The Farnbourgh Airshow 2012: Glimpses of the Future


By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

This year’s Farnbourgh Airshow is occurring at an interesting juncture in history.

On the financial side, there is the Euro crisis, and various dynamics such as the fate of the Chinese and American economies.

On the defense side, there is the end of a land war era for the U.S. and significant uncertainty about the impact of events such as those in the Middle East on how countries will seek to arm and defend themselves in the years ahead.

Of course, Farnbourgh like every major European airshow will see the Airbus and Boeing face off.  This show is both predictable and fun, because each year one or the other “proves” that they are the greatest commercial airplane builder in the world.

Boeing seeks to prove that they are the best global partner and 100% American at the same time, which is always amusing to watch.  And with Airbus we will be assured that the A380 boom in sales is just around the corner.

Credit Image: Farnborough Air Show

Of course, the significant financial uncertainty will stalk the show, and put any Boeing-Airbus projections of global markets under serious scrutiny.  But the show is always saved by the traveling show provided by a global gaggle of aerospace analysts selling their wares and analytical models, which banish such uncertainty from future global forecasts, but of course at a price.

A key development evident at both Paris and Farnbourgh every year is the growing presence and significance of the non-Western aerospace players.  The Chinese, the Russians, the Brazilians, and others show up and provide prototypes or flying planes, which reveal their evolving prowess and plans to poach onto the Airbus-Boeing duopoly.

And at the airshow, you can meet privately with both Boeing and Airbus and learn why these aspiring companies cannot poach on their terrain, but if you point out that they increasingly are simply systems integrators to a global supply chain, so why can’t somebody else do that, you have a much shorter meeting.

And then we come to defense.

Navigating the defense vendors at the show is challenging.  What an outsider finds most interesting are the vendors from the small to mid-sized companies.  But trying to find where they are and who they are can be challenging.

One of the things that has puzzled us for years is why these shows can not adapt to modern technology.  There are gaggles of vendors distributed over a make-believe town for a few days; trying to navigate is tough.  For folks like us, we walk.  If you are important, you get a car; if you are connected you get a golf cart.  But the traffic is great, that if you walk you beat the drivers, whether by car of golf cart.

Here is an idea.  Why not come up with an electronic cataloge where the firms are correlated with the technologies or product and organized by function.  Say I would like to talk to folks producing engines for unmanned vehicles of various sorts, who are they, where are they and why would I want to visit them?

This year several U.S. firms are not showing up at Farnbourgh to save costs, hassle or whatever.  Unfortunately for the U.S., the world does show up, and nature abhors a vacuum.

As for 21st century new air systems, the stars of the Air Show are likely to be the new Airbus Military A400Ms, and the proliferating Airbus tanker, the 330MRTT.  The continuing drama of the Indian fighter downselect, the Brazilian and South Korean fighter decisions will dominate the big-ticket defense air items.

UAVs will be flying around, and really not great stars for an air show, because if they are small enough you can not see them, or if you can, you ask yourself: why am looking at a model airplane, I thought I had grown up.

The most significant flying defense program will not be there in terms of a flying system.

The F-35 will be a centerpiece no matter what flies at the airshow.  A key benchmark will be the presence of F-35 pilots in a panel to talk about the production aircraft, which they are flying.  Non-test pilots are starting to fly the planes, the first Yuma USMC air station F-35B squadron will be stood up this Fall with BF-21 due to Yuma in November of this year.

F-35 pilots at Farnbourgh is a good benchmark of progress. Getting the plane into the hands of the warfighters is what is happening and needs to be accelerated.

As Anthony “Lazer” Lazarski, 
Military Legislative Assistant, Office of Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) put it in a recent presentation, “If you don’t produce aircraft, you don’t get IOC.  That’s really the bottom line. What we need to do is produce aircraft.

And I think it’s the next thing is to get it in the hands of the war fighter and let them fly. Kick the aircraft out the door, put them in squadrons, let them work the IOC, and let them work out the bugs.”“build-planes-and-get-them-into-the-hands-of-the-warfighters”/

Because Farnbourgh is a global show, the allied dimension is always important to any U.S. presence and presentations at the show.  For defense, the F-35 is the centerpiece. The recent Norwegian decision to buy up to 50 aircraft is the continuation of significant allied commitment to the program.  There are multiple partners in the program, and most recently Japan confirmed its commitment to the program by buying its first planes.

The F-35 is a unique multi-national program.  Allies are part of the initial development, testing, and production of the aircraft.  It is not a case of the U.S. building and then later selling.  The allies are integral components of the program.

But while the allies are holding firm, the U.S. is pushing its purchases continuously to the right.  Most recently, the Administration has performed its third cut to the numbers of aircraft in the program, pushing purchases to the out years, and to the years when it won’t be around. The U.S. has cut 426 F35s from a five-year spending plan in the last two budget cycles.

In a twist of irony, the allied pressure to buy is so high that planned further downturns by the Administration have been put on hold.

The numbers of aircraft which allies want to buy in the near and mid term actually would suck up much of the planned production inventory.  In a not so funny development, a U.S. sponsored program is seen by allies as so significant to their national security that they are pressuring the U.S. to surge production.

The program was designed to build 20 aircraft a month.  The factory has been producing 2; and is building up to 4 a month starting this month.  Plans were in place to go back to 2 when the allied orders led to rethinking this position.  To put this in perspective the French build 1.5 Rafale fighter aircraft a month for the French air force, so the U.S. is approaching the French production standard, and this with an international program in hand.

This breaks the sacred trust that the U.S. has with its allies to build, sustain and deploy a 21st century joint coalition aircraft.  It also breaks faith with the American people, where both jobs, and global leadership are at stake.

There is no reason that we cannot start producing at 10 a month within a year and move to 20 a month in two.  The plane is flying now, and every aircraft you see flying over your head is a production aircraft, not a test aircraft.

The allies in the F-35 consortium have watched from their Ministries, and have seen the best and the worst of American behavior. The great creative spark of technological innovation being nurtured and developed by industry and military officers who may some day fight has been proven gain and again as a force for good.

Arrayed against this cauldron of creativity have been myopic score keepers who do not have a clue. In fact the total arrogance of the debate Inside the Beltway has been reflected in Allies what Allies?

Well the American defense industry and the warriors working with that industry, can say at the Farnbrough Air Show this summer-America is back and you haven’t seen anything yet.

This was all made possible by the faith of our trusted allies who also took unbelievable incoming to forge a strong relationship in the most unique military defense consortium in history, thank you all.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on AOL Defense

And for updates on the Farnbourgh Air Show see