The Largest Defense Companies In The World, And What They Do

fighter jet on the sky

The Largest Defense Companies In The World, And What They Do

Weapon manufacturing is a big business. As weapons systems get more complex, companies with the capability to produce them thrive. Armaments might not be on the same scale as during the Cold War, but the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has made the largest defense companies in the world rethink.

The top companies in the world focus on either large and complex weapons or advanced high-tech systems. Warships, guided missiles, armored vehicles, jet fighters, helicopters, radar, electronic warfare equipment, guidance systems, and space vehicles are among their typical products. China-based are typically owned by the government. American and British defense contractors are privately owned, though deeply involved with the military.

The top ten sector companies gain anywhere from 20% to 96% of their revenue from defense purchases. Some, like Boeing and other aerospace enterprises, earn billions from selling commercial aircraft or other high-value items unrelated to defense. The revenues listed here are only the profits earned through defense contracts and sales, as reported by Defense News.

10. L3Harris Technologies – $14.92 billion

logo of L3Harris Technologies
L3 Technologies is a global defense contractor that builds and deploys mission critical systems like surveillance equipment.

Born from a 2019 merger between Harris Corporation and L3 Technologies, L3Harris Technologies has a history rich with top military projects. The company’s history goes back to 1895. Brothers Alfred and Charles Harris launched it to build their newly invented automatic-feeding printing press. In 1901, Harris also developed the famous Victor Talking Machine. This early phonograph is still known today by its logo of the dog Nipper listening to “His Master’s Voice” coming from the machine’s polished brass trumpet.

Harris’ first venture into military contracts came in 1929 when its Link pilot trainer saw massive use during World War II. About half a million U.S. pilots learned basic airplane control on the Link. The company also made microwave scanning radar in 1935, first installed on the USS Texas battleship in 1935. The famous Harris precision bombsight was another product used for high-altitude bombing runs over Europe and Japan.

As the 1950s and 1960s came and went, Harris began to specialize in military electronics, including sophisticated aircraft surveillance systems. Minuteman missiles featured Harris telemetry devices to make them more accurate. The famous hypersonic SR-71 Blackbird recon aircraft was fitted with Harris’ Electronic Reconnaissance surveillance system in 1970.

Today, the company manufactures similar defense aviation electronics and sensors. It also makes tactical radios used by American soldiers and special forces in the field. Additional products include night vision devices, command and control systems, and other advanced military electronics. L3Harris’ defense contracts earned it $14.92 billion in 2021, about equal to its earnings in 2020.

9. Norinco – $17.71 billion

Norinco is known to firearms enthusiasts because of its SKS rifles, semi-auto civilian AK-47s, and semi-auto M14 rifle clones. But the company is actually a huge Chinese defense and aerospace conglomerate supplying its country with many different military items. “Norinco” is a contraction of “China North Industry Corporation.” The company is state-owned and was founded in 1988. The company answers to the Commission on Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense.

Norinco’s factories churn out a whole range of industrial products, including chemicals used elsewhere in manufacturing. It builds oilfield equipment for petroleum extraction, all kinds of light vehicles such as trucks, cars, and motorcycles, and industrial machinery. It also produces explosives for both commercial markets and for military purposes.

On the military side of its business, Norinco makes all kinds of materiel for the People’s Liberation Army. These include major pieces of combat hardware such as tanks, armored personnel carriers (APCs), manned aircraft and drones, artillery, artillery shells, mortars, radar arrays, and missiles. Norinco also manufactures small arms and infantry heavy weapons, including pistols and assault rifles used by the Chinese army. Other armaments include light and heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, 30mm and 40mm grenade launchers, anti-tank recoilless rifles, anti-tank guided missiles like the Red Arrow, and many others.

The US government bans the importation of Norinco firearms into the country, though the firm still imports them to Canada. Americans are also legally forbidden to invest in Norinco. The company sold $17.71 billion worth of armaments in 2021. The 16% year-over-year growth this represents continues the strong growth it has seen for years, as Janes reports.

8. CSSC – $18.52 billion

The Chinese government decided to turn its shipbuilding Sixth Ministry of Machine Building into a corporation in 1982. Now operating somewhat apart from the central bureaucracy, the new state-owned enterprise assumed the name of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation or CSSC. Part of the company was again spun off during the 1990s to boost competition and its benefits.

CSSC remains a strange hybrid of state enterprise and publicly traded companies. Private investors can buy shares in the shipbuilding giant while it still answers directly to the Chinese military hierarchy. It builds commercial ships such as trawlers, cargo ships, tankers, and various fishing craft. It sells these vessels both to the domestic Chinese maritime industry and to the international market.

The company constructs military ships for the Chinese government, supporting the state’s rise as a 21st-century maritime power. Much like the British empire a century ago, the Chinese navy now has strategic port facilities at many points outside China. Additionally, CSSC’s civilian shipbuilding could also have a military angle. As ABC News reports, scientific ships appear to be gathering intelligence data, while cargo ships could easily double as troop and vehicle transport. Like other military-related Chinese businesses, CSSC is barred from operating inside the USA.

China’s aggressive fleet expansion and oceanic ambitions are giving CSSC plenty of business. Its defense sector revenue jumped 16% in 2021, reaching $18.52 billion.

7. BAE Systems – $25.77 billion

BAE Systems company office in Silicon Valley - San Jose, Californ]a
BAE Systens develop a range of weapons for the military and, and the average consumer.

BAE Systems emerged from a complex series of mergers and privatizations starting in 1977 and continuing through 1985. The resulting entity, British Aerospace, combined multiple aircraft companies into a single wide-ranging, publicly traded enterprise. It built commercial airliners alongside military strike aircraft and fighters. Earlier companies absorbed into the British Aircraft Corporation, a major part of British Aerospace, included Supermarine. Supermarine had built the famous Spitfire single-seat fighter that won renown for itself during World War II’s Battle of Britain.

In all, about 20 aircraft companies ended up as part of British Aerospace through its various mergers, according to Britannica.com. Many of these had an illustrious martial past, building some of England’s most iconic fighters and bombers in the World Wars.

British Aerospace went on to make an assortment of military aircraft for the UK. Its engineers designed and built the Harrier, Sea Harrier, and Harrier II short/vertical takeoff and landing (S/VTOL) fighters. The Sea Harrier gave an excellent account of itself during the Falklands War, shooting down 20 Argentinian fighters in exchange for no losses. The Harriers were significantly outnumbered by Argentina’s air force but still provided aerial dominance to British forces.

British Aerospace also built a variety of missiles for the British military, the Royal Navy, and export. In 1999 it merged with Marconi Electronic Systems, a spinoff from General Electric. Marconi made missile electronics and missiles before the merger. The combined entity, BAE Systems, saw 10% growth in defense revenue in 2021, rising to $25.77 billion.

6. AVIC – $30.15 billion

With over a hundred subsidiaries under its umbrella, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is another big Chinese defense and commercial industry conglomerate. AVIC’s history goes back to 1951, Bloomberg reports. The Chinese government was sending aid to North Korea at the time as it attempted to take over the Korean peninsula.

Though AVIC had state backing and funding from the start, China preferred to buy Soviet-Russian military aircraft for decades. AVIC’s aircraft were notoriously poor quality. This situation lasted until the first years of the 21st century. At that point, China turned AVIC into a corporation rather than a government bureau. Regardless, AVIC still receives Chinese state backing, answers to it, and may be partly owned by the PLA.

AVIC, newly freed from direct bureaucratic control, pumped its funds into a vigorous R&D program. As a result, it began offering better designs to the Chinese military. AVIC makes the Chengdu J-20 “Mighty Dragon” fifth generation stealth fighter. Business Insider reports the US military assesses the J-20 as just “okay” but is watching for further development.

The company is also involved in producing and improving the Z-19E light attack helicopter. Another successful design is the burly Y-20 Kunpeng heavy transport aircraft. Chinese sources say AVIC has more aircraft in the works. One of these could be the world’s biggest seaplane constructed to date. AVIC’s defense sector revenue, amounting to 37% of its total 2021 earnings, reached $30.15 billion. That’s an 18% jump from 2020.

5. General Dynamics – $30.8 billion

General Dynamics descends from a series of companies that have been supplying the US military with naval hardware since 1900. Its ultimate source was the Holland Torpedo Boat Company. That company’s founder, John Philip Holland, built the Royal Navy’s and the US Navy’s first commissioned submarines in 1913 and 1900, respectively. Holland’s research had been secretly funded by Irish Fenian revolutionaries hoping to get submarines to blow up British shipping.

Evolving and strengthening over the years, the Holland Torpedo Boat Company became Electric Boat and finally General Dynamics in 1952. Over the next few decades, it made many of the major weapons systems and armored vehicles deployed by the USA everywhere, from Vietnam’s rice paddies to the dusty desert plains of Iraq.

Releasing buzzing blasts of bullets from vehicle and helicopter mounts, the GAU-17 minigun is probably General Dynamics’ most famous – and cinematic – product. Jesse Ventura’s commando character in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick Predator made the minigun famous. The six-barreled rotary machine gun didn’t save Ventura’s character from the scorpion-faced, camouflaged, headhunting alien stalking him. But the minigun is still in frequent use on real-world ground attack aircraft.

General Dynamics: Products Across the Battlefield

The minigun is just one item on a laundry list of powerful combat hardware General Dynamics manufactures. It builds the M1 Abrams main battle tank, the eight-wheeled Stryker combat vehicle, and various other ground vehicles. Its shipyards turn out two different classes of the submarine. These include the SSN-774 Virginia class fast-attack submarine and the upcoming Columbia class ballistic missile submarine. One of its subsidiaries even constructs the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, each carrying a combat loadout of over 90 missiles.

General Dynamics also builds weapons and communications systems used in other companies’ military vehicles. While 80% of its revenue comes from military contracts, it also manufactures and sells business jets on the commercial side. It’s only growing slowly at about 3% defense profit growth between 2020 and 2021. However, its $30.8 billion in defense sector revenue in 2021 puts it in the top five defense contractors on Earth.

4. Northrop Grumman – $31.43 billion

Northrop Grumman emerged from the $2.1 billion melding of Northrop Aircraft and Grumman Aerospace in 1994. Both companies already had a long and storied history before combining their fortunes with a merger. Grumman built the Apollo moon mission’s Lunar Module spacecraft, helping Neil Armstrong achieve his “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” moment. Northrop, founded by Jack Northrop in 1939, put in much of the R&D for the flying wing design leading to the B2 stealth bomber..

Following the merger, Northrop Grumman went on an acquisition spree. With the fall of the Soviet Union just a few years prior, many defense-related companies were now available for purchase. Northrop Grumman ended up adding close to twenty to its operations. As a result, it gained a major threshold in dozens of defense manufacturing sectors. It thus became one of America’s biggest armaments conglomerates practically overnight.

The company was almost bought out in turn by Lockheed Martin for $11.6 billion. However, the Department of Defense nixed the deal, wanting to prevent Lockheed from gaining monopoly power over the whole defense industry.

Northrop Grumman’s diversified lineup of subsidiaries enabled it to survive when many defense sector competitors went under. The US military gave it the contract to develop a new long-range advanced bomber in the early 2010s. Northrop Grumman continues to work on this major project as of late 2022. The Northrop Grumman B-21 stealth bomber is a 5th generation bomber able to penetrate any known air defenses, National Interest reports. Designated the Raider, the B-21 can carry a payload of either conventional or nuclear bombs. The B-21 Raider may enter service in 2026 or 2027.

Northrop’s $31.43 billion in 2021 defense revenue hasn’t grown compared to 2020.

3. Boeing – $35.09 billion

largest satellite companies

 Boeing develops modern satellites that are used by internet service providers and mobile companies.

Dating back to 1916, when West Coast timber tycoon William Boeing started building seaplanes, Boeing has been a military supplier for generations. It broke new ground in making all-metal aircraft for both commercial and military use in the early 1930s. Boeing was involved in early mail carrier aircraft development, giving it a connection to government procurement. It also started making the first airliners in the later 1930s.

World War II, however, was the breakthrough event propelling Boeing to the top tiers of the defense industry. The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Boeing B-29 Superfortress formed the backbone of America’s colossal bomber fleets during the war. These high-flying, rugged aircraft hammered Axis factories into rubble time and again. They also participated in the more controversial firebombing of numerous cities into infernos.

A Boeing B-29 also ushered in the nuclear age when the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Another Silverplate modification B-29, Bockscar, then bombed Nagasaki. By this time, Boeing had cemented itself as a crucial part of America’s defense industry.

Boeing helped develop the B-2 stealth bomber and, in 1997, acquired the major defense avionics company McDonnell Douglas. Boeing now produces many famous and less-noted military aircraft for various branches of the service. The Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter is one of its highest-profile products. Fielded since Vietnam, the lean, predatory-looking chopper uses rockets, missiles, and 30mm chain guns to provide fire support.

Boeing makes a whole slew of helicopters, VTOL aircraft, drones, cargo aircraft, reconnaissance aircraft, and tanker aircraft for the military. Nowadays, it’s also making directed energy weapons like lasers alongside more conventional bombs and missiles. The company’s defense revenue rose 8% in 2021 to $35.09 billion.

2. Raytheon Technologies – $41.85 billion

When it comes to guided missiles, Raytheon Technologies is the US military’s go-to choice. The company got its start in 1922 as an electronics manufacturer involved with radio and microwave technology. Like Boeing, the second world War catapulted Raytheon into the top defense companies.

Raytheon started out making certain components for radar. However, by the war’s end, it was building complete radar arrays and supplying 80% of all radar equipment to the Allies. Referring to the magnetron signal emitters, engineer Chet Michalak said, “out were coming magnetrons like sausages in a factory.” Raytheon’s speed, volume, and quality of production all helped give it its first massive military contracts.

Within a few years of World War II’s end, Raytheon developed the world’s first mass-produced guided missiles. The Germans had produced guided missiles during World War II but lacked the resources to build them in sufficient numbers. Raytheon used its radar expertise to make radar-guided missiles such as the Sparrow line.

Meanwhile, Raytheon continued making civilian goods as well. It was heavily involved in microwave oven manufacture. The microwave oven and its countertop variant are both Raytheon inventions.

More recently, Raytheon’s Patriot missiles provided anti-missile defense in the Middle East. The company continues to build advanced missiles, radar systems, and related aerospace equipment for all military branches. It’s also currently working on advanced aircraft engines with likely military applications. Its defense sector earnings, accounting for about 65% of its revenue, remained static in 2021, coming to $41.85 billion.

1. Lockheed Martin – $84.46 billion

Bearing a name ringing with Cold War military aerospace history, Lockheed Martin remains Earth’s biggest defense company by far. While it wasn’t the manufacturer of the first supersonic aircraft ever, its forbear Lockheed Corporation made the famous twin-boom P-38 Lightning fighter during World War II. In 1943 it also started its renowned secret research department, best known as the Skunk Works. The Skunk Works or Advanced Development Programs (ADP) developed the U-2 Dragon Lady, the SR-71 Blackbird, and many other advanced aircraft.

Lockheed Corporation became Lockheed Martin in 1995 when it merged with Martin Marietta. Its merger partner was an aerospace company involved with the creation of the Titan rocket and other rocketry projects. Martin Marietta also worked on aircraft, aerospace components, missiles, and similar systems.

Lockheed Martin develops and manufactures such weapons systems as the F-22 Raptor. Its portfolio of military projects is far-ranging and includes many of the most advanced high-tech systems on the planet. Electronic warfare devices, aircraft, guided missiles, autonomous vehicles, radar, fire control systems, and armored vehicles make up its extensive lineup.

Lockheed Martin’s 2021 defense revenue of $84.46 billion is more than double the haul of the runner-up, Raytheon Technologies. That revenue grew about 3% year-over-year from 2020, showing the company is still expanding its armaments production. What’s more, it’s the closest thing on our list to a pure-play defense company. 96% of its 2021 revenue came from defense contracts. It earned the remaining 4% from commercial satellites and commercial airport information systems.

Summary of the Largest Defense Companies in the World

RankDefense Company
1.Lockheed Martin
2.Raytheon Technologies
4.Northrop Grumman
6.General Dynamics
7.Bae Systems
10.L3Harris Technologies

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Frequently Asked Questions

How many of the planet’s 10 largest defense companies are American?

Six of the ten biggest armaments manufacturers are headquartered in the USA. Three others are from China, and one is from the United Kingdom (England).

Are these defense companies publicly traded?

Most are publicly traded but Chinese defense companies can’t be invested in by Americans.

Do defense companies sell only to their home country?

Most defense companies make foreign sales as well, with some earning up to 25% of their revenue this way. Sales to foreign governments require home government approval, however.

Are any of the defense companies likely to lose their top 10 status?

The positions of the defense companies have been stable for years and are unlikely to change quickly. China Electronics Technology Group or CETC is rapidly catching up to L3Harris Technologies, however. Its 2021 revenue was $14.66 billion, less than $300 million behind L3Harris. Additionally, its revenue is mushrooming, growing by 40% year-over-year from 2020 to 2021. The company makes military radar, drones, telecommunications equipment, electronics, and satellite components, all areas likely to continue growth. CETC could displace L3Harris from tenth place, dropping the American company to eleventh, if it continues growing.

Are defense companies likely to keep growing?

Credit Suisse thinks so, though it expects the biggest defense company of all, Lockheed Martin, to underperform. 

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