If you want to know what's happening with health care, listen to the president. If you want to know when the housing bust will end, keep an ear turned to Home Depot (or not). And Defense Investing Fools, if you want to know which contractors will prosper in the future, and which ones will perish, you're highly advised to tune in when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gives his annual address to the Air Force Association conference.
Which actually happened earlier this week. Here's what he had to say.
The best defense is a good offense
First and foremost, let's lay to rest the rumors that Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II fighter jet -- which promises to become the world's first trillion-dollar warplane -- will have its lifespan cut short. Flying model airplanes are fun and all, but I've yet to see the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can take down a MiG one on one. For that, you're going to need an F-35.
Luckily, Secretary Gates has got your six. Speaking at the conference earlier this week, he stated his intention to have the first training squadron of F-35s airborne by 2011, followed by aggressively rolling out the program to the Marines and Air Force in 2012 and 2013. At last report, the Pentagon planned to buy 2,443 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Foreign partner nations are expected to buy another 500 or so -- and the opportunities could be even greater than that.
Whatever our allies' intentions, though, Gates confirmed his commitment to the F-35 as "a major leadership priority, with all that entails with regard to funding, oversight and accountability." Admittedly, the statement leaves a lot to the imagination. But one thing I cannot imagine is that we'll see an abrupt cutback in the program. Not after the Pentagon gets done clipping the F-22 Raptor's wings. Not until UAVs grow up.
The long march
The Lightning's prospects may be electrifying, but it wasn't the only plane making headlines Wednesday. That honor goes to the "B-3 bomber" (not its real name, or not yet). As you may recall, Gates has hemmed and hawed a bit in the past on whether the U.S. really needs the B-3. Developing a replacement for Northrop Grumman's (NYSE: NOC ) famed B-2 bomber is expected to cost upwards of $15 billion.
Whether it will be Northrop building the plane remains up in the air. Boeing (NYSE: BA ) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT ) have already said they intend to buddy up and build a better mousetrap once the Air Force begins taking bids to replace the B-2.
But replace it we will. The reason, as Gates explained Wednesday, can be summed up in one word: China. Seems that while we all thought China was only interested in buying up U.S. Treasuries and making tube socks for Wal-Mart, it has actually been up to other mischief. Hacking U.S. computer networks, for one. Building anti-satellite and anti-ship missile systems, and generally coming up with new and ever-more-clever ways to: "threaten America's primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific -- in particular our forward air bases and carrier strike groups."
Speaking of which, anyone want to take a guess where short-range fighters like the F-35 fly out of? "Bingo" to the young man who guessed "forward air bases and carrier strike groups."
Solution: Build more planes that can fly long distances, and "strike from over the horizon." Planes like the B-3.
What's the mpg on that bird, anyway?
Now, I haven't seen a mockup yet, but unless the B-3 is equipped with solar panels, I assume it's going to use up a few gallons of gas en route from here to there -- wherever there might be. And since the whole idea behind the bird is that it's not supposed to stop for gas along the way, we're going to need -- you guessed it -- refueling tankers!
Enter the KC-X Tanker Competition, Part Two. (Or Part Three, if you count the ill-fated attempt to lease Boeing tankers back in 2003.) Months of KC-X controversy ended last summer when the Government Accountability Office rebuked the Air Force for running a "misleading and unequal" competition. Rather than fix the problem, Gates (as secretary of defense under Bush) elected instead to punt it to the Obama administration.
One year later, Gates is once again ready to give this deal another try. Along with the Air Force now saying replacing the KC-135 tankers is its "No. 1 acquisition priority," Gates promised that the rules for the competition will be out shortly, and an award is expected sometime next year.
It may be a little early to begin handicapping the winners. But before we close today's column, let's at least review the teams: Assuming no one got traded since last season, Team Boeing will include Rockwell Collins (NYSE: COL ) , United Technologies (NYSE: UTX ) , and Honeywell (NYSE: HON ) . Going up against them will be the Euro-team, headlined by Northrop and EADS, but with supporting players General Electric (NYSE: GE ) and Honeywell (again).
As I noted last year, Boeing should be the odds-on favorite to win. (Just as it was last year when it didn't win.) Investors looking to hedge their bets, therefore, might be best advised to pick up shares of switch-hitter Honeywell. So long as it keeps a place in both lineups, it's the only guaranteed winner in this game.