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Defense outlook 2015: A global survey of defense-industry executives

Today's leading defense executives offer their insights.

April 2013 | byJohn Dowdy and Melanie Taylor

In December 2012, we surveyed a small group of senior executives from leading aerospace and defense companies around the globe, 20 in total, to find the pulse point of the industry: what will the next three years hold? We invited executives to share their views on topics such as market outlook and overall trends, industry restructuring, and growth prospects. About three-quarters of the executives surveyed were C-level leaders at their organization—CEO, COO, CFO, CMO, or president—while the others were vice presidents or general managers. Our sample was geographically diverse, with two-thirds of executives from Europe and the Middle East; one-third were from the Americas. Most lead companies or divisions with at least $5 billion in revenues.

Respondents agreed on many topics, especially the somber outlook for global defense spending. With only one exception, executives see global spending declining over the next three years. They see the defense industry changing, and they are all taking measures to adapt. Leaders are preparing to meet the challenge of evolving customer needs, especially the quest for affordable products, and expect to be active in corporate restructuring. Companies intend to find growth in international markets such as India and the Middle East. Finally, executives see growth potential in commercial aerospace, services, unmanned systems, and cybersecurity, with interesting differences of opinion on the relative attractiveness of these opportunities.

A shrinking market

When asked about the outlook for the global market, the near-universal expectation is for a decline, but executives disagree on the extent of the slump. About two-fifths believe that global market revenues will decrease between 1 and 5 percent, and one-fifth see a decline of more than 20 percent. The rest expect something in between.

We also asked respondents about the outlook in the markets in which they are active, and found some clearly delineated differences. Asia-Pacific and the Middle East were seen by most as pockets of moderate growth, offsetting moderate to significant decreases in Europe and North America. South America and Africa were largely predicted to either remain the same or have slight increases (Exhibit 1).

Exhibit 1

Expected changes in defense spending vary for different regions of the world.

To understand how regional shifts might affect the nature of global competition, we questioned executives about the decline in defense spending in established markets and the rise in emerging markets. Would this shift in spending be accompanied by a commensurate shift in the structure of the industry? Would new globally competitive players emerge, using their lower cost structures as a springboard to global prominence? Almost two-thirds of respondents—admittedly, mostly from more established markets—said they did not expect to see a new competitive global player emerge; instead they thought that companies in emerging markets would continue to function mainly as low-cost manufacturers or suppliers. If any of these companies do manage to emerge as global players, it would have significant implications for the global industry structure.

The changing nature of the defense business

The survey results make it clear that defense industry leaders believe their companies must change the way they do business; the question is how to do it. Almost all survey respondents believe that defense customers will change their focus from procuring the systems with the highest possible performance to ones that are more affordable. However, only two-thirds of the defense-industry executives surveyed think that defense suppliers will be able to change their internal processes to deliver more affordable, rather than exquisite, products.

When we asked respondents what changes they would like to see in government defense procurement, many cited a desire for greater transparency, simplification and acceleration of processes, and more open dialogue and collaboration. Respondents also hoped for a clearer strategy backed by a long-term plan, and for increasing consistency. One executive wrote that government should “truly embrace commercial practices, especially in manufacturing—and move away from congressionally influenced manufacturing decisions.” Others hoped that government would “make it simpler in the specifications,” “recognize the fragility of the industrial base and allow consolidation to occur,” and “drive harder bargains.” One executive said a desired change would be “more open collaboration between industry and departments of defense early in the requirements and acquisition process. The littoral combat ship, for all its warts, can provide a model for industry innovation and leveraging R&D.”

Not surprisingly, to stay competitive, almost three-fourths of respondents expect an increase in the rate at which defense companies will manage their portfolio of businesses in the next one to three years, with over three-fourths of respondents expecting their companies to engage in mergers and acquisitions, while almost two-thirds expect their companies to divest some part of their current portfolio.

The search for growth opportunities

Given the downturn in many major markets, industry executives believe that finding the right growth opportunity is more important than ever. Almost all said that their companies will pursue increased international growth in the next three years. When we asked the executives to name the most attractive markets outside their current focus, a majority noted interest in India, Brazil, and the Middle East, followed by the United States (Exhibit 2).

Exhibit 2

What are the most attractive markets outside your company’s current market focus?

Industry leaders also shared their apprehensions about the challenges of international growth. Many voiced concerns about export controls and regulations, and about International Traffic in Arms Regulations, suggesting these are a significant barrier to growth. Others noted their struggle with decreasing budgets. Respondents also cited cultural issues, such as “lack of management experience working outside the local country,” a similar lack of “understanding of local context or cultures,” and the need for a “change of mind-set from top management, including human-resource management,” as potential barriers to international growth. One industry executive said that “apart from some huge international programs such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, much of the defense contracting is kept in country, with a few exceptions such as the United Kingdom or a rapidly growing market with low internal capabilities such as India.” Other respondents also noted concerns about obtaining “access in international markets in a robust and ethical way,” “local footprint and design/counterfeit security,” and “the procurement process in international markets.”

Four sectors were cited as showing the most potential for additional growth: commercial aerospace, services, unmanned systems, and cybersecurity (Exhibit 3).

Exhibit 3

What areas show the most potential for increased growth in the next one to three years?

Each of these growth opportunities comes with unique challenges and concerns. With respect to commercial aerospace, one of the largest potential areas of growth for defense companies, executives cited concerns about “cyclicality,” “slow GNP growth,” “pricing pressure,” “displacing incumbents on Boeing/Airbus narrow-body aircraft,” “capital constraints,” and “production ramp-up.” One executive noted “the Asian footprint and consolidated machining in Asia” as a challenge, while another stated having a “decent business case for investment” would be an issue.

When we asked respondents how they expected defense companies to adjust their portfolios between defense and commercial in the next one to three years, about half predicted a bias toward commercial. Only a handful predicted a bias toward defense, with the others expecting portfolios to balance.

Services, the second most anticipated source of growth, was cited by three-fourths of respondents to generate a larger share of their companies’ revenues. Executives note challenges for service growth include recruiting, how to create value, the procurement process, competition from government, insourcing by military customers, and customer resistance.

One area of varying opinions was unmanned systems. While about two-thirds of survey respondents say their companies will seek unmanned-systems growth, only a little over half say they will diversify outside of defense. Yet that is where growth will come, according to most of those who plan to diversify. Executives see several challenges for growth in unmanned systems, including “airspace utilization,” “a lack of clear requirements from customers,” “no common architecture,” and “pilots as decision makers.” One respondent noted that “the sector is littered with small to medium players and far too many in-country development programs. Our company will focus on the larger platforms (such as the unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike system, or UCLASS) where there is more value and more synergies with our scale and capabilities.”

In another acknowledgment of the questions around unmanned systems, two-thirds said they believe that the Joint Strike Fighter program will not be the last major manned-aircraft development program.

For cybersecurity, an area in which only half of survey respondents are interested, executives foresee challenges, such as “acknowledgement of the problem and the prospects of dealing with it,” “a lack of agreement on what cybersecurity encompasses and on what, exactly, the customer can buy to have more of it,” and “the industry’s competence to offer effective solutions.”

The consistency in our survey results is striking: while defense-industry executives may differ in opinion on topics such as which growth opportunities to pursue, they all agree that the defense industry is evolving and that they need to prepare for the future. Whether exploring opportunities for growth in a new market or changing their procurement strategies, executives are laying the foundations for future success in a changing defense market.

About the authors

John Dowdy is a director in McKinsey's London office, and Melanie Taylor is a consultant in the New York office.

About this content

The material on this page draws on the research and experience of McKinsey consultants and other sources. To learn more about our expertise, please visit the Aerospace & Defense Practice.