Star Wars Lite

Two and a half years after they brought you the world's first airborne ray gun, Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) , Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) , and Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC  ) still have a few kinks to work out.

Back in November 2004, in a column entitled "Boeing Wields a New Laser," we described the successful test of a groundbreaking (airbreaking?) new weapons system designed by a collaboration of some of America's fiercest defense contracting antagonists -- the aforementioned Boeing, Lockheed, and Northrop. For those who missed the first piece, here's a quick recap:

The three companies have teamed up to convert a Boeing 747 freighter into a flying laser gun. Boeing supplies the plane. Northrop brings the gun (a hydrogen peroxide-fueled monster, comprised of six linked modules, each the size of an SUV), and Lockheed figures out how to get the thing to shoot straight while in flight. (The test back in November, while considered a "success," consisted of a fraction-of-a-second burst, fired while the plan was still on the tarmac.)

The whole idea behind the project is that if the companies can get Congress to ante up for seven planes total, they can fly these first-generation X-Wings 'round the clock near any country suspected of planning to launch an ICBM. If those suspicions prove justified, the "Flying Laser" can shoot the missile down from hundreds of miles away, while it's in its slow-moving, lift-off phase.

But all that's the easy part.

The hard part
The hard part is going to be convincing the new Democrat-controlled Congress to fund the research necessary to make the whole contraption work. Way back in 2004, the companies secured about $500 million in funding for their project in the fiscal 2005 defense budget. Two years later, costs are still running at about half-a-bil a year. But Congress isn't willing to foot this bill in full anymore. In fact, the House's version of the 2008 defense budget provides just less than $300 million for the Airborne Laser. The more free-spending Senate is willing to ante up $350 million. Boeing says these cuts could delay the weapon's completion by as much as three years.

The investing angle
Budgetary politics aside, how should investors view the funding cuts? Clearly, they're a problem for Boeing, which will lose revenues if the Feds slash spending on this project. Northrop likewise. Lockheed gets a consolation prize, though, because one reason cited for cutting funding on the Airborne Laser is to free up funds for more traditional means of shooting down stuff that goes up: the famed Patriot anti-missile system, and the just-as-famous Aegis system for shipboard missile defense. Lockheed builds the Aegis, you see, and so it might break even despite the Airborne Laser's potential funding cuts. And who benefits most?

Raytheon (NYSE: RTN  ) , which makes the Patriot.

Find further airborne defense-related investing angles in:

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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