For more than a century, Boeing has been a leading commercial and defense aerospace company, both domestically and internationally. As the aerospace and defense sector evolved over time, Boeing grew along with it, providing cutting-edge aerospace products and merging with or acquiring industry rivals such as McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell International’s aerospace and defense portion. In 2019, Boeing placed second in the DefenseNews listing of the global top 100 defense companies. For the same period, Boeing’s overall revenues were double those of the number one global defense company, Lockheed Martin.
Boeing has repeatedly transformed global commercial aviation. The 707, which began service in 1957, was the first commercially successful long-range, four-engine passenger and cargo jet. Today, the 737 family of planes are the world’s best-selling commercial aircraft. Boeing also revolutionized the world of high volume, long-haul air transport, with the first wide-body heavy transport, the 747, then the 777, and most recently, the 787.
For another company, the problems with the 737 Max could have been catastrophic. While Boeing certainly has been challenged to return the 737 Max to flight, it is putting massive amounts of resources and high-level management attention on fixing the aircraft. But at the same time, it is making progress on other commercial and military programs. Last month, it conducted the first flight test of the 777-9X, the world’s longest and largest twin-engine airliner.
Boeing has also been one of America’s premier defense companies for nearly as long. During World War One, the company built Navy patrol aircraft (called “flying boats”). During World War Two, the company’s B-17 and B-29 strategic bombers were critical to the air campaign against the Axis Powers. In the Cold War, even as it was introducing the world of commercial aviation to the 707, Boeing also built some 750 B-52 heavy bombers, some of which are expected to remain in service until the middle of the 21st Century.
Currently, Boeing produces or supports many of the world’s military’s best platforms and weapons systems. In addition to the B-52, Boeing designed and built the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the F-15 Eagle fighters; the C-17 Globemaster large transport; the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter; the CH-47 Chinook heavy lift transport helicopter; and together with the Bell Helicopter division of Textron, the V-22 tiltrotor aircraft. Boeing is on contract to produce an electronic-warfare version of the Super Hornet, the EA-18G Growler and, after a pause of nearly 20 years, an upgraded version of the Eagle, the F-15EX.
The company continues to be a leader in military air platforms. It is building a new generation of large, aerial refueling tankers, the KC-46A Pegasus. Together with Sweden’s Saab, Boeing won a contract from the U.S. Air Force to produce a new generation of jet trainers, the T-X or the T-7 Red Hawk. The Navy chose Boeing to develop the MQ-25 refueling tanker, the first-ever carrier-based unmanned aerial system (UAS) and is currently acquiring the RQ-21 Blackjack UAS, built by Boeing subsidiary Insitu.
Boeing also is one of this country’s leaders in space systems and strategic missiles. The company built the Minuteman ICBM, the centerpiece of the land-based portion of the U.S. strategic deterrent since the early 1960s. With its Delta launch vehicles and a series of commercial and military satellite programs, Boeing helped the U.S. become a space-faring nation. Currently, Boeing is in a joint venture with Lockheed Martin, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which provides commercial and national security launch services for clients including NASA. ULA is in the process of developing a brand new space launch vehicle, the Vulcan, and Boeing is simultaneously competing to provide NASA’s new manned space capsule.
Boeing has successfully exploited its strong position as both a commercial and defense company to provide cost-effective capabilities for the U.S. military. The company has adapted its classic 707 airframe for a range of military missions, most noteworthy of which was the creation of the KC-135 aerial refueling tanker. The 707 also is the platform that was chosen to support the Air Force’s fleet of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, including the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System and the Rivet Joint electronic surveillance system. Several U.S. allies fly a military tanker or an AWACS built on the 767 airframe.
Today, Boeing is producing several major military aircraft based on its commercial platforms. One is the KC-46A tanker, a derivative of the commercial B-767 passenger jet. Another is the P-8 Poseidon multimission maritime aircraft, a modified version of the 737-800.
A key to Boeing’s leading role in aerospace and defense is its determination to invest in advanced R&D well in advance of commercial orders for a new aircraft or a military contract. Because of its willingness to invest in leading edge aerospace technologies, Boeing has been able to repeatedly leapfrog its competition with brand new aircraft designs. One example of this is the 787, with its use of composite materials, new engines, and advanced avionics. Another is the U.S. Navy’s MQ-25A unmanned aerial refueling tanker. The company won the contact to develop the MQ-25A in August 2018 and conducted its first flight test of a prototype just 13 months later. A third is the Air Force’s state-of-the-art T-X/T-7 jet trainer aircraft.
Boeing leadership has made it clear that it will invest significant amounts in aerospace R&D when it sees the potential for multi-decade programs. According to Greg Smith, Boeing’s chief financial officer:
“Our T-X and MQ-25 investments are based on deliberate and intentional decisions to create long-term valuable products and services franchises. In selective key market opportunities such as these, we are taking into account the considerable market potential in our business cases, and not just the initial order quantity with the contracts.”
Boeing’s strong position in both the commercial and defense aerospace sectors not only allows it to invest in new technologies and exploit synergies, but to weather downturns in either business. The company has an array of decades-long profitable franchises in both sectors, including the 737, 777 and 787 passenger aircraft and the F/A-18 and F-15 fighters; Apache and Chinook helicopters; V-22 tiltrotor; KC-135 and KC-46A tankers; and T-7 trainer. It is continuing to make investments in such areas as advanced manufacturing, avionics, autonomy and materials, which are already benefitting programs in both the commercial and defense sectors.
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