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PAS11: Air show wrap-up

PARIS -- After a soggy week at Le Bourget, your correspondent is closing down the Buzz Paris Bureau and heading back to World Headquarters in Washington. As the commercial and civil aerospace worlds enjoyed a big rebound over 2009's dreary show -- Airbus' top executive called this week its best air show ever, with 730 orders --  it was a relatively quiet for the defense industry.

The defense aerospace sector is in survival mode now, hoping to recast itself as an ally to cost-conscious, risk-averse leaders in governments across the world. Its leaders still think they can stay profitable and keep growing, but their strategies for doing so are with comparatively unglamorous projects such as helicopters, airlift, and the U.S. Air Force's new jet trainer. Yes, they always mention the new Air Force bomber, but its future is so distant and uncertain, and it'll be built in such small numbers, that this week it didn't seem to appear on the horizon.

Two of the biggest heavyweights in the game, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, once battled for the most lucrative defense deal in history in the Joint Strike Fighter program. Until recently, Boeing and Airbus' parent, EADS, were locked in a death grip over which would get to replace the U.S. Air Force's tanker fleet. Now these and other titans are scrapping over much smaller batches of fighters and other programs for important, but less lucrative, foreign buyers.

From the defense industry's perspective, some profit, and the promise of steady work, is better than none. It knows the key now is to keep as much as possible of what it's got. For example, the president of Boeing Military Aircraft, Chris Chadwick, said now that the company has locked in the KC-46A, it needs to focus "200 percent" on execution, so no one in the Building or on the Hill has any cause to meddle with the program for 179 airplanes.

The top government and industry leaders of the F-35 program, for another example, didn't come to Paris with a slick "why your military should buy our jet" campaign. Instead they stressed that they're turning the corner, everything is looking up, and there's no reason for the fellowship to break now. Boeing, as we wrote, is hoping that it does break, because it thinks budget-minded governments will go conservative and opt for one of its older model jets.

What's gonna happen? No one knows. The picture may not get much clearer until the Buzz Paris Bureau opens again for the next air show -- in 2013.

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