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Last dance?

LONDON — “Well this could be the last time. This could be the last time. Maybe the last time – I don’t know.”

So observed one of this city’s best-known defense analysts, Sir Michael P. Jagger. He and his think tank, the Rolling Stones, made their public debut here 50 years ago Thursday.

Jagger and his colleagues’ simple but powerful assessment is just as relevant today, especially for the members of the global aerospace and defense elite that have been camped out this week at the air show southwest of here.

Both public and private statements from the big brand-name defense firms exude confidence: We’re tightening our belts; shifting our focus to exports, sustainment and services; and so long as the worst does not come to pass in Washington or Europe, we’ll be all right.

But what if it does?

Sequestration and the so-called “fiscal cliff” have been the subjects of editorials and columns all week in the newspapers here, where even British commentators agree that Congress must dismantle its own guillotine as soon as it can. Still, despite virtually unanimous agreement that something must be done, nothing is getting done.

Instead, according to reports, House Republicans and the Pentagon fought a duel this week over the numbers of pages DoD may include in the reports it sends to the Hill – and that is not a joke.

The report-page farce probably will only deepen pessimism about the prospects for Washington to get its act together. None of the parties in last summer’s debt ceiling debacle actually wanted the U.S. to lose its sterling credit rating (one hopes) – yet it did. None of the parties trying to save the defense budget this year want it to actually lose some $487 billion in growth over the next 10 years – yet it may. Or at very least, fears that it may are leading to ripples in government and industry that could be destructive in their own right.

Europe is, if anything, an even more complicated problem. Its central bankers and governments and electorates must continue to weather the buffeting of its debt crisis, which could lead to outcomes for the defense industry ranging from bad to catastrophic.

All of this leads back to the unspoken question at the Farnborough Airshow – is this the last dance? There will certainly be air shows in Le Bourget next year and again in Farnborough the year after that, but how will they compare to the enormous, loud, muddy, loved and hated institutions they’ve always been?

There’s no way to tell now. There’s even a case to be made that the real heyday of the airshows is already long past, since the Soviet Union no longer sends its latest warplanes to shock the West with their power and maneuverability. (Or crashes.)

Commercial aviation, "security" and trade exhibitors may keep Farnborough and Le Bourget profitable, but the overall grandness or humbleness of tomorrow’s air shows could be a key unofficial barometer of how bad things ultimately turned out.

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