While the 2014 edition of the Farnborough International Airshow last week will be known as the air show that the F-35 joint strike fighter missed, it was, in fact, a busy and successful show for Britain and the United States.
Whether the F-35 would fly was on everyone’s minds, and hopes soared that the jets would make it after the Pentagon lifted a temporary grounding on the show’s second day. But hours later Washington, concerned it would be seen as putting showmanship ahead of safety, definitively announced the planes would not make the trip across the Atlantic.
JSF supporters wept, and even competitors were disappointed, and all expressed understanding that the plane is still in development and hiccups are to be expected.
But with that behind them, the British and Americans set about making other kinds of news.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced that £1.1 billion pounds — money the Ministry of Defence did not spend over the past two years — will be invested in improving Britain’s special operations forces and surveillance and reconnaissance systems.
The funds will allow the Royal Air Force to retain its R1 Sentinel Airborne Standoff Radar aircraft and to move ahead with the active electronically scanned array radar for the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Cameron also reshuffled his Cabinet, promoting Defence Secretary Philip Hammond to foreign secretary and appointing Michael Fallon to the top defense post.
They also unveiled two important initiatives: First, a new Defence Growth Partnership to help advance UK industry and exports, developed under Fallon when he was minister for business and enterprise; and a new deal with France to collaborate, at last, on developing an unmanned combat air vehicle.
Meanwhile, a large, high-level US delegation that included Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall and others showed a resurgent US interest in bolstering cooperative links with allies.
US officials appear to have recognized that, as Pentagon spending declines, cooperation needs to increase. Air shows present a great opportunity to do that, affording access to international military and industry partners.
Yet maintaining effective military forces is a challenge on both sides of the Atlantic.
For Britain, Gen. Sir Nick Houghton, chief of Defence Staff, is warning that the UK military — while technologically advanced — is hollowing out due to cutbacks in personnel and training. Cameron’s pledge to maintain defense spending at 2 percent of gross domestic product will not last forever, and Britain’s powerful treasury secretary, George Osborne, has repeatedly said cuts are coming after 2015 to balance Britain’s books.
Similar problems face the US military, which is drawing down after long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Both nations must face the reality that what it takes to field balanced, capable forces is a combination of good equipment operated by talented people who are properly trained.
But fielding great equipment at the expense of training or talent is a fool’s errand. Even the best equipment yields poor results when it’s not properly employed.