US siren call irresistible for Europe arms makers


European defence companies will step up their frantic search for a slice of the US defence market — even if a new US administration, spending cuts and a recession make an already difficult mission harder still.

The United States accounts for about half the world’s defence spending and has long attracted — and frustrated — European firms like Franco-German EADS and Italy‘s Finmeccanica which are eager for a foothold to spur their global ambitions.

But the dominance of US rivals has hampered them, a problem which analysts say will be made worse by a more dove-ish new US administration, planned cuts to big-ticket programmes and a rise in protectionist tendancies amid a global recession, Reuters notes.

“It has never been easy for European companies to break in to the US market and it just got a whole lot harder,” said Doug McVitie of Arran Aerospace consultancy. “The defence budget is not expanding like the (former U.S. President Ronald) Reagan Star Wars years and they won’t allow foreigners waltzing in.”

Analysts say that Europeans facing flat or lower defence spending at home are unlikely to be deterred, making more joint ventures or acquisitions like Finmeccanica’s $4 billion purchase of US firm DRS Technologies last year inevitable.

European-led acquisitions accounted for 37% of US defence sector deals and more than 73% by value in 2008, as a weak dollar provided a powerful incentive, according to a study by Jane’s Industry Quarterly.

“If your domestic market is shrinking but your shareholders still expect growth, that means looking at the United States — which is like a siren call for the defence industry,” said Guy Anderson, lead analyst at Jane’s Information Group.

“And to do business in America, you’ve got to be in America. You’ve got to have a footprint. Acquisitions are going from nice to have to a necessity.”

The US defence budget for fiscal 2009 is set at $515 billion, excluding further outlays for war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even if spending stays flat, the intelligence, surveillance and reconaissance segment promises exponential growth, and overlaps with the homeland security budget, said Anderson.

Britain’s BAE Systems — Europe’s largest defence contractor that generates over half its sales from the US — could continue scouting for more deals as could Finmeccanica, on a much smaller scale than the DRS buy, said Anderson.

Finmeccanica has stuck to its US growth ambitions despite being penalised by investors for paying a 27% share premium to buy DRS and then facing cuts to the US presidential helicopter and C-27J cargo plane programs it is involved in.

Smaller British peer VT Group has already said it is planning an acquisition spree in the fall and will bid for $3 billion worth of US contracts.

But analysts say the European company most likely to strike the next big US deal is France‘s Thales SA, which was eyeing DRS before Finmeccanica snapped it up.

It says it remains on the lookout for US acquisitions.

It remains to be seen whether a change of industrial leadership makes it harder to prise open US defence contracts.

Privatised radar builder Alcatel Lucent has always been on a tight rein, but the Franco-US firm recently sold its 21% stake to Dassault Aviation, which is seen as a company more closely associated with French sovereign interests.

Airbus parent EADS may struggle to pull off a big US deal despite repeatedly stating its interest in the United States amid growing concerns of being sidelined, said Anderson and McVitie.

“In the US, EADS has repeatedly rushed to the water, dipped its toes and run away,” said McVitie.

“On the industrial level, they don’t have the competence to get into the US market but the bigger concern is that their shareholders don’t want cash reserves used on US acquisitions.”

An acquisition thought to be worth $1 billion was vetoed by the board last year and the company has vowed to conserve cash.

EADS is still hoping to wrest back a $35 billion refueling tanker contract it won jointly with Northrop Grumman before the deal was cancelled after a Boeing challenge.

Not everyone is convinced European companies will succeed in their US bid despite intense lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill.

Though the Pentagon has yet to show a nationalistic streak in its buying practices, Europeans face a much tougher sell at a time of contracting budgets unless they offer a critical mission product, said Loren Thompson of US-based Lexington Institute.

“What tends to happen in the highly cyclical U.S. defence market is that it opens up when there’s rapid expansion and holds back during a contraction, so foreigners have a much greater difficulty getting in the door,” said Thompson.

But while trying to export to the United States may be virtually impossible, buying a US company like DRS and maintaining US jobs there could overcome protectionist concerns, said Anderson.

More long-term joint ventures could also be the order of the day to avoid overpaying or getting into a price war with European peers, since linking with a US company can help override security or technology transfer worries, said McVitie.

“There is no trend, what you’ll get is probably a lot of one-offs,” he said. “But what is clear is that if (a European company) wants to step up to be a global player, they have to have access to the biggest market in the world.”