- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

The Paris Air Show, the world’s premier aviation exhibition, is shaping up for a poor turnout when it opens Sunday.

No U.S. combat planes are scheduled to fly this year, and 20 percent fewer American companies will display their hardware.

Pentagon officials say military commitments in Iraq are a higher priority. Industry officials note that the weak global economy and the struggling aviation sector are reducing sales opportunities.

“One of the driving factors is defense budgets that have not materialized in countries that we have done business with in the past,” said Randy Belote, spokesman for military aviation giant Northrop Grumman Corp. “That sets the stage for the number of people we would send to the Paris Air Show.”

Northrop Grumman plans to send about 100 to 125 sales representatives, down from its typical contingent of nearly 150, to the biannual show.

Other defense and aviation companies agree budget constraints are a problem.

“We’ve been steadily scaling back our presence at major international air shows for several years,” said Jeff Adams, spokesman for Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, the nation’s largest defense contractor. “That’s due to cost. It costs a lot of money to support the participation in these kinds of shows.”

The costs include housing and transportation for employees, as well as exhibition space.

The company sent 275 representatives in 2001 but plans to send 125 this year. In 1997, it sent 450.

While companies complain about business opportunities, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said disagreement with France over the Iraq war is contributing to his department’s weak showing at the Paris exhibition.

Asked at a May 15 news conference at the Pentagon whether there was a change in the U.S. military relationship with France, Mr. Rumsfeld said, “There’s so many linkages and connections between the United States and NATO allies that I wouldn’t want to say yes or no.”

He said military commanders and other defense officials want “to work closely with those countries that want to work closely with us. And that logically leads you to countries that are of a certain relationship with us.”

Mr. Rumsfeld also was asked whether he was inclined to scale back cooperation.

“All I can remember off the top of my head was some discussion about the Paris Air Show that’s come up,” he said. “And I don’t know precisely, but it’s not as though people won’t be going from the United States.”

No more than 150 military personnel will be allowed to go, none above the rank of colonel.

Six military aircraft will be sent; 13 were sent last time. All will be for stationary exhibits rather that the usual flying demonstrations.

Officials deny any U.S. retaliation against France.

“No retaliation should be read into it,” said Lt. Daniel D. Hetlage, Defense Department spokesman.

The department wants to avoid the image of high-ranking officers “wining and dining” in Paris while lower-ranking soldiers are in Iraq, Lt. Hetlage said.

“It’s inappropriate when you got 140,000 troops in Iraq eating [meals ready to eat],” he said.

Other federal officials made no secret of their frustration with the French.

Rep. H. James Saxton, New Jersey Republican, sponsored a congressional resolution in February that would have barred the Defense Department from participating in the show this year because the French did not support the U.S.-led attack on Iraq.

The resolution did not pass, but it did prompt a warning from the Aerospace Industries Association about the harm retaliation would cause the U.S. aviation industry.

Regardless of political policies, aviation companies say business is their top priority.

“It’s not an issue,” Boeing Co. spokesman Jim Schlueter said, referring to U.S. government relations with France. “We’re looking at making sure we get the most value out of our investment at the shows.”

Raytheon Co. does a lot of business in France, spokesman James Fetig said. France’s opposition to war with Iraq “doesn’t have an effect.”

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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