As usual, the annual Defense News Top 100 rankings shed light on changes in the defense sector, while raising additional questions for all interested parties.

The rankings among U.S. firms have been relatively stable, with the primary catalyst for several years worth of change being acquisitions or divestitures. The U.S. order will again change in next year’s edition, when Raytheon Technologies appears as a single entity for the first time. Defense News added Chinese enterprises in 2019, and so it’s good to see this extended in 2020, as China has the second largest defense budget in the world after the U.S.

This year’s list raises six points worth highlighting, while observing how relative rankings have changed over time.

First: These lists are difficult to compile, as they depend in large part on the willingness of contractors to provide sales data. There are some omissions, which hopefully could show up in future rankings — notably, BWX Technologies, SpaceX, General Atomics, Mantech, Parsons and Kratos for the U.S.; more Japanese firms including Kawasaki Heavy Industries; Navantia of Spain and other European naval shipyards; United Aircraft in Russia; ASC Pty in Australia; and PGZ in Poland. There are other Indian firms as well that would likely qualify.

Click here to see the Defense News Top 100 list.

Second: It is intriguing to note how long either Lockheed or its successor Lockheed Martin has been the No. 1 U.S. contractor. It’s been at the top of the Defense News list since 2003, and data from annual reports show it has been the top U.S. contractor, by sales, since 1980. Size may matter in perpetuating a No. 1 position, so it is notable that the ratio of Lockheed’s defense sales to the second-largest contractor has also increased over the years. For this year’s list, Lockheed’s defense dollars are 165 percent of Boeing’s defense sales; in 1988, they were 130 percent higher than the next largest defense contractor, McDonnell Douglas.

Third: As much as it’s easy to categorize contractors by their home country, it bears repeating that this a global, multinational business with international sales not just from exports. A look at the Australian defense industry highlights the “multi-domestic” nature of contractors in that country. BAE Systems is listed as a U.K. company, but it derives higher annual sales from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia than from London. And in 2019, Israeli firm Elbit had more of its total sales from North America (28 percent of total) than Israel (24 percent of total).

Fourth: While the rankings don’t capture the changes in the composition of some of the largest contractors, this may have a bearing on competition in the 2020s. CACI and Leidos still are predominantly services contractors, but some of their recent acquisitions, most significantly the Leidos acquisition of Dynetics, are more product-centric.

Fifth: Obviously the rankings only capture the top level of the global defense sector, and in assessing supply chains, resiliency, the pace of innovation and technology ingestion, a far wider net has be cast. A July 2020 report by Israel’s INSS observed that Israel’s defense industry, which has seen consolidation in recent years, is comprised of “about 600 companies” and employs over 45,000 workers. Much as the rankings of the top contractors are of interest, a more critical assessment of the health and agility of contractors may rest on what’s happening with smaller firms.

Finally: The question of state, private or public ownership is a sixth factor to weigh. State ownership of Chinese firms and partial government stakes in some of the largest European enterprises has entailed different incentives and goals — it’s hard to conclude, given the nature of China’s rise, that government ownership of contractors has stymied the development and production of competitive weapons systems, though there’s little transparency on efficiency. In the 2020s, it remains to be seen how different and competing ownership shapes future rankings.

Byron Callan is a policy research expert at Capital Alpha Partners. He specializes in the defense and aerospace industries.

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