Israel’s Ambitious Plan to License Produce 400 F-16 Fighters: Why Did It Never Happen?

The Israeli Air Force from 1968 became a leading client for advanced American combat aircraft, acquiring its first F-4E Phantom heavyweight third generation fighters that year after its major victories over neighbouring Soviet-aligned Arab states raised its perceived value considerably in the eyes of the Richard Nixon administration. Israel was accordingly the first client for both the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon fourth generation fighters in the late 1970s, and had the second foreign air force to receive fourth generation fighters after heavier F-14s had been delivered to Iran earlier in the decade. Where Iran was prioritised as a client due to the key importance of its massive arms purchases, as well as its strategic position bordering the Soviet Union and the oil rich Persian Gulf, Israel’s clashes with Soviet fighter aircraft on a large scale, and its total inability to respond to overflights by Soviet MiG-25 aircraft, also made it a priority for the receipt of new equipment. Shortly after receiving its first F-16s the aircraft were used to take out the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, with the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1979, which had placed massive orders for F-16s, allowing more of the production airframes to be diverted to Israel. While it is well known that the Israeli Air Force quickly became the largest foreign operator of the F-16, acquiring over 250 airframes, what is less well known is that the country had ambitions to field a fleet that was significantly larger still and to license produce heavily modified variants of the aircraft domestically. 

After evaluating the F-16 in the mid-1970s the Israeli Defence Ministry had planned by 1977 to purchase 50 ready aircraft from the United States, and then seek an agreement to license produce up to 400 more domestically. Plans at the time stipulated a fleet size of approximately 590 fighters, including 450 F-16s, 60 F-15s and 80 Kfir attack jets. The Defence Ministry intended to use license production facilities to develop a heavily modified F-16 variant that would be focused on air to surface operations, which was a priority mission for the air force due to the experiences it had in the Yom Kippur and Six Day wars. The adaptation would reportedly resemble how Israel had heavily modified the Mirage III second generation fighter into the Mirage 5, and then its indigenous unlicensed derivative the Kfir, which were much better optimised to land attack roles. The differences between Israeli and American F-16s would have been particularly distinct when considering that the fighter class was initially designed without a meaningful air to surface capability, and with little capability other than for visual range air to air combat. Development of a specialised licensed F-16 derivative would have potentially mirrored Japan’s own production of the F-16 as the enlarged and more advanced F-2, which capitalised on the country’s advanced composite material and electronics industries to produce a more costly aircraft with a superior flight performance and far superior sensors and electronic warfare capabilities. 

Israel was notably denied permission to license produce the F-16 in the 1977, the year before the first F-16s joined the U.S. Air Force, although South Korea, Japan and Turkey were all later permitted to do so. Aside from political reservations in Washington, as Israel was not formally a U.S. ally, the F-16’s developer General Dynamics was also reportedly concerned that Israel would reverse engineer the fighter as it had done with the French Mirage III, on which the Kfir had been based, to offer its own version for export. Without the ability to produce F-16s, Israel instead pursued development of a much lighter indigenous attack jet under the Lavi program which was even more focused on air to surface missions, used a much smaller engine, and was expected to have lower operational costs. The Lavi program gained considerable momentum by the mid-1980s, and although not an equivalent to the F-16 it was expected to be marketed to the United States as a successor to the A-10 ground attack jet – which was its closest equivalent in terms of role. The Lavi program was nevertheless terminated in 1987, exactly a decade after Israel’s hopes for F-16 production had been dashed, although a number of its avionics systems were integrated onto modified U.S.-build F-16s under the F-16I program which partially satisfied Israeli requirements for an enhanced ground attack capability.

The Israeli Air Force would come to field an F-16 fleet of close to 250 fighters, an unusually today forms approximately 75 percent of its fleet of twin seat variants where abroad single seaters are much more common. A key reason for this is that the fleet is heavily focused on air to ground operations, for which a second seat accommodating a weapons systems officer is considered key. The Israeli F-16 fleet is today far from state of the air due to a lack of acquisitions of newer variants, and due to continued reliance on ageing avionics including mechanically scanned array radars. By contrast the F-16s in many advanced fleets abroad such as the U.S., Taiwan and South Korea have integrated AN/APG-83 electronically scanned array radars as part of upgrade packages, which alongside other upgrades provides a far superior electronic warfare performance and situational awareness and access to a much broader range of armaments. With F-16s being phased out of service from the late 2010s it remains uncertain how far into the 2030s the class will continue to operate, what kinds of upgrades are likely to be considered, or what could replace the aircraft in service considering the unaffordability of large acquisitions of its successor the F-35 – of which only 75 have been ordered.