Rosie the Riveter worked in California. One of more than 310,000 women who toiled in the U.S. aircraft industry in 1943, she became emblematic of a defense industrial base that expanded massively to meet the demands of World War II.

Figure 1: We Can Do It! By J. Howard Miller

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Accounts differ on which of the thousands of aircraft workers active in the 1940s was the inspiration for the iconic Rosie the Riveter poster. The most credible claim is that she was Naomi Parker Fraley, an employee of the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California. 

For decades following that conflict, California was the center of gravity for the U.S. aviation industry. Historic company names like Lockheed, Northrop, Hughes, and others trace their lineage to the Golden State. But, although California remains integral to America’s aviation industry today — and to the defense sector overall — America’s defense industrial landscape has changed significantly since World War II and the Cold War.

In recent years, the geography of U.S. defense spending has been undergoing a subtle shift. That has been driven by a mix of major programmatic trends, changes in Department of Defense acquisition organizations, and broader technology requirements. Other regions are gradually eclipsing areas of the country that have long been central suppliers of materiel to the Pentagon.

Overall, defense contracts have grown more concentrated among fewer locations in the United States. Understanding where the U.S. defense industry is primarily located today offers indications of its connection to broader commercial sectors, whether they be in aviation, information technology, or other areas. The increased concentration of defense technologies and companies in geographic “clusters” could also exacerbate an already troubling divide between the U.S. military and the broader civilian population. Additionally, the changing landscape of the defense industry has implications for congressional oversight, as members of the legislative branch seek, or avoid, roles on key defense committees.

The Concentration of U.S. Defense Industrial Capacity

The American defense industrial base is quite concentrated, at least at the prime contractor level. Over three-quarters of the value of Pentagon prime contracts awarded within the United States go to firms in just 15 states. And that concentration is growing: According to Defense Department data, between Fiscal Year 2012 and FY2020, the share of total defense contract value executed in these 15 states grew from 74.8 percent to 77.6 percent. (And the share of total defense contract value executed in the top 10 states grew from 62.5 percent to 66.7 percent.)

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This article was originally published in War on the Rocks.




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Doug Berenson is a managing director at Avascent, a global consulting firm serving clients in government-driven markets like defense, aerospace, and cyber. Doug has been with the firm for over 20 years, helping government and corporate clients forecast trends in demand, weigh investment options, and make effective policy decisions.