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.
Yet it is possible -- many Israelis say even likely -- that before long the Lavi will be viewed as a milestone of quite a different variety. In this view Israel should never have attempted to build a machine of the sort that has proved beyond the means of far larger, wealthier nations. It should never have undertaken a project totally dependent upon American aid. It should not proceed further with an effort that will force it to neglect all other new weapons systems both on land and sea. And it should today seek to bolster its economy through participation in US high-tech projects rather than by competing with the US on one hand while holding the beggar's cup with the other.
What has concentrated Israeli attention on the subject is a sudden turnabout in the US attitude toward the Lavi. Thus far, some $1.2 billion -- 100 percent of it in US military assistance -- has gone into the two prototypes and related Lavi research and development.
Recently, however, a Pentagon study team concluded that the Israelis' ``flyaway'' cost estimates of $15 million per plane were low by more than 40 percent. If the Pentagon is right, or even close to right, then virtually every military aid dollar to Israel through the year 2000 not devoted to the maintenance of existing systems will go to the Lavi.
In separate letters to Israeli leaders, Caspar W. Weinberger and George P. Shultz implied that in this era of Gramm-Rudman constraints on US largess, cancellation of the project was in the best interest of Israel. A Pentagon working group headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary Dov Zakheim argued that Israel would find it far more cost-effective to scrap the Lavi and rely instead on such American-produced systems as modified F-16s or the soon-to-be-offered F-20. The latter is presumably more able to survive combat than air shows.
The Israelis take these admonitions seriously. True, Mr. Weinberger had not been initially for the Lavi, his views reflecting those of the US aircraft industry that American military aid ought to be used to purchase American planes. But Mr. Shultz had backed the Lavi, and his conversion rested solely on economic grounds, while many of those at working-group levels were genuinely concerned about the impact of the Lavi project on the Israeli force structure.
The issue is not black and white. Even under current arrangements, about 40 percent of the Lavi project will be farmed out to American contractors, including those responsible for the engine, tail, wings, and main navigation systems. And should Israel scuttle the Lavi, many of its engineers and technicians will find work modifying the American-made platforms once they reach this country.
So while continuing their public support for the Lavi, Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin are waiting for a specific counterproposal from the Pentagon. One very possible result: acceptance by Israel of F-16s along with generous subcontracting arrangements, not only on that plane, but on the next-generation American project -- the advanced tactical fighter -- together with work on other developing American systems.
Thus the Lavi may yet prove a milestone, not as originally intended, but for changing the relationship between the US and Israel from one where the Israelis were primarily recipients of US aid to one where they earn US dollars through participation in US defense programs, in the process refurbishing their own technological base. This will not satisfy those who feel Israel must design its own defense systems to cope with its special needs, but it could go a long way toward meeting those needs while ensuring adequate future resources.
C. Robert Zelnick is chief correspondent for ABC News in Tel Aviv.