U.S. defense firms take their bidding rivalries to London air show

After months of intense battling over the Pentagon’s highest-profile contracts, several defense companies are taking their rivalries to the world-famous Farnborough Airshow near London this week.

Plenty of familiar faces from U.S. politics are also expected to attend the show. Several senators, including Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), the top Republican appropriator, Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) are expected to make an appearance.

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Boeing and EADS will continue to lock horns over the Air Force's new tanker aircraft contract, but this time on EADS’s European home turf. The two contenders have submitted their bids for the $35 billion contract amid a bitter trade dispute over aircraft subsidies. The Air Force is expected to pick the winner by mid-November.

Pratt & Whitney will take its battle against General Electric and Britain's Rolls Royce to Farnborough as well. The companies have been locked in a vicious fight over an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Pratt builds the primary engine and the GE-Rolls Royce team has been developing the alternate engine.

The Pentagon no longer wants the secondary engine, which has enjoyed strong congressional support over the years. The defense bills face a veto threat over funding for that engine.

This year's show comes as the Pentagon is aiming to implement a more austere budget and cut the department’s bloat.

Many contractors attending the show have cut back their presence to show that they are taking the Pentagon’s austerity efforts seriously. Most notably, the largest U.S. defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, will cut its presence in half and CEO Robert Stevens will sit out the biennial show. Lockheed has been facing greater cost scrutiny following difficulties in the F-35 program. 

Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter will lead the Pentagon delegation to the show for a mere 24 hours — from Sunday to Monday — just as the weeklong gathering begins. The department’s delegation includes David Ahern, the director for portfolio systems acquisition; Brett Lambert, the Pentagon’s director of industrial policy; and Al Volkman, the Pentagon’s director of international cooperation. 

Carter’s purpose at the show will be to stress the need to the international defense industry to make weapons systems affordable to taxpayers. He is also meeting with U.K. government officials to discuss defense issues of significant mutual interest.