The Paris air show serves many ­purposes, but none so much as an arms bazaar – expect Le Bourget to be crowded with spangly generals shopping for new fighters.

But what are they buying? And what, exactly, are their eager hosts selling? Not speed, aerobatics or stealth but, rather, machines to fulfil a mission. Alas, the world is no longer so simple.

Lockheed Martin F-35

Lockheed Martin

For years, stealth has been the word, but radar is now beating that technology. The mighty Lockheed Martin F-35 is not the obvious go-to airpower choice it was even as recently as the last Paris air show. There is serious talk that iterative enhancements of other in-service types could see some air forces through to the 2030s or 2040s and a new era of sixth-generation fighters.

The military mission is also changing. Destroying assets, enforcing no-fly zones or protecting supply routes will remain on the tactical menu, but the real action is shifting to achieving dominance of an evolving information network enabled by exotic technologies.

So what must sixth-generation fighters do that existing options cannot? Neither buyers nor sellers can say with the certainty needed to plan long-term acquisition or product-development strategies.

For big defence contractors, the future depends on mastering technologies that remain untamed, undefined or even unknown. Mergers, acquisitions and massive R&D budgets may see them through. But it is equally possible they will be leapfrogged by outsiders with new ideas.

Perhaps some of the big-name companies occupying the huge chalets at Le Bourget this month may, five or 10 Paris air shows from now, be suppliers to a new generation of primes.

Source: Flight International