Scrutiny over Pentagon official’s Boeing ties highlights defense industry consolidation

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan speaks Jan. 16 at the Pentagon. He's considered a leading candidate for the permanent post.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

The year was 1989. The Pentagon was under the command of President George H.W. Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. And aviation giant McDonnell Douglas Corp. was riding high as the top federal contractor, grabbing 4.6%, or $9.15 billion, of all federal contracting dollars. The next two largest contractors, General Dynamics Corp. and General Electric Co., raked in about 4% and 3.4%, respectively.

Thirty years and many acquisitions later, Pentagon spending has grown far more top-heavy.

Today, Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing — which bought McDonnell Douglas in 1997 — together reaped almost 15% of total U.S. government contracting dollars in fiscal year 2017, according to the most recent federal numbers. The two aerospace giants are the only makers of fast combat jets in the U.S. and are the dominant players for military transport aircraft.

The concentrated power of big defense companies became an issue two years ago when longtime Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan was confirmed as deputy secretary of Defense. Then in December, President Trump named him to serve as acting Defense secretary.

After a monthlong ethics investigation into allegations that Shanahan promoted Boeing while slamming rival Lockheed Martin, particularly in discussions about its F-35 fighter jet contract, the Pentagon’s office of inspector general concluded Thursday that Shanahan “did not promote Boeing or disparage its competitors.”


“We did not substantiate any of the allegations,” the report said. “We determined that Mr. Shanahan fully complied with his ethics agreements and his ethical obligations regarding Boeing and its competitors.”

Shanahan is considered a leading candidate for permanent Defense secretary.

The question of possible favoritism toward Boeing had also been raised by some when the U.S. Air Force, in its 2020 budget, made a surprise request to purchase F-15X fighter jets, an update of that company’s fourth-generation jet. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have all made major commitments to the F-35, Lockheed Martin’s more advanced and pricier fifth-generation fighter.

The inspector general report said the Pentagon’s mix of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft was a decision made by former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis before Shanahan’s confirmation to the department. A Defense official told trade publication Defense News that the decision was bolstered by concerns about keeping “multiple providers in the tactical aircraft portfolio.”

But there was no contract competition based on a set of defined requirements — the way business typically works in the industry, said Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at market analysis firm Teal Group.

“It’s a duopoly structure business with a lot at stake,” he said of fast combat jet manufacturing. “It’s amazing that no one considered the optics here.”

In some cases, the military has encouraged monopolies. In 2006, Lockheed Martin and Boeing got government approval to form United Launch Alliance, a joint venture set up specifically to launch national security satellites. The venture was proposed after the companies argued there were not enough launches to sustain two competitors.

“The market is more concentrated,” said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight, an independent watchdog group. “You see the government making decisions thinking about how it will impact industry probably more than they should be.”

Still, when President Reagan was in office, there were a number of major manufacturers of tactical military jets — Northrop Corp., Grumman Corp., Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and General Dynamics, to name a few, Aboulafia said.

But as the Cold War ended in the 1990s, defense funding dried up, leading to major aerospace mergers, such as Lockheed and Martin Marietta, and Boeing’s acquisition of Rockwell International’s aerospace business and McDonnell Douglas.

A push for commonality among the Pentagon’s planes also led to the fewer numbers of tactical military jets. The idea was that using similar aircraft would lead to savings in development and production costs, Andrew Hunter, director of the defense-industrial initiatives group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said in an email.

As a result, the share of federal defense contracts awarded to the top largest private companies increased to 31.3% in 2000 from 21.7% in 1990, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper on the effect of 1990s-era defense industry consolidation. In 2017, the share of the top five reached 35%, according to federal data analyzed for that paper by Stanford University researchers.

The paper concluded that those mergers resulted in a less competitive procurement process. But it did not find evidence of a significant increase in acquisition costs for large weapon systems, said Mark Duggan, director of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and co-author of the paper.

As the industry gets more concentrated, it can lead to concern that “there’s only one or two potential contractors for a certain product, and then you may not get the kind of competitive outcome you want,” he said.

The consolidation process hasn’t slowed, driven by the perceived need to compete for more and bigger contracts. Last year, Northrop Grumman Corp. acquired spacecraft and rocket motor manufacturer Orbital ATK Inc. Months later, military communications firms L3 Technologies Inc. and Harris Corp. announced their intent to merge.

Although acquisitions and mergers can lead to greater efficiency, they can also have a detrimental effect on product innovation, said Aboulafia of Teal Group. For example, he said, as aircraft manufacturers consolidate, clean-sheet designs may be more of a rarity in the future as there are fewer design teams in the industry from different companies.

For Boeing, “in terms of designing a clean-sheet fighter jet, it’s been many, many, many years,” he said.

In 2017, Lockheed Martin won more than $50 billion in total federal contracting dollars, making the Bethesda, Md., company No. 1 on a list of the top 100 federal contractors, according to federal procurement data. Boeing was a distant second with more than $23 billion.

When narrowed to weapon acquisition contract dollars in fiscal year 2017, Lockheed Martin’s individual piece of the pie totaled about 17%, with Boeing further behind at about 7.5%, according to federal data analyzed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

News of the Defense Department ethics investigation came after watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent a letter to the acting Defense Department inspector general, asking him to investigate allegations that Shanahan had boosted Boeing while working in the Pentagon.

The letter includes a description from a Politico story published in January, in which Shanahan allegedly criticized Lockheed Martin’s work on the F-35 joint strike fighter program, saying it “would be done much better” if Boeing had won the contract.

In that article, an unnamed former Pentagon official told the news organization that Shanahan said during a high-level meeting that Lockheed “doesn’t know how to run a program.”

The inspector general’s report said none of the witnesses interviewed said they heard Shanahan praise Boeing in meetings or discussions or make disparaging remarks about Lockheed Martin. Shanahan told the inspector general’s team that he had never praised a Boeing military product and that he had said “program management on the F-35 is inadequate.”

Shanahan’s Boeing career spanned more than 30 years, during which he led its missile defense systems and military helicopter units. He also served as senior vice president of the company’s commercial airplane division and is known for his work on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner program, which was behind schedule when he first took the helm.

Boeing declined to comment this month on the initiation of the ethics investigation. The company referred to a statement it made in January, saying Boeing officials had not spoken to Shanahan about its programs during “his entire Pentagon tenure” and that the company “adheres to and respects Acting Secretary Shanahan’s decision to recuse himself from company matters.”

Shanahan isn’t the first industry executive to lead the Defense Department. Under President Eisenhower, Defense Secretary Charles Wilson joined the Pentagon after serving as chief executive of General Motors, which made military vehicles at the time. Other defense industry brass have also joined the Pentagon over the years, though in lower roles.

Analysts say the Pentagon could benefit from having a leader who understands how industry works, and who has been on the other side of the negotiating table and can avoid being tricked. And the Defense secretary typically works less with industry representatives than deputies do.

“Secretaries aren’t making a lot of decisions on individual contracts,” Smithberger said. “They’re setting the priorities for the department.”

But the potential conflicts may be “hard to escape,” said Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the Lexington Institute think tank, which receives funding from both Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

“Boeing is so big that almost every discussion of strategy, budgets or programs bears upon its interests,” he said.