Israel's state-owned aircraft industry is designing an advanced combat plane which, if given the go-ahead by the government, would be free from dependence on American technology for its components, including the engine, informed sources said yesterday.
The new fighter, which could not be ready before 1986, would not obviate Israel's need for the American-made F-16s, which the Israeli Air Force hopes to receive in 1980 if President Carter's controversial package arms deal with Egypt and Saudi Arabia is approved by Congress.
The new high-performance plane, called the Aryeh (Lion) originally was conceived as an alertnative to the F-16. Supporters of the Aryeh project feel that Israel's security requirements dictate that the country not be dependent on any foreign nation, including the United States, for its advanced combat aircraft.
The Aryeh is being designed by Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd., Israel's largest industrial concern, which already has invested about $12.5 million in preliminary designs.
While original plans called for an investment of $250 million to develop a prototype, it is now estimated that $560 million would be spent before the first plane left the assembly line.
Although the Defense and Foreign Relations Committee of the Knesset (Parliament) has voted overwhelmingly to recommend that Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) go ahead with the project, the government has not approved it, largely because of the growing cost.
One of the major attractions cited by supporters of the Aryeh is that the plane, similar in many respects to the French Mirage F-1 fighter-bomber, could be poered by European-built engines, including French and British jet engines.
In recent interviews, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman has said the Aryeh would be equippped with a European engine, and informed sources here said that Israel will be guaranteed that no strings will be attached to Israel obtaining the engines and the technology for sophisticated avionics.
Weizman and former Defense Minister Shimon Peres have actively supported development of the Aryeh, often without the encouragement of the Israeli Air Force.
Supporters of the project, beside promising less Israeli dependence on U.S. technology, point out that the Aryeh could considerably expand the country's arms export business.
Its critics, however, have expressed doubts whether the plane would be ready in time to replace the F-16s, and they argue that it therefore would not eliminate Israel's dependence on the United States.
Moreover, they point out that because of the fluid international political situation, it would be impossible to peg production of the Aryeh on advance sales to foreign nations.
Israel Aircraft Industries began in 1953 as a maintenance unit attached to the Ministry of Defense and grew into a government-owned firm with sales expected to reach $575 million this year, half in exports.
Its foreign sales include the Gabriel sea-to-sea missile, the Westwind executive jet and a short-takeoff-and-landing transport plane. It also produces the light fighter Kfir (Lion Cub) for the Israel Air Force and for possible sale to countries such as Ecuador and, reportedly, Taiwan, although because it is equipped with American-made General Electric Corp. engines, U.S. approval for foreign sales is required.
Although the Aryeh project began three eyars ago, the previous Labor Party government and the current Likud government did not give a go-ahead order on developing a prototype, and the designers had to move back the projected production date.
While the main cause of government hesitation was the enormous economic risk involved, former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin also voiced an objection to "letting the U.S. get off the hook" in its commitment to Israel's defense.
[Informed sources in Washington said yesterday that Israel's major difficulties in developing the Aryeh independently of U.S. technology will be in its avionics, particularly the advanced fire control radar and terrain-following radar.]
When the first conceptual plans for the Aryeh were made, the government developed an alternative plan, which suggested that General Dynamics would allow Israel Aircraft Industries to produce parts of the F-16. Peres linked that proposal with his request for 250 F-16s. That request will be presented to Congress next week, with the number of F-16s pared down to 60 by the White House.
Meanwhile, IAI is no longer interested in participating in the production of the F-16. The company has at present on file a large quantity of orders from foreign and lcoal customers, and it is also producing parts for the F-15 under a $15 million contract with McDonald-Douglas Corp.
In other Mideast developments:
Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan said he will fly to Washington next week for talks with the Carter administration, but he would have "no substantial" new peace prosposals. Dayan will talk principally with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who will return to Washington late Monday from an 11-day overseas trip.
Lebanses politicians, more used to fighting than making political compromises, yesterdy went through the long-neglected motions of trying to form a new government. They found the process - initially at least - to their liking, Washington Post Correspondent Jonathon Randal reported from Beirut.
Some 50 parliamentarians met for nearly four hours in the wake of Premier Selim Hoss' resignation Wednesday, and symptomatic of the upbeat mood were the remarks by former Premier Saeb Salam, who said, "What's really important is for the first time in years we have come together to discuss our problems with an open heart.'
U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim said in New York that Israel and the United Nations will hold talks next week on arrangements for a final withdrawal from southern Lebanon. He said, however, he did not know when the third phase of the Israeli pullback would go into effect.
Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman said in a newspaper interview in Tel Aviv that the use of American-made cluster bombs by Israel during last month' invasion of Lebanon was a "mistake." He said he had not been informed of U.S. limitations on the use of the anti-pesonnel weapons.