Storm clouds gather over Israel's Lavi warplane

After spending more than $1 billion, Israel's military chiefs are deeply divided over whether to continue a project to build a new generation warplane. The Lavi (Hebrew for lion), plagued by controversy since its inception, is scheduled to make its first test flight next September. But Israeli and Western experts are voicing doubts that the fighter will ever go into service. As the first prototype takes shape in a hangar outside Tel Aviv, behind-the-scenes wrangling over defense allocations has burst into the open.

Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Shomron has attacked the project as too ambitious and too expensive for a country with Israel's resources. In public, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chief of Staff Moshe Levy support the project. According to local military correspondents, however, some of the plane's former champions recently changed their minds.

Some experts believe Israel may be better advised to follow the past practice of buying American planes and making its own modifications.

``It's hard to see how Israel can afford the Lavi,'' said one Western military attache here. ``The odds against it going into production are mounting all the time.''

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