Today, about 75% of Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) income is generated by defence systems. With this responsibility, the company’s military aircraft group is under heavy pressure to maintain this number – or even increase it.

This is not a simple task, however. While Israel is a leading manufacturer of military systems – with IAI at the forefront – current market conditions are making it harder to do business.

Among the list of obstacles to growth are the fact that many of IAI’s highly classified systems cannot be exported; increasing competition now being seen in many sectors; and that not every nation has an operational need to acquire such highly sophisticated equipment. Last, but not least, in many cases political circumstances affect the outcome of competitions, rather than the performance or price of the systems on offer.

Shaul Shahar, IAI’s executive vice-president and general manager of its military aircraft group, is dealing with this complex reality on a daily basis.

The trauma that was an outcome of IAI’s effort to develop an Israeli fighter during the 1980s – and its axing by Washington – may seem like a fading memory, but it has resulted in a situation where the company now does not think about developing such an aircraft.

“The political atmosphere that killed the Lavi has not changed, and in addition we cannot invest the funds that resulted in developing the Lavi,” Shahar tells FlightGlobal.

The group is, however, “manufacturing” combat aircraft; albeit made from ex-Israeli air force Kfirs. IAI offers to adapt the jets with new avionics and other systems for countries with limited budgets.

IAI has previously supplied the updated Kfir Block 60 model to Colombia, and Shahar says negotiations with Argentina are under way.

But this business has a limited potential for IAI, because the number of stored Kfirs is limited. “The effort now is to do the same upgrade on the Lockheed Martin F-16A/Bs that were phased out from the service by the Israeli air force,” Shahar says. “We have a complete upgrade programme, and are sure that the potential for such an upgrade of a fourth-generation aircraft is big.”

Shahar adds that when the Israeli air force eventually phases out its F-16C/Ds they will also be a potential for modernisation and sale.

The advantages of such an upgrade are obvious due to the list of systems which can be integrated, but again the success of the programme depends on the goodwill of Washington. A US-made fighter bought with dollars via the US Foreign Military Funding mechanism leaves no flexibility for IAI.

Beyond the fighter arena, the Israeli company is also a major developer and manufacturer of unmanned air vehicles, and sees major potential in the realm of unmanned combat air vehicles.

“When you think about such an unmanned system, the two main features are speed and carrying capability,” says Shahar, the first time that a senior IAI official has pointed in the direction of UCAVs. “We are seriously looking at this,” he confirms, but refuses to elaborate.

However, Shahar points to IAI’s long experience of developing manned aircraft and UAVs, noting that the required capabilities are “at hand”.

Also with an eye on exports, IAI has recently stepped up its efforts to win business ahead of US rival General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. Teamed with Airbus Defence & Space, the company has won a contest to equip the German air force with its Heron TP, and is waiting on the outcome of a legal challenge by the defeated MQ-9 Reaper manufacturer.

To strengthen its portfolio and comply with restrictions imposed on the sale of such high-end systems, in early February IAI revealed the export-optimised Heron TP-XP. Making its debut at the Aero India show in Bengaluru from 14-18 February, this is compliant with the international missile technology control regime 2 agreement.

“We designed a version [of the TP] that can fly at 41,000ft for 30h, but which has a maximum payload of 450kg [990lb]: less than half of what the original version can take,” Shahar says.

The Indian market has a huge potential for IAI’s military aircraft group, and Shahar confirms that negotiations are under way to establish joint ventures with local companies to pursue major tenders for small UAVs.

However, he says IAI is not working on the small multi-rotor vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) types now popular with many customers.

“We do not intend to go into this market, but if a client shows an interest in such a multi-rotor VTOL drone as part of a wider solution to an operational problem we will find a way to supply these systems,” he notes.

Regarding its other activities, the group has teamed with Bell Helicopter in offering the V-280 Valor to the US Army, and is supplying engine nacelles for the advanced tiltrotor.

With such broad efforts and other which remain highly classified, Shahar is confident that his division will continue to support IAI’s high volume of defence sales.

“We are manufacturing wings for the [Lockheed] F-35 and fuselage assemblies for other military aircraft, and we can say that the client list will grow,” he says.