9 September 1998

Outlook - Aerospace

When they can hear themselves think under the roar of the air displays, the big wheels at the Farnborough Airshow are all talking turkey. The name of the game is consolidation, whether it is dressed up as partnership, risk and revenue sharing, strategic alliance or straightforward takeover.

Most prefer to do it discreetly in the privacy of their chalets, but some are happy to do their thinking out loud. Thus, Manfred Bischoff, chief executive of Daimler-Benz Aerospace (Dasa), one of the partners in Airbus, wonders artlessly whether it wouldn't be a good idea to invite the Americans on board.

This was a remark guaranteed to inflame the French. They regard the Airbus consortium as a Gallic invention, which is to be defended at all costs, even from their other partners in the venture.

Already they have succeeded in delaying Airbus's conversion into a single corporate entity by six months, and they are kicking up very rough about the idea that Dasa and British Aerospace might consider merging ahead of the great transformation.

Whether this aeronautical version of the Maginot line will hold is anyone's guess but the lessons of history would suggest not. The US defence scene is being carved up by a handful of giant players.

The refusal of the antitrust authorities to sanction the Lockheed Martin-Northrop Grumman merger, merely makes it more likely that Lockheed will seek a European partner to give it the firepower to compete with Boeing and Raytheon. GEC's tryst with Alenia and BAe's purchase of a stake in Saab notwithstanding, cross-border consolidation among the big guns of the European defence industry is proceeding at a glacial pace.

Meanwhile, national solutions like the much touted BAe-GEC merger, are stumbling on considerations like shareholder value. That leaves transatlantic marriages between like-minded partners, such as GEC's purchase of Tracor in the US, as the most likely way ahead. Mr Bischoff's thoughts may have been a none-too-subtle attempt to frighten the French into line. But as a long-term vision, they have the weight of history behind them.