U.S. defense contractors have been inconsistent in their presence at the Paris air show, but 2013 may hit a low mark not seen for many years. Cost-cutting in response to U.S. budget sequestration means Northrop Grumman will be absent, new Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson will not attend, and Boeing's F-15, F/A-18E/F and C-17 will be among the no-shows, despite active sales campaigns against European rivals.

The dwindling defense turnout at this biennial show—at least in the flying displays—will be accentuated this year by the U.S. Defense Department's decision not to send any hardware as severe budget cuts at home leave what has been called the “DoD corral” to tumbleweeds. Even the head of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program office will miss the show, despite European customers playing a key role in the program's fortunes.

Instead, Paris 2013 will be a showcase for potential rivals to the U.S. The stars of this year's flying display are likely to be Russia's twin-engine, thrust-vectoring Sukhoi Su-35S fighter and Europe's four-turboprop Airbus Military A400M airlifter—if it manages to fly as planned this year after embarrassing failures to become airborne at Paris in 2011 and Farnborough in 2012. Dassault's Rafale should appear, for the first time, with an active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar—the first European fighter to field the capability.

Looking back, Paris shows in 2007 and 2009 were at a time when fighter manufacturers started to note the mounting delays and cost overruns in development of next-generation aircraft. Consequently, they either started, reenergized or continued upgrade programs for fighters once expected to go out of production in 2015-20.

“In the real airplane world, we don't wait around 10 or 20 years for the latest generation to emerge,” Boeing Defense, Space & Security CEO Dennis Muilenburg said at a pre-Paris briefing. “We're buying new technology every year and we design platforms with the power, weight and cooling capacity they need to accommodate it. We can get the technology into the field, and we know exactly how much the products will cost.”

Saab unveiled the Gripen NG in early 2007, and this year received a contract to develop the new JAS 39E for Sweden and Switzerland. A Gripen will be on show at Paris—so far, the company has not said whether it will be Aircraft 39-7, formerly known as the Gripen Demo and now regarded as the first article in the JAS 39E test program.

The 2007 show marked the first public discussion of the Su-35S, intended as a bridge to Sukhoi's stealthy T-50—available sooner and a multirole complement to the more advanced fighter. Boeing's F-15SE Silent Eagle was unveiled in 2009. The upgraded aircraft was aimed firmly at South Korea, where an F-X Phase 3 decision could come this month, with the Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed Martin F-35 also in contention (see page 24).

Boeing initially targeted a menu of upgrades for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet at international customers, but now has the U.S. Navy firmly in its sights with a stealthy derivative rebranded the Advanced Super Hornet. Muilenburg says the change reflects the program's “definition, certainty and clarity” with flights planned this summer to measure the aircraft's reduced radar cross-section with new coatings, conformal fuel tanks and weapons pod.

A major part of upgrades planned for the Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon, Europe's MBDA Meteor will appear, having completed its operational tests and moved closer to becoming the first ramjet-powered air-to-air missile to enter service. Israel's Rafael could choose Paris as the venue to unveil the air-to-air configuration of its Stunner missile, now that the weapon has undergone guided firings as part of the David's Sling air and missile defense system.

Led by the Rafale's Thales RBE2 radar, Europe's push back against the U.S. lead in AESA technology has been boosted by the launch of development of the JAS 39E Gripen, with its Selex-ES/Saab Vixen ES-05 radar. Selex is also working on the Typhoon's Captor-E AESA, a full-scale development contract expected later this year. The value of Selex's “repositioner” technology—a rotating bearing that gives the AESA a wider field of regard—is disputed by U.S. producers, but not by European engineers and pilots, who see it as a defensive advantage.

European fighter manufacturers are enthusiastic also about infrared search and track (IRST) systems, fitted to the Rafale, Typhoon and Su-35S and planned for the JAS 39E. Boeing is testing a Lockheed Martin IRST for the Super Hornet, flying it on a King Air testbed early this year and saying the system is yielding reliable “long-range” detection compatible with AIM-120 medium-range missile use.

Continuing development of existing fighters is crucial to the Europeans, who see no prospect for their replacement. “Is there any request for a manned, fast combat fighter in Europe in the coming years?” Bernhard Gerwert, CEO of EADS defense company Cassidian, asked at a May symposium in Paris organized by the Académie de l'Air et de l'Espace. In his view Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon will continue for 30 to 40 years, and the JSF program is not a model for their replacement. “Look at [it]: there's been a five-year delay, the cost has more than doubled from $40 million to $100 million and it will not be operational until 2020.”

Participants could not agree the extent to which European industry should collaborate or restructure. For Chris Boardman, managing director of BAE Systems' Military Air and Information business, “collaboration is the only way forward to sustain our combat aircraft capability,” while Gerwert said “Airbus or MBDA would be the best model to follow.” But, while Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon are in production, “there is no appetite for thinking about future aircraft,” said Christian Bréant, R&D director of the European Defense Agency.

JSF competitors are increasingly ready to reject the “fourth-generation” label and assert that, while their fighters do not match the F-35's stealth, they can rival its effectiveness and survivability at a competitive cost. They are working to prove their case in three competitions so far, in South Korea and two F-35 partner nations: Canada, where rival manufacturers are to make presentations this month; and Denmark, where Eurofighter, Gripen and Super Hornet are likely to join a reopened fighter selection.

Beyond those potential competitions, other major fighter contests include Brazil, where the clock is running out on a long-delayed decision. Two Middle Eastern nations, likely Kuwait and the UAE, have conducted Super Hornet flight evaluations, Boeing says. The latter, an industry source says, is looking at forgoing mid-life updates for its two unique combat aircraft, the F-16E/F and Dassault Mirage 2000-9, in favor of buying a follow-on with a bigger customer base.

Against this background of domestic cuts and competition internationally, Lockheed Martin is planning a smaller footprint than at previous Paris shows. The company will showcase the F-35 as well as the C-130J airlifter and the Medium Extended Air Defense System, which is struggling after Washington pulled out of the project, leaving Germany and Italy looking for a production partner.

Boeing's defense-unit cadre will be so small they may be mere houseguests of the massive Boeing Commercial Airplanes show presence. A Boeing official says the defense unit is more focused on air shows in the U.K., as well as Dubai and Singapore.

While other U.S. defense companies have more sharply downsized their footprints at major international events—or eliminated them, like Northrop Grumman at Paris—Raytheon's show presence has been fairly stable. But the electronics giant leads U.S. defense contractors in foreign sales, which accounted for 26% of revenues in 2012. Raytheon will be trumpeting its April win in South Korea with the Racr AESA for locally built KF-16s being upgraded by BAE Systems. At stake is a market forecast of more than 600 F-16 upgrades, with Lockheed Martin still to choose between Racr and Northrop Grumman's rival Sabr for AESA retrofits to U.S. and Taiwanese F-16s.

With governments globally cutting back on defense expenditure, major announcements are not expected at Paris. None of the contenders for the U.S. Air Force's T-38C trainer replacement competition are scheduled to fly, for example. BAE, teamed with Northrop on T-X, will have its Hawk on static display. But Alenia Aermacchi's M-346 will not attend, having been grounded following a crash in May.

With Christina Mackenzie in Paris.

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