No, Mr. Gates is a clear talker and a straight shooter. And yesterday he hauled off and smacked Boeing (NYSE: BA ) upside the head with a hard frying pan full of reality: The F-35 is coming. Get used to it.
35 is greater than 18
In recent months, Boeing's been talking up a perceived problem with the handoff from every other U.S. fighter jet to Lockheed Martin's (NYSE: LMT ) jack-of-all-trades F-35 Lightning II. (And it's not the only one. Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) has been sniping from the sidelines as well.) Boeing warns that the U.S. Navy faces a critical shortage of fighter jets in the near future: As older jet models are phased out, hundreds of plane-slots on U.S. aircraft carriers will stand empty while we wait for Lockheed to produce the F-35s to fill 'em. With the first full training squadron not due to touch down until 2011, something must be done.
Boeing's solution: Buy Boeing F/A-18s to fill the gap.
Settle down, Boeing
Think twice, says Gates. In fact, the worst-case scenario is that in 2018, we will have a temporary shortfall of about 100 carrier-based aircraft while awaiting deliveries of the necessary F-35s. And even that may not be so bad. As Gates points out, the fifth-generation F-35 is more capable than the fourth-gen fighters it replaces, and won't need to "fill the gap" on a one-to-one basis. Additionally, as unmanned aerial vehicles take over more and more of the duties of piloted aircraft, the supposed "shortfall" could dwindle to as few as 40 planes -- fewer than one-half of one aircraft carrier's fixed wing complement.
So ... so much for Boeing's main argument. But it isn't all bad news for Boeing. For one thing, archrivals EADS and Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC ) seem intent on throwing the company the KC-X Tanker contract without a fight.
As a second consolation prize, Gates dispatched his aide-de-camp Admiral Mike Mullen to confirm the Navy's intention to purchase multiple Boeing EA-18G "Growlers." Over time, Growler revenues could rise to $6.4 billion in value, parceled out to Boeing and key subcontractors Raytheon (NYSE: RTN ) and General Electric (NYSE: GE ) .
Last but not least, Gates held out hope that a long-awaited next-gen bomber aircraft is still in the works. Although the plane per se won't arrive before "the late '20s," development funds could begin flowing as soon as next year, surging to $4 billion over the next five years.
And great news for Boeing: Now that the F/A-18 is off the table, it'll have a whole lot more free time to work on the bomber.