If you work in or around the business of defense—whether in industry or in government procurement—you’ve likely heard many times that yours is a unique market. Your study of Econ 101 had to be followed by Defense 102: monopsonists, oligopolists, complex technologies, and fundamentally unquantifiable risks. Your grasp of business has required reinforcement with hefty doses of policy and engineering. And whatever the reality, you never stop hearing that it’s all a mess.
History has been alternatively unkind and laudatory to your line of work. In the 1920s, munitions makers were the merchants of death; by the 1940s, the industry was the arsenal of democracy. The 1950s brought heady days industrial analysis and economic thinking. Nine percent of US GDP bought a lot of ICBMs, and in the process, careers that won a few Nobel Prizes were launched in thinking hard about how everything had changed.
But defense fell out of favor as an academic topic by the 1970s, and when everything had changed again with the end of the Cold War, our thinking was remarkably singular. In the 1990s, the focus of industrial analysis was almost entirely on the need for consolidation and transatlantic integration. In the US at least, the 2000s brought fast flows of money for once again solving battlefield problems. But towards the end of that decade, with money tight around the alliance, the questions had again become harder, and the issues under-appreciated.
Today, we believe that transatlantic security has reached an inflection point. As the US National Intelligence Council argued in its recent study Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, we may be at a global inflection point much like those of 1945 and 1989—times when the world faced highly uncertain and dramatically different possible futures. Many technologies important to global security—and the industries that produce them—are changing rapidly, and with potentially game-changing or even destabilizing consequences.
So, to stimulate the global discussion on the future of the defense industry, and to influence policy in ways we see as beneficial, we are launching a research program, and a blog to foster discussion. Each week, the Defense Industrialist at the Atlantic Council will cover questions of industrial, economic, and technological significance to the Atlantic community. We hope that you’ll tune in.
James Hasik is a senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.