three Lavi prototypes were eventually completed - the first two representing a two-seat form (the remaining three were to mark single-seat models). A first flight was had on December 31st, 1986 and the second prototype followed into the air in March of 1987. Power came from a single Pratt & Whitney PW1120 afterburning turbofan engine developing 20,600 pounds of thrust, providing for a maximum speed of 1,220 miles per hour, a range out to 2,300 miles, a service ceiling of 50,000 feet and a rate-of-climb reaching 50,000 feet-per-minute. Digital Fly-By-Wire (FBW) controlling made the inherently unstable delta canard configuration flyable and highly agile. The aircraft was powerful, fast and could present a formidable multi-role player in the inventory of the IAF.
Despite the steam being gained by the Lavi project, there were those within the Israeli ranks that did not champion the product as they saw the existing, readily-available F-16 could already accomplish all that was to be handled by the Lavi. Additionally, there were elements within the United States government and defense industry, particularly competing aviation concerns, that saw the Lavi as a direct threat to the global market share - particularly if Israel had decided to showcase its new aircraft on the world stage.
Under political pressure from the United States, a vote was held by the Israeli government which saw the Lavi narrowly cancelled. The United States rewarded the country by offering concessions through future military deals as well as continued regional support. This then led to the procurement of ninety F-16 (C-models) Fighting Falcons and effectively ended the Lavi program in 1987 - leaving just two prototypes and three incomplete airframes to show for the work. A third prototype joined the stock when parts from the forth and fifth airframe were cannibalized. This addition was used solely in the technology demonstration role to trial and evaluate key systems and subsystems used in other programs. The two remaining prototypes were saved from the scrapman's torch by becoming preserved showpieces.
Some industry analysts since have found similarities with the abandoned Lavi product in the relatively new Chengdu "J-10" multi-role fighter adopted by the Chinese Air Force, sparking talk of technology transfers between the two countries (the Lavi featured some protected American systems). There has been no official word as to whether a formal partnership deal had been struck by the sides and there probably never will be but a side-by-side comparison certainly showcases some similarities between the designs - even if they are superficial.
(OPERATORS list includes past, present, and future operators when applicable)
✓Air-to-Air Combat, Fighter
General ability to actively engage other aircraft of similar form and function, typically through guns, missiles, and/or aerial rockets.
✓Close-Air Support (CAS)
Developed to operate in close proximity to active ground elements by way of a broad array of air-to-ground ordnance and munitions options.
✓X-Plane (Developmental, Prototype, Technology Demonstrator)
Aircraft developed for the role of prototyping, technology demonstration, or research / data collection.
Developed ability to be used as a dedicated trainer for student pilots (typically under the supervision of an instructor).
47.8 ft (14.56 m)
28.8 ft (8.78 m)
15.7 ft (4.78 m)
15,498 lb (7,030 kg)
42,505 lb (19,280 kg)
+27,007 lb (+12,250 kg)
(Showcased structural values pertain to the base IAI Lavi (Young Lion) production variant)
Up to 16,000lb of externally-held stores held across eleven total hardpoints - seven under-fuselage and four-underwing as well as wingtip mounts (wingtip mounts reserved for short-ranged AAMs only).
(Not all ordnance types may be represented in the showcase above)
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