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Tue, Jul 20, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Politics, business mix at air show

FARNBOROUGH Top Pentagon brass, a NASA delegation, and lots of US companies will be at the fair as a show of support for Washington's key ally


At a major international air show in Britain this week there will be a lot more on display than the latest in aviation. Also on exhibit will be Washington's efforts to repair strained trans-Atlantic relations -- to re-engage with European countries that the US criticized for their lack of support in the Iraq war.

The Pentagon has decided to send admirals, generals and top civilian brass to the Farnborough Air Show. For the first time, NASA will be sending a delegation, and American military contractors will be sending hundreds of their executives and employees.

This contrasts with the Paris Air Show last year, which was snubbed by the US on instructions from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who would not send anyone higher in rank than colonel. US contractors followed suit, send-ing only modest delegations.

Now the US is back in force, and its heavy presence is a reminder that major air shows are as much about politics as aviation. The American message is one of support for Britain, its only major ally in Iraq. Britain alternates with France in playing host to the annual event, which shows off the latest in military and aerospace technology from 1,300 contractors in more than 30 countries.

"Put the air show against the backdrop of a presidential election year," said Charles Pena, a military analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research group in Washington.

"The administration is clearly making a push to reach out to our European friends. The return of the Americans has a lot to do with that. It's a full-court press to court European governments and companies," he said.

The Pentagon plays down the magnitude of the change. An Air Force spokeswoman, Lieutenant Colonel Ann Cottongim, said the war in Iraq precluded many in the US from attending last year but that this year, even with violence continuing, "we are proud of our strong ties with NATO countries and others in Western Europe."

The Farnborough show, which started yesterday, is to take place against a backdrop of tense and uncertain relations between the US and the Europeans on many fronts. New "buy American" efforts are growing in Congress, causing concern among European arms makers who fear that they will be shut out of billions in military contracts.

The continuing tug of war between the commercial divisions of Boeing and EADS, which owns 80 percent of Airbus, is expected to play out as each company announces new plane orders and does battle over the question of government subsidies. Boeing is pushing sales not only of its existing fleet but also of its new 7E7 Dreamliner against a new version of the Airbus 380, designed to carry 650 passengers.

Beyond that, Europe's military buying patterns are expected to undergo a big shift. A new European Defense Agency, a sort of pan-European procurement operation, is to open for business later this year. Many wonder whether the agency will give the Europeans more power in doing business with the US. For years, European companies have complained that they bought American military products but found it difficult to penetrate American markets.

Some say the new agency could shift the balance of power.

"There's a signal coming from on high," said Joel Johnson, a spokesman for the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group based in Washington.

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