PARIS – The world’s largest air force sat on the sidelines here at the Paris Air Show and watched as Russian aircraft, especially the Su-35 fighter jet, stole the headlines throughout the week.
The U.S. didn’t send one of its planes to fly in the event, held at the historic Le Bourget airfield, after Defense Department officials froze spending on air shows amid federal budget cuts slicing into military and domestic programs. It struck most attendees as odd to not see an F-16 or F-15.
“To me, this is not a representative year,” said Jack Crisler, an exhibitor who has attended every Paris Air Show since 1991. “This is the first time I can remember that a U.S. airplane didn’t fly.”
European defense companies like Finnmecannica SpA and Safran SA featured the largest chalets whereas Lockheed Martin Corp., which used to dwarf competitors with chalets that required bridges, scaled back its presence.
U.S. defense officials in Paris said it didn’t make sense to spend extravagantly when Defense Department civilians stateside had to take mandatory unpaid leaves of absence, or furloughs, because of automatic, across-the-board budget reductions, known as sequestration.
Executives seemed content to bide their time and wait for the major defense conferences in areas where military budgets are increasing, not contracting like in the U.S. and most of Europe.
Jeff Kohler, vice president of international business development at Boeing, said he would like to see the Pentagon amend its policy in 2014 for air shows in regions with more potential for arms sales.
“I hope that the policy changes a little bit as we get towards some of the other air shows because we really could use them at Dubai and Singapore next year,” he said. “Hopefully our situation will straighten itself out.”
Seeing an opening, the Russians sent their highest-profile aircraft to Paris, allowing attendees to get a firsthand look at the Sukhoi Su-35, an upgrade to the Su-27 flanker. The Sukhoi company claims the Su-35 outperforms all fourth-generation fighters. Many do not consider it a fifth-generation fighter because it lacks stealth technology.
Russian officials here boasted on Monday at a press conference of the recent sale of 24 Su-35 fighters to China. The Russian Technologies State Corporation also sent its Yak-130 light-attack aircraft and the Ka-52 attack helicopter to perform aerial demonstrations.
This was the first time since 1999, when a Su-30 fighter jet crashed at the show, that the Russians sent fighters to Paris. This year, the Russian aircraft were the main topic of conversation after complaints of the torrential rain showers that plagued the event all week.
U.S. military personnel were few and far between, as Paris was a tough sell for units already hit with budget reductions. But Marine Corps Col. Greg Masiello, head of the V-22 program, turned out Monday and said he expected about 100 Ospreys to be sold to foreign militaries.
Foreign military sales were a top priority for the U.S. companies. Many executives commended Pentagon officials for working with the companies to aid international deals.
Chris Raymond, vice president of business development and strategy at Boeing Co.’s defense, space and security unit, said that the Pentagon’s involvement in military sales is at an all-time high, despite the lack of U.S. aircraft such as the Boeing F-15 or F/A-18 flying in this year’s show.
“It’s disappointing,” Raymond said. “But it didn’t really surprise us, I think, that they ultimately reduced their presence here.”
The absence of an F-16 on the tarmac didn’t stop BAE Systems Plc from pledging to challenge Lockheed in upgrading fleets of the fourth-generation fighter planes in countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Greece, Oman and Chile.
Missile defense systems were featured prominently. The U.S. and many other international militaries have made missile defense a priority.
Israeli defense firm Rafael put the Iron Dome at center stage. The short-range air defense system protects southern Israel from rocket attacks and continues to receive positive reviews. Three months after President Barack Obama visited an Iron Dome site in Israel, Rafael officials said the company received a burst of interest in the system.
Plenty of cutting-edge technologies also arrived in Paris for attendees to observe up close. GE Aviation brought a 3D printer, which drew attention for the amount of cobalt chromium fuel nozzles the company plans to produce using them.
L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. showcased a sensor that can spot a gunman – or a cat walking across the street -- from more than six miles away. The device is part of the company’s MX-series of electro-optical infrared imaging systems that are increasingly being used by law enforcement agencies as well as militaries.
Raytheon Co. pitched a futuristic new uniform system featuring a helmet-mounted monocle that would enable troops target air strikes simply by moving their head and pressing a button. Called the Advanced Warfighter Awareness for Real-time Engagement, or AWARE, it featured a transparent monocle display attached to a helmet, small computer affixed to the chest and smart phone-like device on the wrist.
Drone-maker General Atomics said it will sell an unarmed version of its Predator unmanned aerial system to the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the Middle East as part of a plan to boost international sales. Meanwhile, competitors vowed to enter the market. Italian aviation firm Piaggio Aero teamed with Selex ES to unveil the HammerHead drone, marking the first time an Italian company developed a large-scale UAS.
Yet, this Paris Air Show will probably be remembered most for the aircraft that didn’t make the trip across the Atlantic Ocean. The U.S. military wasn’t quite forgotten in Paris, but it was certainly hard to find.