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December 14, 2017 | International, Aerospace, Naval, Land, C4ISR, Security

American exodus? 17,000 US defense suppliers may have left the defense sector

WASHINGTON — A large number of American companies supplying the U.S. military may have left the defense market, according to a study announced Thursday, raising alarm over the health and future of the defense industrial base.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies study said the number of first-tier prime vendors declined by roughly 17,000 companies, or roughly 20 percent, between 2011 and 2015.

The full study, due to be released in January, was authored by CSIS Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group Director Andrew Hunter, Deputy Director Gregory Sanders and Research Associate Rhys McCormick. It was sponsored by the Naval Postgraduate School and co-produced by the Aerospace Industries Association, which released an executive summary on Dec. 14, the day of its annual aerospace and defense luncheon in Washington.

The authors, who used publicly available contract data, write that it's unclear — due to the limitations in the subcontract database —whether the companies have exited the industrial base entirely or still perform work at the lower tiers.

“There is no doubt that a huge portion of the recent turbulence in the defense industrial base has taken place among subcontractors, who are less equipped to tolerate the defense marketplace's funding uncertainly and often onerous regulatory regime — yet it remains extremely difficult to determine the real impact of these conditions on subcontractors,” the authors conclude.

Further details may yet be revealed by the Trump administration's ongoing review of the resiliency of the defense-industrial base. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' assessment is due to President Donald Trump by mid-April 2018.

The CSIS summary links 2011 Budget Control Act caps, subsequent short-term budget agreements, and Congress' “unpredictable and inconsistent” appropriations process to the “lost suppliers, changes in competition and market structure, and other turmoil” it found. The years 2011-2015 are considered a period of defense drawdown and decline.

The authors, rather than focus strictly on the total decline of defense contract obligations over the entire period, chose to chart the “whipsaw” effect that struck certain sectors of the industrial base amid the imposition of sequestration in 2013 and subsequent budget caps.

Though the defense budget had been declining in the years leading up to the Budget Control Act, the implementation of an across-the-board sequestration budget cut in 2013 “marked a severe market shock that had a considerable impact on the defense industry,” the authors say.

Compared to the pre-drawdown fiscal 2009-2010 period, the start of the drawdown in fiscal 2011-2012, average annual defense contract obligations dropped 5 percent. When sequestration was triggered in fiscal 2013, defense contract obligations dropped 15 percent from the previous year. Average annual defense contract obligations fell 23 percent during the so-called BCA decline period, fiscal 2013-2015.

The Army, which has a checkered modernization history, bore the brunt of the decline. Average annual defense contracts dropped 18 percent at the start of the drawdown, then 35 percent during the BCA decline period.

Missile defense contract obligations actually gained 7 percent at the start of the drawdown and then dropped only 3 percent under budget caps. During his presidency, Barack Obama reversed course from early cuts to missile defense to spur the development and deployment of missile defense systems in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson reacted to the internally circulated findings earlier this month, saying budget cuts are responsible for the industry being “more fragile and less flexible than I've seen it, and I've been in the industry many, many years.”

“What we've seen in the industry, I'll give you an example at Lockheed Martin: At the outset of budget cuts we were about 126,000 employees; today we are at 97,000 employees,” Hewson said at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California. “Our footprint has shrunk dramatically. We see some of our small and medium-sized business, some of the components that we need, there's one, maybe two suppliers in that field where there were many, many more before.”

Budget cuts have squeezed the Defense Department to unduly prioritize low-cost contracts over innovation and investment. Cost “shootouts,” she said, are endangering the military's plans to grow in size and lethality.

AIA Vice President for National Security Policy John Luddy said companies have coped through a variety of “healthy efficiencies,” such as mergers and acquisitions, consolidating facilities, exploring shared services, and offloading certain contracting activities.

“Our companies have done an amazing job of managing the downturn, they've pulled all kinds of levels to make it work, they've shown the ingenuity of the American free market system,” Luddy said. “Nonetheless, the uncertainty of the budgeting process has become a huge challenge for us.”

Army Secretary Mark Esper, formerly of Raytheon, warned lawmakers at a Senate hearing Dec. 7 that uneven funding is driving small suppliers — “an engine of innovation” — out of the defense sector.

“If you're a small mom and pop shop out there, and I'm referring to my industry experience, it's hard for them to survive in the uncertain budgetary environment,” Esper said. “And we risk losing those folks who may over time decide that they're going to get out of the defense business and go elsewhere. So that's a big threat to our supply chains.”

But the CSIS study found that small vendors either increased their share of platform portfolio contract obligations or held steady, while large and medium vendors were most harmed by the market shock from sequestration and the defense drawdown.

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