Jean-Claude Allard, manager of a small high-tech plant in this Paris suburb, is perplexed.
The Pentagon has invited him to bid on a contract to build air defense simulators. Simulators are Allard's specialty, but the invitation is 463 pages long and two inches thick. Just to reply, he estimates, will take six of his engineers half a year and 2,000 pages.
"All these standards, procedures, employment regulations, cost regulations, union regulations," he sighs, thumping the U.S. document. A comparable French bid request on his desk is 13 pages long.
Nothing is more baffling to foreign arms makers than trying to crack the Pentagon and Congress. The U.S. system, as Henri Martre, president of France's Aerospatiale, delicately put it, "is very complicated for a European to understand."
Lured by the Pentagon's big-bucks budget and stymied by arms cutbacks elsewhere, Europeans have a hungry eye on the U.S. market. With much of the world "saturated," explains one French defense official, "we have to go after the States."
"But it's very difficult," he continues. "You have to pay $30,000 or $40,000 just to get started with a lawyer, a consultant and so on . . . . You have to answer to the Clean Air Act. What is that? The minorities, the small business . . . . And then you have to fight the industries, hire lobbyists."
The European plea for a "two-way street" in arms trade has become a fixture at NATO meetings, where allied ministers complain that they import seven times as much U.S. weaponry as the Pentagon buys from them.
"The problem is, there's a very large design and development lobby in this country," says Richard N. Perle, assistant secretary of defense. "Do you know there's even an acronym for things that aren't made here? It's not called 'Not Invented Here,' which is what it should be. It's called NID, for Non-Internal Development."
But Perle contends that the United States boasts economies of scale that the Europeans can't match.
"I think the idea of a balanced account in defense activities, which is one way of looking at a two-way street, is nonsense," he says. "Just as it would be nonsense to propose a balanced two-way street in pasta with Italy, or wine with France, or woolen goods with England."
So European frustrations seem likely to persist. Even the silver linings carry black clouds.
British Aerospace, for example, persuaded the U.S. Marine Corps to buy its Harrier jump jet while allowing McDonnell Douglas to build the planes in St. Louis. Now the British fret that the Americans will shove them out altogether. Says British Aerospace executive Sir Raymond Lygo: "I don't even get a mention in the advertisements anymore."