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Best Books on the Defense Industry

Best Books on the Defense Industry

Umbrex has developed this list of the best books on the defense industry based on input from the management consultants in our community, our clients, and other professionals.

We believe that to serve a client effectively, it is helpful to have a deep context on the history of the client’s industry, including prominent companies, individuals, and technologies.

This list of best books on the defense industry is a work in progress, not a final answer, and we invite you to submit your recommendations on our Contact page.

We also invite you to check out our list of the best podcasts on the defense industry.

Clients:

Consultants:

Beyond the Horizon: The Story of Lockheed

Walter J. Boyne
1998

The author of Beyond the Wild Blue explores the many factors that led Lockheed from near bankruptcy in the 1930s to become one of the most successful and innovative aerospace corporations in the world. 25,000 first printing.

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Democracy's Arsenal: Creating a Twenty-First-Century Defense Industry

Jacques S. Gansler
2013

An expert explains why the security needs of the twenty-first century require a transformation of the defense industry of the twentieth century.

New geopolitical realities—including terrorism, pandemics, rogue nuclear states, resource conflicts, insurgencies, mass migration, economic collapse, and cyber attacks—have created a dramatically different national-security environment for America. Twentieth-century defense strategies, technologies, and industrial practices will not meet the security requirements of a post-9/11 world. In Democracy’s Arsenal, Jacques Gansler describes the transformations needed in government and industry to achieve a new, more effective system of national defense. Drawing on his decades of experience in industry, government, and academia, Gansler argues that the old model of ever-increasing defense expenditures on largely outmoded weapons systems must be replaced by a strategy that combines a healthy economy, effective international relations, and a strong (but affordable) national security posture. The defense industry must remake itself to become responsive and relevant to the needs of twenty-first-century security.

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Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War

Paul Kennedy
2013

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Paul Kennedy, award-winning author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and one of today’s most renowned historians, now provides a new and unique look at how World War II was won. Engineers of Victory is a fascinating nuts-and-bolts account of the strategic factors that led to Allied victory. Kennedy reveals how the leaders’ grand strategy was carried out by the ordinary soldiers, scientists, engineers, and businessmen responsible for realizing their commanders’ visions of success.

In January 1943, FDR and Churchill convened in Casablanca and established the Allied objectives for the war: to defeat the Nazi blitzkrieg; to control the Atlantic sea lanes and the air over western and central Europe; to take the fight to the European mainland; and to end Japan’s imperialism. Astonishingly, a little over a year later, these ambitious goals had nearly all been accomplished. With riveting, tactical detail, Engineers of Victory reveals how.

Kennedy recounts the inside stories of the invention of the cavity magnetron, a miniature radar “as small as a soup plate,” and the Hedgehog, a multi-headed grenade launcher that allowed the Allies to overcome the threat to their convoys crossing the Atlantic; the critical decision by engineers to install a super-charged Rolls-Royce engine in the P-51 Mustang, creating a fighter plane more powerful than the Luftwaffe’s; and the innovative use of pontoon bridges (made from rafts strung together) to help Russian troops cross rivers and elude the Nazi blitzkrieg. He takes readers behind the scenes, unveiling exactly how thousands of individual Allied planes and fighting ships were choreographed to collectively pull off the invasion of Normandy, and illuminating how crew chiefs perfected the high-flying and inaccessible B-29 Superfortress that would drop the atomic bombs on Japan.

The story of World War II is often told as a grand narrative, as if it were fought by supermen or decided by fate. Here Kennedy uncovers the real heroes of the war, highlighting for the first time the creative strategies, tactics, and organizational decisions that made the lofty Allied objectives into a successful reality. In an even more significant way, Engineers of Victory has another claim to our attention, for it restores “the middle level of war” to its rightful place in history.

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Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II

Arthur Herman
2013

Freedom’s Forge reveals how two extraordinary American businessmen—General Motors automobile magnate  William “Big Bill” Knudsen and shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser—helped corral, cajole, and inspire business leaders across the country to mobilize the “arsenal of democracy” that propelled the Allies to victory in World War II. Drafting top talent from companies like Chrysler, Republic Steel, Boeing, Lockheed, GE, and Frigidaire, Knudsen and Kaiser turned auto plants into aircraft factories and civilian assembly lines into fountains of munitions. In four short years they transformed America’s army from a hollow shell into a truly global force, laying the foundations for the country’s rise as an economic as well as military superpower. Freedom’s Forge vividly re-creates American industry’s finest hour, when the nation’s business elites put aside their pursuit of profits and set about saving the world.

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • SELECTED BY THE ECONOMIST AS ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR

“A rambunctious book that is itself alive with the animal spirits of the marketplace.”—The Wall Street Journal

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Heavy Metal: The Hard Days and Nights of the Shipyard Workers Who Build America's Supercarriers

Michael Fabey
2022

An extraordinary story of American can-do, an inside look at the building of the most dangerous aircraft carrier in the world, the John F. Kennedy.

Tip the Empire State Building onto its side and you’ll have a sense of the length of the United States Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the most powerful in the world: the USS John F. Kennedy. Weighing 100,000 tons, Kennedy features the most futuristic technology ever put to sea, making it the most agile and lethal global weapon of war.

Only one place possesses the brawn, brains and brass to transform naval warfare with such a creation – the Newport News Shipbuilding yard in Virginia and its 30,000 employees and shipyard workers. This is their story, the riggers, fitters, welders, electricians, machinists and other steelworkers who built the next-generation aircraft carrier.

Heavy Metal puts us on the waterfront and into the lives of these men and women as they battle layoffs, the elements, impossible deadlines, extraordinary pressure, workplace dangers and a pandemic to complete a ship that will be essential to protect America’s way of life.

The city of Newport News owes its very existence to the company that bears its name. The shipyard dominates the town—physically, politically, financially, socially, and culturally. Thanks to the yard, the city grew from a backwater to be the home of the premier naval contractor in the United States.

Heavy Metal captures an indelible moment in the history of a shipyard, a city, and a country.

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How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon

Rosa Brooks
2016

Once, war was a temporary state of affairs. Today, America’s wars are everywhere and forever: our enemies change constantly and rarely wear uniforms, and virtually anything can become a weapon. As war expands, so does the role of the US military. Military personnel now analyze computer code, train Afghan judges, build Ebola isolation wards, eavesdrop on electronic communications, develop soap operas, and patrol for pirates. You name it, the military does it.

In this “ambitious and astute” (The Washington Post) work, Rosa Brooks “provides a masterful analysis” (San Francisco Chronicle) of this seismic shift in how America wages war from an unconventional perspective—that of a former top Pentagon official who is the daughter of two anti-war protesters and married to an Army Green Beret. By turns a memoir, a work of journalism, a scholarly exploration of history, anthropology, and law, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything is an “illuminating” (The New York Times), “eloquent” (The Boston Globe), “courageous” (US News & World Report), and “essential” (The Dallas Morning News) examination of the role of the military today. Above all, it is a rallying cry, for Brooks issues an urgent warning: When the boundaries around war disappear, we undermine both America’s founding values and the international rules and organizations that keep our world from sliding towards chaos.

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Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex

William D. Hartung
2010

Enthralling and explosive, Prophets of War is an exposé of America’s largest military contractor, Lockheed Martin. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his famous warning about the dangers of the military industrial complex, he never would have dreamed that a company could accumulate the kind of power and influence now wielded by this behemoth company.

As a full-service weapons maker, Lockheed Martin receives over 25 billion per year in Pentagon contracts. From aircraft and munitions, to the abysmal Star Wars missile defense program, to the spy satellites that the NSA has used to monitor Americans’ phone calls without their knowledge, Lockheed Martin’s reaches into all areas of US defense and American life. William Hartung’s meticulously researched history follows the company’s meteoric growth and explains how this arms industry giant has shaped US foreign policy for decades.

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Running Critical: The Silent War, Rickover, and General Dynamics

Patrick Tyler
1986

Based on diaries, tape recordings, confidential documents, and exclusive interviews, this expose illustrates fundamental weaknesses in the defense industry by chronicling the scandalous dealings between the U.S. Navy and General Dynamics.

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Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed

Leo Janos
2013

This classic history of America’s high-stakes quest to dominate the skies is “a gripping technothriller in which the technology is real” (New York Times Book Review).

From the development of the U-2 to the Stealth fighter, Skunk Works is the true story of America’s most secret and successful aerospace operation. As recounted by Ben Rich, the operation’s brilliant boss for nearly two decades, the chronicle of Lockheed’s legendary Skunk Works is a drama of Cold War confrontations and Gulf War air combat, of extraordinary feats of engineering and human achievement against fantastic odds. Here are up-close portraits of the maverick band of scientists and engineers who made the Skunk Works so renowned. Filled with telling personal anecdotes and high adventure, with narratives from the CIA and from Air Force pilots who flew the many classified, risky missions, this book is a riveting portrait of the most spectacular aviation triumphs of the twentieth century.

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Stealth: The Secret Contest to Invent Invisible Aircraft

Peter Westwick
2019

On a moonless night in January 1991, a dozen U.S. aircraft appeared in the skies over Baghdad. To the Iraqi air defenses, the planes seemed to come from nowhere. Their angular shape, making them look like flying origami, rendered them virtually undetectable. Each aircraft was more than 60 feet in length and with a wingspan of 40 feet, yet its radar footprint was the size of a ball bearing. Here was the first extensive combat application of Stealth technology. And it was devastating.

Peter Westwick’s new book illuminates the story behind these aircraft, the F-117A, also known as the Stealth Fighter, and their close cousin the B-2, also known as the Stealth Bomber. The development of Stealth unfolded over decades. Radar has been in use since the 1930s and was essential to the Allies in World War Two, when American investment in radar exceeded that in the Manhattan Project. The atom bomb ended the war, conventional wisdom has it, but radar won it. That experience also raised a question: could a plane be developed that was invisible to radar? That question, and the seemingly impossible feat of physics and engineering behind it, took on increasing urgency during the Cold War, when the United States searched for a way both to defend its airspace and send a plane through Soviet skies undetected. Thus started the race for Stealth.

At heart, Stealth is a tale of not just two aircraft but the two aerospace companies that made them, Lockheed and Northrop, guided by contrasting philosophies and outsized personalities. Beginning in the 1970s, the two firms entered into a fierce competition, one with high financial stakes and conducted at the highest levels of secrecy in the Cold War. They approached the problem of Stealth from different perspectives, one that pitted aeronautical designers against electrical engineers, those who relied on intuition against those who pursued computer algorithms. The two different approaches manifested in two very different solutions to Stealth, clearly evident in the aircraft themselves: the F-117 composed of flat facets, the B-2 of curves. For all their differences, Lockheed and Northrop were located twenty miles apart in the aerospace suburbs of Los Angeles, not far from Disneyland. This was no coincidence. The creative culture of postwar Southern California-unorthodox, ambitious, and future-oriented-played a key role in Stealth.

Combining nail-biting narrative, incisive explanation of the science and technology involved, and indelible portraits of unforgettable characters, Stealth immerses readers in the story of an innovation with revolutionary implications for modern warfare.

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The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War

A. J. Baime
2015

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER. The story of the dramatic transformation of Detroit from “motortown” to the “arsenal of democracy,” featuring Edsel Ford, who rebelled against his pacifist father, Henry Ford, to build a manufacturing complex that was crucial to winning WWII.

As the United States entered World War II, the military was in desperate need of tanks, jeeps, and, most important, airplanes. Germany had been amassing weaponry and airplanes for five years—the United States for only months. So President Roosevelt turned to the American auto industry, specifically the Ford Motor Company, where Edsel Ford made the outrageous claim that he would construct the largest airplane factory in the world, a plant that could build a “bomber an hour.” And so began one of the most fascinating and overlooked chapters in American history.

Drawing on unique access to archival material and exhaustive research, A. J. Baime has crafted a riveting narrative that hopscotches from Detroit to Washington to Normandy, from the assembly lines to the frontlines, and from the depths of professional and personal failure to the heights that Ford Motor Company and the American military ultimately achieved in the sky.

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The Defender: The Story of General Dynamics

Roger Franklin
1986

Traces the history of General Dynamics, the largest weapons company in the world, examines charges of negligence and fraud made against the corporation, and includes profiles of its colorful leaders.

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The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World

Sharon Weinberger
2018

The definitive history of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon agency that has quietly shaped war and technology for nearly sixty years.

Founded in 1958 in response to the launch of Sputnik, the agency’s original mission was to create “the unimagined weapons of the future.” Over the decades, DARPA has been responsible for countless inventions and technologies that extend well beyond military technology. Sharon Weinberger gives us a riveting account of DARPA’s successes and failures, its remarkable innovations, and its wild-eyed schemes. We see how the threat of nuclear Armageddon sparked investment in computer networking, leading to the Internet, as well as to a proposal to power a missile-destroying particle beam by draining the Great Lakes. We learn how DARPA was responsible during the Vietnam War for both Agent Orange and the development of the world’s first armed drones, and how after 9/11 the agency sparked a national controversy over surveillance with its data-mining research. And we see how DARPA’s success with self-driving cars was followed by disappointing contributions to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Weinberger has interviewed more than one hundred former Pentagon officials and scientists involved in DARPA’s projects—many of whom have never spoken publicly about their work with the agency—and pored over countless declassified records from archives around the country, documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, and exclusive materials provided by sources. The Imagineers of War is a compelling and groundbreaking history in which science, technology, and politics collide.

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The Rickover Effect: The Inside Story of How Adm. Hyman Rickover Built the Nuclear Navy

Theodore Rockwell
1995

In less than a decade, Hyman G. Rickover created the world’s first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, and built the world’s first atomic power station. His unprecedented technological achievements overcame both natural and human obstacles and gave new meaning to the concept of industrial quality control.

Here is the critically acclaimed, authentic inside story, told by the man who worked at Rickover’s side for fifteen years. Theodore Rockwell takes us behind the “zirconium curtain” to see the emergence of the commercial nuclear industry through the eyes of those who shaped it and to discover why Rickover provoked a storm of controversy. The Rickover Effect is a riveting tale of genius and dedication told in intimate, human terms.

Theodore Rockwell is an editor and author, as well as an expert on nuclear reactors who worked with Admiral Rickover from 1949 to 1964. He served as technical director of the U.S. Naval Reactors Program from 1954 to 1964.

“A notable, anecdote-rich biography of the controversial ‘father of the nuclear navy.'”—Publishers Weekly

“This thought-provoking, well-written, and stimulating book . . . is an honest tribute to a man whose greatness will one day be recognized even more than it is today.”—Associated Press

“Together with Rhodes’s definitive account of the race . . . to develop a nuclear bomb, these two works constitute the most important contributions to date on the history of atomic energy.”—Nuclear News

“The consummate inside story of Rickover’s team: how they developed nuclear power, how they worked together, and their relationships with a revered, though controversial, boss.”—Captain Edward L. Beach, USN (Ret.), author of Run Silent, Run Deep

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The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power

Jacob Helberg
2021

From the former news policy lead at Google, an “informative and often harrowing wake-up call” (Publishers Weekly) that explains the high-stakes global cyberwar brewing between Western democracies and the authoritarian regimes of China and Russia that could potentially crush democracy.

From 2016 to 2020, Jacob Helberg led Google’s global internal product policy efforts to combat disinformation and foreign interference. During this time, he found himself in the midst of what can only be described as a quickly escalating two-front technology cold war between democracy and autocracy.

On the front-end, we’re fighting to control the software—applications, news information, social media platforms, and more—of what we see on the screens of our computers, tablets, and phones, a clash which started out primarily with Russia but now increasingly includes China and Iran. Even more ominously, we’re also engaged in a hidden back-end battle—largely with China—to control the internet’s hardware, which includes devices like cellular phones, satellites, fiber-optic cables, and 5G networks.

This tech-fueled war will shape the world’s balance of power for the coming century as autocracies exploit 21st-century methods to redivide the world into 20th-century-style spheres of influence. Without a firm partnership with the government, Silicon Valley is unable to protect democracy from the autocrats looking to sabotage it from Beijing to Moscow and Tehran. Helberg offers “unnervingly convincing evidence that time is running out in the ‘gray war’ with the enemies of freedom” (Kirkus Reviews) which could affect every meaningful aspect of our lives, including our economy, our infrastructure, our national security, and ultimately, our national sovereignty.

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This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race

Nicole Perlroth
2021

THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * Winner of the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award * Bronze Medal, Arthur Ross Book Award (Council on Foreign Relations)

“Written in the hot, propulsive prose of a spy thriller” (The New York Times), the untold story of the cyberweapons market-the most secretive, government-backed market on earth-and a terrifying first look at a new kind of global warfare.

Zero-day: a software bug that allows a hacker to break into your devices and move around undetected. One of the most coveted tools in a spy’s arsenal, a zero-day has the power to silently spy on your iPhone, dismantle the safety controls at a chemical plant, alter an election, and shut down the electric grid (just ask Ukraine).

For decades, under cover of classification levels and nondisclosure agreements, the United States government became the world’s dominant hoarder of zero-days. U.S. government agents paid top dollar-first thousands, and later millions of dollars-to hackers willing to sell their lock-picking code and their silence. Then the United States lost control of its hoard and the market. Now those zero-days are in the hands of hostile nations and mercenaries who do not care if your vote goes missing, your clean water is contaminated, or our nuclear plants melt down.

Filled with spies, hackers, arms dealers, and a few unsung heroes, written like a thriller anda reference, This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends is an astonishing feat of journalism. Based on years of reporting and hundreds of interviews, New York Times reporter Nicole Perlroth lifts the curtain on a market in shadow, revealing the urgent threat faced by us all if we cannot bring the global cyberarms race to heel.

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This War Really Matters: Inside the Fight for Defense Dollars

George C. Wilson
1999

Drawing on nearly 40 years of news writing focused on military issues, George C. Wilson takes the reader through a fascinating, but little understood, process: how the Pentagon and Congress spend $500,000 a minute on guns and soldiers. Interweaving personal stories and insights from the major players throughout a fast-paced narrative, Wilson provides an inside look at how the 105th Congress and the Pentagon battled for a 250 billion dollar defense budget.

Wilson demystifies the “realpolitik” among the individual armed forces and highly partisan members of Congress, as well as civilian and military leaders, thus giving a sense of the trade-offs involved on all sides. Exclusive interviews with major players―including Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Rep. David R. Obey, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh H. Shelton―relate their distinctive perspectives on how Congress allocates and the Pentagon spends defense dollars.

Wilson takes a look ahead―with a critical eye―to the wars of the next century and asks tough questions: Are we ready for future wars or are we still preparing for the last war, the Cold War? Does the Pentagon need more money? Or can it really do its job with less?

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