US defense firms could take hit as West sanctions Russia

A worker deburrs titanium parts at VSMPO-AVISMA Corporation, the Russian firm that is the world's largest titanium producer.

A worker deburrs titanium parts at VSMPO-AVISMA Corporation, the Russian firm that is the world's largest titanium producer. Donat Sorokin\TASS via Getty Images

The country plays a small but important role in both supply chains and sales.

American aerospace and defense manufacturers could be caught in the crossfire as U.S. and western governments seek to punish Russia for invading Ukraine.

Russia accounts for a relatively small but important part of such companies’ supply chains and customer base. They buy Russian metals, including titanium, and export parts and commercial aircraft to the country.

Analysts said defense companies with large commercial businesses, including Boeing, Raytheon Technologies, and Honeywell, are the most exposed; while companies that rely largely on defense work, including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Huntington Ingalls Industries, are more insulated. 

This comes on top of the coronavirus pandemic, when companies with large commercial business were shaken as passenger air travel plummeted in 2020.

“I have a bigger question mark over these hybrid commercial-aerospace-defense models going forward,” Capital Alpha Partners analyst Byron Callan said.

In the coming weeks and months, Callan said, he’ll be watching to see how Beijing responds to the Ukraine situation. China could choose to reduce its trade with U.S. aerospace companies that also have defense businesses.

“It doesn't suggest that China is going to...lean in closer to the United States,” he said. If anything, they're probably going to lean closer to Russia. I just think you're gonna have to wait a couple of weeks or months to really understand what it all means.”

Some U.S. companies, including Raytheon, also supply Russian aircraft makers. Raytheon’s Collins Aerospace touts itself as “playing an integral part in the development” of the new Irkut MC-21 airliner. Raytheon’s Pratt & Whitney supplied the first turbofan engines to the narrow-body jet.

On Thursday, the Biden administration said it would place sanctions on a number of Russian industries, including its defense, aviation, and technology sectors.

“Between our actions and those of our allies and partners, we estimate it will cut off more than half of Russia's high-tech imports and we'll strike a blow to their ability to continue to modernize their military,” President Joseph Biden said during a speech at the White House. “It will degrade the aerospace industry, including their space program. It will hurt their ability to build ships, reducing their ability to compete economically, and will be a major hit to [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin's long-term strategic ambitions.”

Some companies have already taken steps to reduce their dependence on Russia. Stan Deal, the head of Boeing’s commercial airplane business, told reporters at the recent Singapore Airshow that the company has been diversifying its titanium supply since 2014 when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

Still, Russia’s VSMPO-AVISMA supplies Boeing with 35 percent of its titanium, according to The Air Current. The firm provides Europe’s Airbus  with 65 percent of its titanium and every bit that Brazil’s Embraer uses.

Callan is also watching whether the U.S. uses a 2017 law known as CAATSA to place sanctions on countries that buy from Russia. Shortly after the act was passed, the Trump administration used it to punish NATO ally Turkey for buying S-400 missile interceptors from Russia.

Analysts are also closely watching whether the Pentagon will ask Congress for supplemental funding to pay for the increased patrols in Europe. Biden has ordered 7,000 U.S. troops to Europe as part of a NATO effort to keep the Ukrainian conflict from spilling further into Europe.

Such funds might also cover flights by U.S. F-35 stealth fighters and B-52 bombers in the region, and the those by U.S. surveillance and tanker aircraft. The uptick in flying missions comes amid a sharp spike in fuel prices. Oil prices jumped to more than $100 per barrel for the first time since 2014, and energy prices are widely expected to jump higher  because Russia is a major energy exporter,  But the military buys its fuel through the Defense Logistics Agency, and is typically insulated against near-term price changes, even steep ones.

U.S. firms are not the only ones worried about the fallout from the invasion ordered by Russian leader Vladimir Putin. In an extraordinary televised meeting on Thursday, Alexander Shokhin—essentially, Russia's top business lobby chief—warned Putin that sanctions might harm the country's economy.

“Everything should be done to demonstrate as much as possible that Russia remains part of the global economy and will not provoke, including through some kind of response measures, global negative phenomena on world markets,” Shokhin said, as reported by New York Times bureau chief Anton Troianovski.

Responded Putin: "To be clear, what is happening is a necessary measure. They just gave us no chance to act otherwise.…The risks were such that it was unclear how our country would even continue to exist.”

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