WASHINGTON ― Defense revenues of the top 100 defense companies in the world climbed for a fourth straight year, pushed upward by U.S. defense spending growth combined with strong foreign military sales.

Fiscal 2019 defense revenues recorded in Defense News’ Top 100 list totaled $524 billion, up about 7 percent from $488 billion in fiscal 2018, according to numbers compiled by Defense News as part of the annual Top 100 list.

“The single most striking thing about these data is the year-over-year growth, the median of which is 7 percent,” said Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Steven Grundman. “For an industry generally regarded as mature, revenue growth that runs at two times global GDP is downright sporty.”

The defense industry remained top heavy, as the top 10 firms accounted for 50 percent of total defense revenue on this year’s list, and the top 25 companies accounted for about 75 percent of the total.

Geographically, U.S. firms made up seven of the top 10, and 10 of the top 25. The combined defense revenue of the 41 U.S. firms in the Top 100 list comprised more than half of the total defense revenue.

China this year had five firms in the top 15 companies versus six last year. Eight Chinese firms made the Top 100 list this year, with a combined $95 billion in defense revenue for FY19 ― which is $11.7 billion shy of the list’s total for Europe and Turkey.

The Aviation Industry Corporation of China, which appeared with other Chinese firms for the first time last year, fell from No. 5 to No. 6, though its defense revenue grew by a percentage point over last year. China South Industries Group Corporation fell from No. 11 to No. 18, as its revenue declined 26 percent, from about $12 billion to around $9 billion.

China is unquestionably a defense giant in the Asia-Pacific region, dwarfing its nine neighbors (excluding Russia) on the list. Their 2019 defense revenues totaled $21 billion.

The combined revenues of the Chinese firms marks the country as the rising superpower it’s billed to be in political and strategic circles, said Daniel Gouré, a senior vice president with the Lexington Institute.

“For all the discussions we have been having over the last weeks and months about China as a potential threat and challenges, they are building all kinds of blue-water ship classes that mirror the U.S. Navy,” he said. “For a country that was once thought of as a continental or near-shore power, it’s amazing the stuff they’re building, and its reflected in these companies.”

From Europe and Turkey, a NATO ally, there were 35 firms across the list. The combined defense revenue there comprised roughly 20 percent of the Top 100 total. Seven Turkish firms made the list, with FNSS Savunma Sistemleri A.S., and Havelsan A.S. joining the list at No. 98 and No. 99 respectively.

For Russia, some past participants declined to provide data this year for unknown reasons. The two that participated made it into the list: Almaz-Antey placed 17th, with $9.2 billion in defense revenue for 2019, and Tactical Missiles Corporation JSC placed 35th, with $3.5 billion in defense revenue.

The annual Defense News Top 100 list relies for the most part on self-reporting from companies, many of whom provide estimates rather than definitive data for their defense percentages. That means that while the list is the industry standard, the numbers come with some variance.

Heritage firms dominate

Lockheed Martin was a lock for No. 1, for the 21st year in a row, with defense revenue that represents nearly 11 percent of the total. Its defense revenue jumped 12 percent between FY18 and FY19, from $51 billion to $57 billion ― with Boeing trailing at No. 2 at $34 billion in defense revenue for FY19.

Within the top five, General Dynamics climbed back from No. 6 last year, passing both Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.

Northrop fell from No. 3 to No. 4, likely based on a full-year accounting of its acquisition of Orbital ATK in 2017, said analyst Roman Schweizer, managing director of Cowen and Company.

GD led Northrop by $912 million in defense revenue, with Raytheon (5th place) trailing Northrop by $1.2 billion in defense revenue.

Lockheed Martin's top program in fiscal 2019 was the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The firm's largest customer was the United States, followed by Saudi Arabia. (Staff Sgt. Emerson Nuñez/U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed Martin's top program in fiscal 2019 was the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The firm's largest customer was the United States, followed by Saudi Arabia. (Staff Sgt. Emerson Nuñez/U.S. Air Force)

Ten companies increased their defense revenue by $1 billion or more, and Lockheed Martin led the pack with a $6 billion boost.

The merger between L3 Technologies (18th place last year) and Harris Corp. (26th place last year) saw a new entry, L3Harris Technologies, take the No. 9 spot, with $13.9 billion in defense revenue ― just ahead of United Technologies Corp., which acquired Rockwell Collins in 2018 and whose merger with Raytheon should be reflected in next year’s list.

At the same time, the data doesn’t support the argument that the defense industry is growing progressively more concentrated, according to Grundman.

“The top-quartile of firms account for exactly three-quarters of the revenue both in 2018 and 2019,” he said. “Looking back at the data for 2013, the top quartile took 73 percent of the revenue, but that’s not appreciably less than last year.”

Still, despite the Pentagon’s push to work with nontraditional suppliers, the top of this year’s list, and the list overall, is almost like the automotive sector, it’s so dominated by familiar names, said Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners.

“The interesting thing is just the relative stability of this,” Callan said. “For all of DoD’s emphasis to get new entrants into the sector, and reach out to innovative suppliers, you just don’t see it. When you compare it to the technology sector, we’re all using things made by companies that weren’t even household names 10 years ago. ... Where is the Tesla [of the defense sector]?”

It’s not out of the question that the list changes over the next five years, if the U.S. Department of Defense and foreign militaries make good on their promises to boost innovation, Callan said.

For all the DoD’s discussion of the growing role of software, artificial intelligence and machine learning, there’s no company known for those things on the list, Gouré observed.

Beyond General Dynamics, which completed its acquisition of IT services giant CSRA in 2018, “AI, software, IT aren’t there because they’re still subcontractors,” Gouré said. “Microsoft and Amazon Web Services, they aren’t anywhere on the list.”

That’s not to say there isn’t massive spending on all of the above, but it remains a subcomponent within companies, and therefore not captured on the list, Gouré said.

“If we keep saying it’s the kill chain, the network matters and the country with the best AI will win, are we not investing enough, are we doing the right thing?” Gouré wondered. “There are more questions than answers.”

(Booz Allen Hamilton, No. 26 this year, did win an $800 million Pentagon artificial intelligence contract. But as that occurred in May 2020, it will likely impact future lists.)

For now, the large, multiplatform firms dominate and should continue to do so, even if government defense spending declines, Gouré said. “These guys are showing it’s good to have a finger in many pies.”

France's Dassault nearly doubled its revenue from $2.9 billion in FY18 to $5.7 billion in FY19 ― jumping from No. 38 to No. 22 on the Top 100 list. (Mehdi Fedouach/AFP via Getty Images)
France's Dassault nearly doubled its revenue from $2.9 billion in FY18 to $5.7 billion in FY19 ― jumping from No. 38 to No. 22 on the Top 100 list. (Mehdi Fedouach/AFP via Getty Images)

Furthermore, the data tend to contradict the conventional wisdom that defense is an industry of mostly large-scale, pure-play firms, according to Grundman.

“In fact, the median [defense] revenue of the top 100 is only $2 billion. And on average, only slightly more than half each firm’s revenue ... derives from defense sales,” he said.

Flat-budget future?

The consensus among analysts is that government defense spending will level off amid the coronavirus pandemic, and its effects as well as the result of the upcoming U.S. presidential election in November will be reflected in future lists.

“Successful years of investment spending growth appears to be ending, but outlays are still growing due to the surge in spending over the last three years. But they are starting to taper significantly after this year,” Schweizer said.

Schweizer sees foreign spending softening, at least in the short term due to COVID-19, but he predicts defense budgets, backlogs, outlays and foreign military sales will hold together for at least 12-18 months to help defense firms weather the unprecedented damage visiting the commercial aerospace sector.

The biggest risk is the U.S. budget trajectory, which is likely to be flat, at best, or decline in mid-single digits, at worst, over the next five years, Schweitzer added. He anticipates a drop of 3-5 percent, but with the Pentagon’s eye on Russia and China, the department will likely make trade-offs to protect core modernization areas.

As global growth rates slow, future lists may see some familiar companies grow leaner.

“These companies are going to figure out what their growth businesses are so they can shrink to grow,” Callan said. “They all say they’re well positioned [for slower defense spending], but what the hell does that mean? They can’t all be right.”

China this year had five firms in the top 15 companies versus six last year. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
China this year had five firms in the top 15 companies versus six last year. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Other notable moves included Reston, Virginia-based engineering and construction company Bechtel, which fell to No. 47 from No. 31 last year; the firm’s defense revenue declined 39 percent, from $3.7 billion to $2.3 billion.

In France, Safran’s defense revenue jumped from $1.6 billion in FY18 to $4.4 billion in FY19, bumping it from No. 56 to No. 28. However, the company told Defense News that it attributes the large rise to a difference in calculation for this year’s list. Since 2015, the data from Safran were made up of Safran Electronics & Defense activities. This year, the firm changed its approach by adding the military activities of the group’s other subsidiaries.

Also in France, Dassault nearly doubled its revenue from $2.9 billion in FY18 to $5.7 billion in FY19 ― jumping from No. 38 to No. 22.

Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries vaulted back onto the list to No. 21, with $6.6 billion in defense revenue. However, it’s worth noting that defense revenue numbers reflect awards made by the Japanese Ministry of Defense, which leads to more year-over-year volatility among Japanese firms.

The three Israeli companies on this year’s list — Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems — moved up in the ranking. The sole South American company on the lsit, Embraer, also moved up, from No. 84 to No. 79.

Meanwhile, the only non-U.S. North American company on this year’s list — Canada’s CAE — dropped four spots to No. 74, but its defense revenue grew by a percentage point.