PARIS -- For the civil and commercial airline industries, this has apparently been a banner year at Le Bourget. Every morning, the competing show dailies report ever-more sales of all those other aircraft, the ones without laser-guided weapons, or low-observable characteristics -- the ones outside our purview here at Buzz. For the defense scene, however, the 2011 Paris Air Show has been a model of discretion and reserve, and that is unusual at one of the world's biggest aerospace venues, with some 3,000 journalists in attendance.
Your correspondent has haunted many defense trade shows for years, although this is the first time in Paris. But long-time show-goers say they can't remember a year with less action on the defense scene. The reason this is strange is that in the trade-show context, what companies say doesn't necessarily need to have any connection to reality: A few years ago, at the Navy League's Sea Air Space show outside Washington, Boeing boldly distributed wall-sized posters depicting a sleek, tail-less fighter it dubbed "F/A-XX," an optionally manned, sixth-generation hyper-jet it said should replace the Super Hornet. Is it a real thing? When could the Navy buy it? Who cares! It's a sleek advertisement for the company's brand.
This year in Paris, that's all gone. Company officials and presenters don't want to bend your ear about an advanced new hypersonic fighter equipped with disruptor beams and fueled by angels' tears, whether or not it's remotely feasible. A lower-key message strategy, along with a scaled-back physical presence, is a clear concession to defense firms' awareness that they need to look like part of the solution, not part of the problem, as tough budget decisions are being made.
Instead, all the talking points are about cost and risk, and how to keep both as low as possible.