Talk about the irony...today's Jerusalem Post says that Iran is planning to acquire 24 Chinese-made J-10 fighters between 2008 and 2010. The Post story was based on a dispatch from Russia' Novosti news agency, which was the first to report the deal.
The J-10, of course, is based on Israel's Lavi fighter program, which was cancelled more than a decade ago. The Lavi was based on U.S. F-16 technology; Tel Aviv has long claimed that Washington pressured them to cancel the program, fearing that the Israeli jet would compete with the American fighter in the world aircraft market. A more accurate explanation is that the Lavi program was beset by cost overruns, and the Israelis realized that they could acquire advanced F-16 models--with the same capabilities--at a much lower price.
When the Israelis began cooperating with China on the J-10 program, the U.S. warned that the move could backfire. Beijing has a well-deserved reputation for selling almost anything in their arsenal to buyers with the required cash, regardless of political consequences. So, the warnings issued by Washington years ago now seem prophetic; a fighter with the range to reach the Jewish State, based on Israeli technology, will soon be in the hands of Israel's mortal enemy.
In reality, the J-10 will pose only a marginal offensive threat to Israel, once it arrives in Iran. The Chinese-built fighter would need extensive air refueling support to mount a successful raid against Israeli targets--a capability that is currently lacking in the Iranian Air Force. Beyond that, Iran would face significant training issues to prepare pilots for the long-range mission. Penetrating Israeli air defenses poses yet another serious challenge.
Still, there's a lesson to be learned from the J-10 deal. In the fiercely competitive global arms market, the temptation to make big bucks sometimes overrides political and diplomatic sensibilities. Israel took a calculated risk in selling Lavi technology to Beijing, believing it could somehow "manage" future Chinese exports of the J-10.
Obviously, the Israelis were wrong. And, if their air force is called on to strike Iran in the coming years, IAF pilots could face a fighter designed by their own countrymen. The only consolation is that the latest Israeli F-16s are more than a match for the J-10, and IAF training and tactics are vastly superior to those of the Iranian Air Force.