The Real Top Guns: The World's 5 Best Defense Firms

Which companies made the cut? 

Major BAE projects run the gamut of military products. It has a role in the production of both the Eurofighter Typhoon and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It produces the Bradley fighting vehicle and the Challenger II tank, in addition to other ground equipment. Finally, it builds most of the major warships operated by the Royal Navy, including the Astute-class nuclear attack subs, the Type 45 (“D”)–class air-defense destroyers and the two Queen Elizabeth–class aircraft carriers.

General Dynamics:

General Dynamics began life in the late nineteenth century as Holland Torpedo Boat, eventually becoming Electric Boat, which focused on the construction of submarines and small boats. After serving the nation (and a variety of foreign customers, who in some cases were in the process of fighting one another) capably as a naval producer, Electric Boat moved into aviation in the 1940s and 1950s with the purchase of Canadair and Convair (which itself had acquired Consolidated, producer of the B-24 Liberator, during World War II). In 1952, Electric Boat changed its name to General Dynamics, and the firm took over management of projects such as the B-36 Peacemaker, B-58 Hustler, F-102 Delta Dagger and the F-106 Delta Dart.

General Dynamics built the F-111 Aardvark (working with Grumman), but scored its greatest success with the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which remains the workhorse fighter-bomber of many air forces around the world. GD eventually shed the F-16, but remains healthy from a fiscal point of view, enjoying over $20 billion/year in military revenue, and employing 90,000+ workers.

General Dynamics also continues to produce submarines; it remains the prime contractor for the Virginia-class nuclear attack sub. It manages Bath Iron Works, which produces both Arleigh Burke– and Zumwalt-class destroyers. Finally, General Dynamics also builds one of the two variants of the Littoral Combat Ship.

Raytheon:

Unlike most of the other firms on this list, Raytheon has built its business around the manufacture of components, rather than of finished systems. Raytheon was founded in 1922 as American Appliance Company. It became Raytheon in 1925, and spent much of its early history as a producer of vacuum tubes. During World War II, Raytheon became a major producer of radars, a business that it continues to dominate into the present day.

During the Cold War, Raytheon moved into missile production, and became one of the chief suppliers of missiles to the U.S. military (not to mention a host of international partners). Raytheon has played a key role in the development of missile-defense technology since the 1980s.

In an important sense, Raytheon is the core of the “reconnaissance” half of the reconnaissance-strike complex, although its Tomahawk missile obviously plays a large role in the strike half, as well. Raytheon components serve in the frontline systems of most of the militaries of Europe and Asia, to the tune of $20+ billion in yearly sales.

Conclusion

American companies dominate this list, but not necessarily because they consistently produce more-competitive equipment than foreign counterparts. Due to the enormous size of U.S. domestic arms demand, most of the U.S.-based firms can take advantage of economies of scale in production, as well as low-risk investment in innovative technologies.

The political and diplomatic reach of the United States exceeds that of any other country. This means that the U.S. military can develop more partnerships than foreign counterparts and that these partnerships can lead to defense exports. Moreover, concerns over access, interoperability and prestige often drive international customers to the same, or similar, equipment as that of the United States.

That said, European companies such as EADS provide competition on the high end, with Russian and Chinese firms producing competitive systems on the low end. Unless the U.S. firms can better master the organizational complexities of dual-use technology innovation than their foreign competitors, this list could change in the future.

Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money,Information Dissemination and The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter:@drfarls.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Air Force

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