WASHINGTON — The automatic budget cuts known as sequestration may not yet have crippled the US military, but they will certainly change the way the group is represented at the Paris Air Show.
Sequestration and a need to show careful spending have meant that show organizers are expecting around 10 US defense officials in the distinguished visitor class — generals and their civilian equivalent — compared with 29 two years ago.
And no US military aircraft will be flying, nor will any manned fighters be on static display, including the much-anticipated cross-Atlantic F-35 joint strike fighter. The F-35 didn’t fly, but it was on display at the Farnborough International Airshow in 2012.
The only US fixed-wing aircraft intended for military use making the trip are the Beechcraft T-6 and the AT-6 attack variant, and neither will fly at the show. Sikorsky’s S-70i, the export version of the Black Hawk helicopter, is the only US aircraft that will fly.
“It’s like a lot of sequestration. It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners. “At the margin, appearances matter, and the French government is certainly going to have the best and the brightest of French industry on display.”
This year’s show will mark the first time since 1991 that the US will not fly any manned fixed-wing military aircraft at the show, which Joel Johnson, the executive director for international issues with the Teal Group think tank, calls “penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
“Of the three operational fighters being manufactured in the US today, two [Boeing’s F-15 and Lockheed Martin’s F-16] rely on export sales,” Johnson said. To not present these planes could hurt potential future sales that are needed to keep the production lines open, directly affecting American jobs, he warned — and also hurting America’s image abroad.
“Looking like we’re too poor to park five airplanes in Paris isn’t the image you want to project to Iran and Syria, both of which will likely have people at the air show,” Johnson said. The US decision has “irritated” show organizers, who rely on flights from jets like the F-15 and F-16 to bring in lucrative crowds, leading organizers to charge the Americans for use of a chalet, an unusual expense, he said.
A Defense Department spokeswoman, citing the impact of sequestration, said the Paris Air Show isn’t being singled out for reduced military presence, and that the impact on international cooperation and trade is unknown.
“Since April 1, 2013, DoD suspended all aerial demonstrations, including flyovers, jump team demonstrations and participation in civilian air shows and military open houses,” said spokeswoman Maureen Schumann. “We can’t predict specific impacts of not flying more aircraft. We will be sending a small delegation to participate in meetings and briefings with our international partners, US industry and US state and congressional delegations to discuss issues related to the Foreign Military Sales program.”
Typically, DoD picks up the tab for bringing aircraft to the show, with industry contributing by “filing in the holes” not paid for through training or military-to-military program dollars, an industry source said.
After sequester took effect this year, DoD informed industry that it would not provide funding and if companies wanted aircraft to make the trip, they would need to pay the full cost of bringing and displaying the aircraft. Given the short time frame and the cost involved, industry didn’t proceed with arranging for the aircraft, the source said.
The US government isn’t alone in its efforts to downsize at the show. The largest US defense contractors, while still attending the show with the exception of Northrop Grumman, have downsized their show space, part of an era of austerity for contractors that’s running directly into their stated interest to increase international sales.
It’s unlikely that any one year of reduced military presence would alter US contractors’ ability to sell abroad, but if this becomes a staple of cost-cutting moves, it could have an impact, said Steve Grundman, the George Lund Fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“Over time, if the US government stepped back from promoting sales of US military equipment, especially those orchestrated through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) process as tools of foreign policy, that would have an adverse impact,” he said.
While manned aircraft will be notably absent, US unmanned aircraft will play a prominent show role.
A General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drone in the Defense Department’s corral of aircraft on static display sends a strong signal of cooperation with the French Air Force, an American official said.
France is acquiring 12 Reapers, with a request for a first batch of two air vehicles and a ground station for delivery this year, for urgent deployment to Mali. There will be models of other US UAVs on display but no flying display, partly because show organizers have confronted legal complications with allowing US UAVs to fly over civilian airspace.
The more focused presence is an effort to emphasize the work of officials specializing in international cooperation, the American official said.
On the US side, there will be updates to French counterparts in government and industry on the export control reform initiative, which includes the international traffic in arms regulations.
A congressional delegation, state governors and some 400 US firms are expected to visit the show.
But not flying any manned US military aircraft, especially the F-35, is a puzzling decision, Callan said.
“I don’t know why, given the criticality of European orders for the F-35,” he said. “If anything, I would think that the US government would try to keep some of the European orderers happy.”