To Defense Industry, the Future Looks Uncomfortably Unfamiliar

National Defense, April 2010 | Go to article overview

To Defense Industry, the Future Looks Uncomfortably Unfamiliar


* Once upon a time there was much anxiety in the defense industry about the Obama administration gutting the Pentagon's budget. Those worries have been allayed, for now. Defense is the only portion of the federal budget that the president sheltered from the axe.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

So the industry is breathing a sigh of relief, sort of.

Yes, the budget is huge, but the industry still feels vulnerable. Executives fear that weapons systems that for decades have been reliably profitable are becoming obsolete. They see the Defense Department shifting into new areas of warfare, but are not sure how to reposition their companies to succeed in non-traditional markets. They also fret about the nation's oncoming fiscal train wreck, and wonder when someone will make the tough choices.

The much-anticipated Quadrennial Defense Review was supposed to give the industry "planning tools" to strategize about the future of the business. But the review was mostly a disappointment for its lack of specificity. One industry official compared the QDR to the Soviets' infamous five-year plans for economic development.

In boardrooms these days, corporate bosses are brainstorming.

Many in the industry recognize that they are still stuck in the Cold War way of doing business. The 9/11 attacks were supposed to have shaken up the weapons-buying apparatus. That didn't happen, except for a massive spending surge. It ultimately took a heavy hand from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to shift money and focus from planning for hypothetical future conflicts to dealing with today's wars.

At a recent off-the-record industry gathering, a panel of high-ranking defense executives told the audience of contractors to stop living in denial about the coming shifts in the market.

Companies have to pay more attention to what Gates is trying to do, and not assume it's just a temporary diversion until we go to war with China, members of the panel cautioned. Gates' influence should not be underestimated, one panelist said. "He delivers the message across the river."

For traditional defense companies, the operative word is "non-kinetic," another speaker asserted.

"We love our kinetic weapons, and we don't want to let them go," he said. "But the world is moving in a different direction."

Here's the problem: Kinetic weapons only are useful in phases two, three and four of war. Gates is veering the emphasis to the fringes--to phases zero and one (prevention of conflict, interagency work) and to phases five and six (stabilization and policing).

The industry is "stuck in the middle three," the official said. The companies that will thrive are those with the non-kinetic technology and skills that can help the military succeed in the outer edges. …

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