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Presidential race could determine winners, losers in defense

The U.S. Navy variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Source: U.S. Airforce

One major theme at this week's Republican National Convention has been "Make America Safe Again," with speeches from party faithful such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and others honing in on terrorism dangers and how the U.S. military needs to be stronger.

Giuliani said Tuesday Donald Trump "will keep us safe and help us achieve and embrace our greatness." Yet, Trump has been no friend of Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, one of the military's biggest and most expensive acquisition programs. Last year, he criticized the F-35 as "not very good."

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton appears to be more supportive and in March called it "the most sophisticated fire aircraft ever developed," but that doesn't mean she won't make changes to the fifth-generation fighter program or other big-ticket military projects.

If you look at history, it tells us yes — presidential administrations do influence defense spending.
Chris Higgins
Morningstar analyst

The F-35 was designed to give the U.S. air superiority and its economic reach has been significant, with more than 145,000 jobs tied to it and suppliers from 45 states and Puerto Rico.

"If you look at history, it tells us yes — presidential administrations do influence defense spending," said Morningstar analyst Chris Higgins. "But really there are a lot of external factors that constrain their decision making around that policy."

The winner of the presidential election and the choice of Secretary of Defense will ultimately help shape defense policy and decide which particular weapons programs get priority.

Other expensive programs potentially at risk include Northrop's new B-21 long-range strike bomber, an $80 billion deal the U.S. Air Force awarded last fall, and Boeing's delayed KC-46 aerial refueling tanker aircraft.

U.S. Marines from 3rd Marine Expeditionary force deployed from Okinawa, Japan, participate in the joint combat training with South Korean soldiers on July 6, 2016 in Pohang, South Korea.
Jung Yeon-Je | AFP | Getty Images

Also, the U.S. Navy is currently seeking new high-tech boats to increase its warfare capabilities at sea, including more carriers, destroyers as well as a next-generation ballistic nuclear submarine sometimes referred to as the Ohio Replacement Program. Each Ohio sub made by prime contractor General Dynamics is expected to cost upwards of $5 billion.

"Depending on who wins, my guess is we're talking modest to moderate uptick in defense spending," said Cai von Rumohr, a defense industry analyst at Cowen & Co.

Last week, Morgan Stanley released a report based on a survey of 650 investors and found there was "some belief that military spending and infrastructure programs would be bigger under a Republican administration, potentially causing some multiple contraction in a Democratic sweep for industrials and defense stocks."

"They always think that Democrats are 'don't spend' on the military, which is really a fallacy and false information," said Ric Epps, a professor of political science at San Diego State University.

Benghazi overhang

In a scenario where Trump wins but the U.S. Senate goes Democratic, the Morgan Stanley report concluded it would then be "extremely difficult to predict winners and losers on a sector basis. Our best guess is defense stocks will rally, as well as defensive stocks, including consumer staples, and telecommunications stocks, under a view that uncertainty would be at its highest under this outcome and market volatility could increase."

Back at the Republican convention, speakers also have sought to blame Clinton for the Benghazi terror attack at the U.S. diplomatic compound in 2012. The mother of one of the four Americans killed in the Benghazi attack spoke at the event and blamed the former U.S. Secretary of State "personally" for the death of her son.

"After going through Benghazi and the issues she's been through, I think Hillary is going to make sure that she is extra sensitive about defense issues and about defense spending," said Epps. "She won't spend it wildly on having more troops."

Overall, Morningstar's Higgins is forecasting U.S. defense spending growth of about 2 percent each year going forward, which includes wartime spending.

As for the F-35, the fighter program was originally pegged to cost upward of $1.5 trillion by the end of the aircraft's 55-year life cycle, although the cost per jet is down 57 percent since the first plane was delivered.

Lockheed CEO Marillyn Hewson said during the defense contractor's second-quarter conference call Tuesday that the company is "on track to increase our deliveries to 53 aircraft this year" and she added that they have already delivered about 180 aircraft since the program's inception.

"F-35 is a little too late to be cancelling it now," said Cowen's Rumohr. "The economic rationale for not going ahead is not very strong."

F-35 program: Continuity or change?

Analysts see a low probability the Pentagon would pull the plug entirely on the F-35 program. Yet, the next administration could decide to trim the procurement buys and any changes might take several years to actually happen.

"Given the time that it takes to prepare and pass a U.S. defense budget, the new president will not have a 'clean sheet' budget until FY'19, and so the impact of a new administration is likely to take some time to flow through to the defense industry," RBC Capital Markets analyst Robert Stallard said in a research note.

For now, the Department of Defense still has plans for 2,443 of the F-35 aircraft for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, the Lockheed CEO reiterated Tuesday. Global partners also are buying the fighter, and the unrest in Turkey had one analyst asking during the Lockheed call about the longer-term implications given that country's plan is to procure 100 of the F-35s.

I don't think it's easy to say whether Trump or Clinton would spend more on defense.
Michael O'Hanlon
Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

"We have not seen any indication that it will impact the F-35 or any of our other programs, and so we will continue to assess the situation," Hewson said.

Figures from the Federal Election Commission show Clinton received almost $40,000 in combined donations this year from employees at Lockheed Martin, the nation's largest defense contractor. In contrast, Trump received less than $1,000 in combined donations from individuals who identified their employer as Lockheed (U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, received more than $60,000 in contributions).

"I don't think it's easy to say whether Trump or Clinton would spend more on defense," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at Brookings Institution. "Trump says he'll build up the military but he wants to reduce overseas commitments, deployment and alliances. So he might not need so much more money."

Support for higher defense spending

In terms of Hillary Clinton, O'Hanlon said, she is "less intent on sounding like a hawk but she actually is somewhat more hawkish, or at least more internationalist than Trump. As such, she may need to be for a slightly larger/more expensive military than Trump would favor."

Polling shows growing support for more U.S. defense spending. In May, the Pew Research Center published a poll that found the support among Americans for more spending on national defense was at its highest percentage level in more than a decade. Around 35 percent of those surveyed said the country should spend more on defense, up from 23 percent in November 2013 when the question was last asked.

According to Higgins, public sentiment around defense spending is one of the key drivers that ultimately will help shape policy in this area. The others are the nation's fiscal deficit, the defense spending cycle, and the global threat environment.

"If you look at the defense spending cycle, we're at a cyclical bottom basically," he said.

Back in 2009, the fiscal deficit was running almost 10 percent of gross domestic product, and it fell to roughly 8 percent in 2010-2011, Higgins said. More recently, though, was at around 2 to 3 percent of GDP.

"The four factors that we look at are all flashing green for defense spending to go upwards," Higgins said. "When you think about those factors, regardless of who is elected president we argue that we are at the cusp of an increase in defense spending."