Bonjour Bourget

At the Paris Air Show With the New ‘Merchants of Death’

PARIS—Eight senators, headed by Ted Stevens of Alaska, and 16 congressmen vying to win lucrative defense contracts for their districts, visited the biennial Salon du Bourget—the world's largest air show—here last week accompanied by a raft of admirals and generals and the secretaries of commerce and transportation. The Salon is the sales convention for today's "Merchants of Death"—the name comes from those who sold munitions to both sides in the First World War.

They're still at it. On Monday, a Swedish salesman was explaining the lethal capability of his product, a medium-range missile made in Germany for a six-nation consortium. The delegation from India seemed impressed, but they weren't sure their people could afford it. They said they would come back the next day. When the Indians had left, a visitor who had overheard the conversation said to the salesman, "Would you make the same pitch to four Pakistanis?" "Yes," said the Swede with a smile, "but of course the sale might not be approved."

Charles Lindbergh, who landed at Le Bourget one night in 1927, nonstop from Brooklyn, would not have recognized the old airfield. Last week it was a parking lot for hundreds of limousines and 242 air and space vehicles, leaving one runway open for solo demonstrations by 53 different aircraft. The Salon, the 44th, drew 1895 professional exhibitors from 43 countries and a quarter of a million visitors were expected.

Le Bourget is about big deals, military and civilian. The headlines were made by the big aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus. At week's end the score was Airbus 155, Boeing 3 (new orders). Boeing stock declined 12 percent, but Aviation Week reported, "Boeing is bullish on the space-oriented weapons market," indicating that the company is already working experimentally on the Bush administration's proposed missile shield, which still has to be funded by Congress.

The 450 company "chalets" at one edge of the airfield set the social tone. The scores of visitors to the General Electric chalet, for example, were greeted by three multilingual receptionists. A team of 12 caterers, chunneled in from Yorkshire, prepared lunch—a help-yourself from three gourmet buffets. Each of the chalet's 20 tables was equipped with bottled waters and wines (a 1999 Sancerre, a 1997 Bordeaux). An open bar offered champagne, naturally, at all times. On the terrace were round white picnic tables under GE umbrellas. GE aircraft engines are in hot competition with Rolls Royce and Pratt & Whitney, so the company brought in 200 blue suits from its various global facilities to do business. They were hoteled in Paris according to rank—the George V for executives.

U.S. military brass find the Salon useful to meet their foreign counterparts on a relaxed basis. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had to stay in Washington to testify before the Senate and House Armed Services committees, so DOD sent six Pentagon representatives. The Air Force sent six generals and four civilians. The Navy delegation included eight rear admirals; the Army sent three generals and a civilian; the Marines sent nothing but generals (five). Other government departments sent 17 reps, including Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

It was a good week for the home team. Airbus announced new orders almost every day. Dassault's Mirage fighters screamed supersonically at every lunch hour, and the French-organized Ariane space consortium boasted that its rocket boosters were the only ones capable of launching the large payloads now contemplated for space stations. Nevertheless, Lockheed Martin's F-16 fighter is still the world's bestseller: more than 4000 to 21 countries.

It was also a big week for the Israelis, who had their own pavilion. Israel has long been a proving ground for weaponry, especially that developed in the U.S. Israel is now said to be the world's fifth largest arms exporter, behind Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The 68-page color catalogue of Israel Defense Industries lists 210 companies, one advertising "unrivalled lethality." Israel specializes in UAVs—unmanned air vehicles—"with more than 100,000 operational hours of intelligence and targeting missions."

In comparison, the U.S. Department of Defense's exhibit was modest in size but shrill in message. The Air Force distributed a glossy brochure, its color cover showing a knight in armor on a stallion whose bridle carried two stars, appropriate to the inside message from the Air Force's two-star commander, Major General Michael C. Kostelnik: "Over the past year the Air Force adopted a new vision: Air Force Vision 2020. . . . The method for achieving this vision is based on the Expeditionary Aerospace Force (EAF) configured for the full spectrum of aerospace operations."

Expedition to where? Such ambiguous rhetoric is typical of the phrases freely thrown around at this showplace of "defense" industries. Defense against what and whom? The thing lacking seems to be an Actual Enemy.

On Wednesday came a hint of an answer to that question. Raytheon, which is one of the "big three" U.S. defense contractors, along with Lockheed Martin and Boeing, distributed a "BREAKING NEWS" press release. Bill Swanson of Raytheon proudly announced that two Patriot missiles, test-fired that morning in Taiwan, had destroyed their targets: a tactical ballistic missile and a drone posing as a cruise missile. It was the first time Patriots had been successfully fired overseas since the Gulf War. Swanson acknowledged that it was no surprise; he had personally sold the missiles to ROC (the Republic of China) in 1994, with the blessing of the Clinton administration.

A headline in one of the Salon's glossy daily news magazines said, "Raytheon Looks to Bush White House to Ease Access to New Aero Markets." This is not just a question of export licenses—for example, to Taiwan, to whom Vice President Cheney promised another multibillion-dollar package of weapons in April. A larger question looms for Western European leaders. They have been hard put to interpret mixed signals from the Bush administration—hawkish ones from Condoleezza Rice and Rumsfeld, dovish ones from Colin Powell. Those who finally got acquainted with George W. himself, in Madrid, Brussels, and Helsinki, were amazed that he did not seem so dumb after all.

But that's not enough to satisfy them. What does America mean by a missile shield? What's so dangerous about "rogue states" like Iran and Iraq and North Korea? Europeans are already doing business with them and plan to do more. They think they have benefited from the 1972 ABM treaty, which left Moscow and Washington targeting only each other. The possibility of Cold War Two, with China and/or Russia, alarms most Europeans. There's an editorial on the subject almost every day.

And the prospect of Space War alarms European observers most of all. Is that what the Air Force general means when he says we "will enhance our expeditionary capabilities"? Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has called for "a four-star U.S. Air Force general to serve as an advocate for what could become a new space force." Is General Kostelnik due for promotion?

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