Neighbors Covet Lockheed's MULE

The gang that couldn't shoot straight ... still can't.

After months of stories about defense contracting overruns -- Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC  ) and its overpriced aircraft carrier, Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) and General Dynamics (NYSE: GD  ) and their too-costly Littoral Combat Ships -- this week's news looks positively mundane by comparison: Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) is building a robot, and it weighs too much.

That's all?
It's a start. Lockheed, you see, was contracted to build a new robot to serve a trio of functions within the Pentagon's $160 billion Future Combat Systems program -- a program itself plagued with cost overruns and reportedly sitting in Congress' gunsights.

One version of this MULE (Multifunction Utility/Logistics and Equipment Vehicle) works as a minesweeper, another as a mobile weapons platform, and the third -- as a turbocharged pack mule. Heavily armored, capable of reaching speeds of 40 mph, and with independent engines powering all four wheels, the MULE could be the most robust military robot ever built.

There's just one problem: According to Pentagon spokesmen, they ordered a MULE weighing no more than 5,000 lbs. -- light enough that United Technologies' (NYSE: UTX  ) Blackhawk helicopter can lug it into the field. Numerous upgrades to the vehicle -- due to Army requests, according to Lockheed -- however, have pushed the MULE past 7,000 lbs. Thus, it can no longer hitch a ride on a Blackhawk and probably needs a Chinook to do the deed.

Okay. But what's it mean to me?
It really depends on who "you" are. If you're a Lockheed shareholder, this is not good news. By all accounts, the Army is not pleased with Lockheed going 40% over budget on weight. Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, was quoted asking peevishly: "Didn't industry bid to those specifications? Shouldn't they be held accountable?"

Uh-oh
Indeed. But this may be good news for Lockheed's rivals. For example, iRobot (NYSE: IRBT  ) and Deere (NYSE: DE  ) have developed a vehicle that looks capable of taking on some of the MULE's roles. Their R-Gator robotic car weighs just 1,500 lbs. I'll bet that even up-armored, it would weigh less than the MULE.

And you don't even need to be a big-time defense contractor to play this game. A coupla guys up in Maine have produced a shock-and-awe-inducing robotic tank that makes the MULE look like a donkey. Their Rip Saw is faster, tracked so that it can turn on a dime, capable of carrying heavy weapons, and looks much lighter than Lockheed's three-and-a-half-ton behemoth.

Foolish takeaway
As robotic tanks go, sure, the MULE's cool. But if Lockheed doesn't get its act together, it could lose this contract yet.

More defensive Foolishness:

Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of Boeing and iRobot. iRobot is a Rule Breakers choice. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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