Attention, Boeing (NYSE: BA ) shareholders! Are you tired of the interminable delays in getting the 787 Dreamliner off the ground? Frustrated with the Pentagon's seeming inability to decide whether to give the KC-X Tanker contract to Boeing or Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC ) ? Well, it could be worse.
You could have invested in EADS.
Europe's flying white elephant
Several years ago, while I was living in Russia, I was amazed to see national airline Aeroflot begin a mass market advertising campaign using flying elephants as their mascot. Seemed a strange idea at the time -- I can't imagine Delta (NYSE: DAL ) or United (Nasdaq: UAUA ) wanting to paint themselves as "flying elephants." But lately I've been wondering if the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company might want to license the copyright to the flying elephant concept.
If you've been following the tale of EADS' latest, greatest military offering -- the A400M military transport -- you know it's been a rough ride these past few years. First, the firm lost crucial sales to several NATO and non-NATO countries late last year, when a coalition of a dozen nations chipped in to buy two Boeing C-17 Globemaster transports immediately, rather than wait for the A400M to be ready for delivery who-knows-when.
Serial delays in producing the A400M's turboprop engines forced EADS to warn that the first planes won't be available till 2012 at the earliest. In January, Britain's Ministry of Defense called these delays "unnecessary and unacceptable," and began looking into buying C-17 Globemasters from Boeing to fill the gap in its military transport capability. Now it appears that a second key member of the A400M project could be ready to fold as well.
On Tuesday, the head of France's Defense Procurement and Export Agency "DGA" announced that delays in the A400M's arrival may force France to lease or purchase alternative air transport capability -- and to "reduce" its previous commitment to buy 50 A400Ms for its military.
France says it will not be buying Lockheed Martin's (NYSE: LMT ) C-130 Hercules transport because it is too small to suit French needs. Lockheed does build a much bigger plane -- the C-5 Galaxy transport -- but even the U.S. isn't buying these anymore. (Rather, Congress is considering upgrading and modernizing its existing C-5s.) No, the more likely beneficiary of French disgust with the A400M is Boeing -- and its C-17 Globemaster -- along with C-17 parts suppliers such as Honeywell (NYSE: HON ) and United Technologies (NYSE: UTX ) .
A critical flaw
Mind if I revisit the flying elephant analogy for a moment? OK, so I once read that "a camel is a horse designed by a committee, and an elephant is a mouse built to military specifications." Leaving aside the evolutionary merits of the theory, it does ring true with respect to the A400M. For while the plane (if it ever gets off the ground) may serve admirably in the function of a flying troop carrier, it contains one critical design flaw in its make-up ...
Thanks, but no tanks
Not to put too fine a point on it: The A400M cannot carry tanks. With a lift capacity maxing out at 37 tons of payload, the A400M isn't a big enough bird to carry even the smallest of the main battle tanks in Europe's arsenal -- Italy's 52-ton Ariete, for example, or France's own 56-ton Leclerc.
Fact is, only a small handful of military transport aircraft have any chance of getting a main battle tank off the ground -- and EADS' A400M isn't one of 'em. If you absolutely, positively have to get your British Challenger, German Leopard, or American Abrams to the battlefield overnight, you probably need a Lockheed C-5 or a Boeing C-17 to do it.
The battlefield of the future may place more emphasis on lighter, more mobile vehicles. However, tanks still are a valuable battlefield resource; the lack of this key capability strikes this Fool as an elephant-sized gap from which Boeing stands to benefit.
What's it mean to investors?
Between the rumblings coming first out of London and now Paris, EADS risks alienating two of its key backers if it doesn't get the A400M back on track tout de suite. So far, however, I'm hearing nothing that would suggest that EADS will succeed.
Add in the risk that the U.S. Congress will bow to political pressure and direct the Pentagon to buy Boeing's KC-767AT tanker over Northrop's KC-30 -- a modified EADS/Airbus A330 bird, I might add -- and all indications suggest that Boeing's set to score a double-birdie ... and that EADS is going to get its wings clipped.
Stay tuned for the outcome. Meanwhile, keep the Fool on your radar for all things investing in general, and defense investing in particular: