Why Defense Contractors Are Saying No to Their Biggest Customer: The Pentagon

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The Pentagon wants to develop advanced weapons systems to counter emerging overseas threats. Many defense contractors are avoiding projects that could turn into money-losers.

The industry’s discontent has been brewing for months and reached a crescendo this past week when Northrop Grumman said it would take a charge of $1.2 billion building the first batches of the new B-21 Raider. The long-range bomber aircraft will be capable of carrying nuclear weapons and is a centerpiece of efforts to deter military actions from China and Russia.


Inflation played havoc with cost estimates Northrop Grumman made when it beat a team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin for the initial contract in 2015. Pandemic-driven supply chain challenges and labor shortages also made the first planes pricier to make.

Executives of U.S. defense contractors tried to reassure investors they wouldn’t chase projects that presented high risks for cost overruns. The comments come as several companies have record order books from the U.S. and allies stocking up on jet fighters, missile defense systems and other weaponry.

“We have passed on some high-profile programs,” Northrop Grumman Chief Executive Kathy Warden said on an investor call last week. The company’s shares fell more than 8% after it reported the charge on the B-21, wiping $4.5 billion from its market value.

The company said in the summer that it wouldn’t bid on an Air Force program to develop high-end jet fighters that will replace the radar-evading F-22.


The Pentagon typically uses so-called cost-plus contracts to develop new weapons systems. Companies earn a fixed profit and the government covers unexpected expenses if problems emerge or contract requirements change.

When those plans are ironed out and weapons are ready for production, the Pentagon often switches to fixed-price deals. The parties agree on a price, but companies are left on the hook if costs run higher.

Executives said the balance between risk and reward from some deals has swung too far toward the Pentagon, pushing them to avoid projects that could fuel growth.

“I will sacrifice revenue for earnings and cash every day of the year,” said L3Harris Technologies CEO Chris Kubasik. The company dropped out of competing for a new Navy missile last summer, and Kubasik said last week that it had skipped another deal in the fall.

Lockheed Martin and RTX, the country’s two biggest defense contractors by revenue, are both nursing losses on fixed-price Pentagon contracts.

Boeing racked up more than $10 billion in losses because of missteps in building new refueling tankers, space taxis and jumbo jets that will carry the president on Air Force One. Boeing has since sworn off entering new fixed-price development deals with the Pentagon. The company is scheduled to issue its quarterly earnings report Wednesday.


Falling profit margins have been one of the biggest concerns among defense investors, despite companies’ soaring sales. The sector has shed much of the stock-price gains that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago, with the biggest U.S. companies down an average of 10% in 2023, underperforming the S&P 500. The sector is flat this year.

“In an environment of low inflation, people did step to the line and made bids because they were big, important programs,” said TD Cowen defense-industry analyst Cai von Rumohr. “Most everybody is getting religion now, but you don’t know how many companies have contracts in the closet that might have some risk to them.”

Pentagon leaders said they are taking steps to alleviate future problems with more flexible contracts. “We need ways to account for unexpected economic conditions,” said Gen. James Rainey, head of Army Futures Command, which runs the military branch’s modernization programs. “We’re not just asking industry to completely eat all that increase.”


The defense budget for fiscal year 2023, which ended Sept. 30, included a pot of more than $1 billion to compensate contractors for inflation, but little has been paid out.

Mike McCord, the Pentagon’s chief financial officer, said companies hadn’t provided enough information to the department to determine whether it was material and labor inflation or inefficiencies at play.

The biggest risk for the Pentagon is that it receives no bids for some programs, or only from a company that can’t fully meet project specifications, said military experts.

The Defense Department already faces a shrinking band of prime contractors, responsible for building ships, aircraft and munitions, with only two or three typically pursuing deals. It was often double that 30 years ago.


Northrop Grumman is a product of the 1990s merger boom. The company was once a specialist in making jet fighters for the U.S. Navy. It pivoted into satellites and parts for planes such as the F-35 before its breakthrough win for the B-21 in 2015.

Nearly four years later, it beat Boeing to win another marquee deal to replace aging Minuteman nuclear missiles that dot the Great Plains. The Pentagon last week said the program, known as Sentinel, was running late and expected to run over budget. The initial phase is a cost-plus deal, so the Pentagon would have to pay any extra expenses. It has yet to issue contracts for later stages, including the rebuilding of missile silos.

Northrop Grumman warned last year that it faced a potential loss in producing the first B-21 bombers. The plane was unveiled in December 2022 at a rare but flashy ceremony at the company’s plant in Palmdale, Calif., north of Los Angeles, a place that is home to some of the Pentagon’s most secretive projects.


A test plane flew for the first time in November 2023. The Air Force wants to buy at least 100 aircraft, originally priced at around $750 million each, though the first planes off the production line tend to cost more. The actual cost of the planes now being built by Northrop Grumman hasn’t been disclosed.

The company said it recorded an accounting charge when the Pentagon declined to cover higher costs resulting from the project. Dave Keffer, Northrop Grumman’s finance chief, said there is still a possibility Congress will authorize additional funding to help counter inflation in the fiscal year 2024 budget.

 

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