Military aviation is nearly always overshadowed by the commercial news juggernaut of the Paris air show, but the global defence industry's biggest newsmakers seemed especially quiet at what is still the world's largest industry event this year.

If defence contractors made any news at all at Le Bourget, the subjects often involved new spin-offs for the commercial market. Commercial variants were announced for such high-profile military programmes as the Embraer KC-390, Kawasaki C-2 and the Northrop Grumman/Hybrid Air Vehicles long-endurance, multi-intelligence vehicle.

Embraer believes the civil cargo market will generate between 200 and 250 orders over a 10-year period.

The show also lacked the headline-grabbing feature of a genuinely new aircraft to display wearing military colours. A notable exception is perhaps the arrival of the Airbus Military C-295 airborne early warning platform, which was revealed to include an S-band radar by Elta Systems.

But the Lockheed Martin F-35 remains too focused on recovering from schedule delays to attend an air show, and the F-22 is still grounded. Russia is likely to be saving the debut public appearance of the Sukhoi T-50 prototype for the MAKS air show in Moscow in August.

The withdrawal of the Chinese/Pakistani JF-17 in early June deprived the air display of a legitimate first appearance by a military aircraft. Meanwhile, Chinese exhibitors took care to exclude images of the stealthy Chengdu J-20 in marketing materials distributed at the show.

With the physical absence of the latest fighters currently in test by China, Russia and the USA, the biggest defence-related announcements were shaped by subsystems and weapons programmes.

Hence, Eurofighter and Euroradar committed to completing development of the Captor-E phased array (AESA).

Norway's decision to buy four F-35As for training purposes was quickly overtaken by the country's call for the US-based joint programme office to commit next year to integrate the Kongsberg Joint Strike Missile, linking the weapon decision to a possible follow-on order for up to 52 more F-35As.

But most defence companies seemed more conspicuous by the absence of top executives, especially among the US weapons contractors. Although Raytheon chief executive William Swanson attended the show, most of his competitors, including Robert Stevens of Lockheed Martin and Dennis Muilenburg of Boeing Defense, Space and Security, stayed home.

Certainly, it is not a good time for US defence contactors to be seen spending too lavishly on huge delegations to the Paris air show. Defence spending in the USA has reached a tipping point after a decade of historic growth. Some lawmakers are seizing on any sign of perceived extravagance in the business community - particularly among government contractors - to score cheap political points.

Instead, Stevens hosted an international media day on 24 May in Arlington, Virginia, just a quick drive down the George Washington Parkway from his office in Bethesda. Boeing similarly dispensed with its normal docket of marathon news briefings running throughout the week, although a few top executives were made available to journalists for private interviews.

The shift in executive-level participation at the show is not only a reflection of domestic political sensitivities. As budgets become tighter, many defence contractors are re-evaluating global marketing opportunities. As European governments roll back defence spending further, sending top executives to Paris seems perhaps more redundant than ever.

Instead, contractors are diverting resources and executives' travel schedules to a proliferating number of shows in key growth markets, including Asia, the Middle East and Brazil.

"It's a bit reflective of the times," said Chris Raymond, vice-president of business development for Boeing Defense, Space and Security. "There's a lot of regional shows that are very important."

Although many in the defence industry strived to lower their public profile, there were few complaints among the record number of exhibitors filling the Le Bourget exhibit halls and chalet rows. Companies started scaling back the size of the delegations dispatched to such events before the Farnborough air show last year.

Commercial aircraft vendors usually vie to make the biggest headline-grabbing announcements during the show, but the true value for the military side is behind the scenes. The show is still one of the world's most convenient venues for back-to-back meetings with the delegations of governments and industries from around the world.

As the size of delegations has been trimmed, many exhibitors note that the quality of the people browsing the exhibit halls is rising.

Source: Flight International