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The Lavi aircraft milestone -- flying high

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IN a large hangar at the Israeli aircraft industry facility at Ben-Gurion Airport, a substantial assortment of engineers, technicians, and other skilled personnel work busily about the bodies of two sleek, deceptively small prototype aircraft, preparing the first one for a July rollout and a September test flight. The planes are Lavi jet fighters, designed by the Israelis to provide close combat, interdiction, and strike support for their ground forces well past the year 2000.

From the president of Iai-Moshe Keret on down, the Lavi is discussed with awe as a genuine milestone in the history of Israeli aviation.

To begin with, unlike its Kfir predecessor -- copied from Mirage blueprints pilfered from the French -- the Lavi was tailored to meet the specific needs of Israeli pilots operating in the most toxic environment on earth. It can befuddle all known SAM missile defenses, fight its way through the most advanced MIG interceptors, deliver a large payload on an assortment of targets, and return safely to base, outrunning or outmaneuvering all plausible threats on the way home.

Even more important to the Israelis is the positive impact of the Lavi project on the country's technological infrastructure. Already Israel's largest employer, Iai has allocated 4,000 people to work on the Lavi, a number likely to increase if, as planned, production of the 250 to 300 aircraft begins in the year 1990 at the rate of 24 planes a year. In addition, about 1,000 Israelis work for other companies on Lavi-related systems.

To a nation that in 1985 had a net surplus of emigrants over immigrants for the first time in its history and which, for years, has been lamenting a ``brain drain'' of engineers, scientists, and technicians to the United States, the Lavi project is something very special.

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