F-35 UK Arrival at RAF Marham on June 6, 2018.

F-35 UK Arrival at RAF Marham on June 6, 2018. Lockheed Martin

At UK Air Show, CEOs and Military Leaders Talk Trump, Tariffs, and Allies

Two very different scenes played out in Europe in the days leading up to this week’s Farnborough Air Show.

ROYAL AIR FORCE FAIRFORD, UK — While President Trump sharply criticized U.K. leaders during his visit to London this week, a different scene was playing out at this military airfield about 100 miles to the west.

Surrounded by the sheep pastures of Gloucestershire, military leaders from across Europe, Africa, and the Pacific, gathered inside large banquet tents erected along the flightline of a Royal Air Force Base largely occupied by the U.S. military. The focus of their talks — interrupted frequently by the thunder of jets afterburning through a cloud-dotted sky —  was how to deepen ties between the U.S. and the rest of its NATO allies.

On Saturday, while Trump was at his club in Scotland preparing for his Monday meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, an American B-2 stealth bomber made a surprise appearance here at the Royal International Air Tattoo, which bills itself as the world’s largest military air show. During its flyover, unlisted on the day’s program, the strategic bomber was accompanied by two F-15 fighter jets.

The appearance of a bomber that can carry nuclear weapons and the fighters off its wings could be seen as a symbol of NATO’s core mission: to deter Russia.

Down on the tarmac, in a year when the Trump administration has sought to protect U.S. jobs by threatening or imposing trade tariffs on allies and enemies alike, defense executives touted their investment and expansion in Europe.

“We have not changed our approach at all,” Dennis Muilenburg, the CEO of Boeing, said at a press conference Sunday in London. “In fact, we’re continuing to invest strongly in Europe.”

Muilenburg’s comments came on the eve of the Farnborough Air Show, a biennial event held closer to London that is itself one of the largest gatherings of aerospace and defense firms.

“We’ve more than doubled our defense presence here in the U.K. over the last five years,” he said. “We’ve more than doubled our supply chain in the U.K. over the last five years. Throughout Europe, we have hundreds of suppliers…We’re in it for the long run. We’re a business with a long-term perspective.”

Here in the U.K., Boeing executives touted investments in a new facility in Sheffield that will build parts for its 737 and 777 jetliners. “We see a great amount of strength in the community there and look forward to a long-term partnership that we’re creating at Sheffield,” said Jenette Ramos, Boeing’s senior vice president for manufacturing, supply chain and operations.

Boeing has about 2,200 employees in the U.K., including about 1,500 who work on defense projects, according to company executives.

Muilenburg has regular interactions with Trump and senior White House officials, a bond that formed after his company had drawn the then-president elect’s scorn for the high projected cost of two new Boeing-made Air Force One aircraft. In his 18 months in the White House, Trump has visited Boeing manufacturing sites in South Carolina and Missouri.

Muilenburg was hardly the only U.S. CEO at the Air Tattoo.. The leaders of some of America’s largest defense firms come here and to Farnborough to meet their business colleagues from across Europe. This year, their discussions were particularly pointed, as the business leaders try to work out the likely impact of Trump’s tariffs and Britain’s departure from the European Union.

NATO military leaders are here as well; executives from American and European defense firms said their conversations centered largely around countering Russian aggression on the continent.

At a Sunday evening reception, Swedish Air Force leaders touted U.S. participation in joint military drills in Sweden planned for 2019. American participation at the exercise is expanded to expand beyond U.S. forces based in Europe, one Swedish officer said. Air National Guard and Marine Corps aircraft are expected to participate, he said.

A host of senior U.S. officials from the Pentagon, State Department, FAA, and NASA are expected to attend the Farnborough, which begins Monday. However, two high-ranking U.S. officials scheduled to attend — Peter Navarro, one of President Trump’s top trade advisors, and Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment — were last-minute cancellations. The White House and Pentagon blamed scheduling conflicts.

“Robust U.S. government and industry presence are a signal that the U.S. is serious about strengthening our international relationships and increasing aerospace and defense exports,” Remy Nathan, vice president for international affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association, said in an email last week.

Muilenburg touted Trump’s tax and regulatory reforms, which he said allows Boeing to invest in the company.

“Dealing with the realities of trade disputes and tariffs and other concerns around the world, our job is to maintain a long-term perspective,” he said. “We have to be able to see our way through these local challenges and issues. We win when we have that long-term perspective. We’re going to be a voice at the table to try to resolve these issues, but we’re always going to maintain our long-term view of the marketplace.”

Asked if Trump is listening to the defense industry’s concern that tariffs might drive up the cost of supplies and American products, Muilenburg said, “We’re very much engaged and at the table. Our voice is being heard.”

Many executives were quick to point out that many tariff threatened by the U.S. and other nations have not been put in place.

“It’s not where you start but where you finish,” said Tim Keating, who runs Boeing’s lobbying business in Washington. “We have to see where we finish.”