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On Wednesday last week, the U.S. Army announced it has begun testing a fleet of blimps manufactured by Raytheon (NYSE: RTN ) . The blimps (termed "aerostats" to avoid any connotations of weight-ism) form the initial echelons of a $1.4 billion fleet the Army contracted Raytheon to build back in 2007.
But before you dismiss this news as cutting-edge 19th-century defense tech, consider: Measuring 242 feet in length, and flying at an altitude of just 10,000 feet, Raytheon's blimps may be low-altitude -- but they're most certainly hi-tech. Each blimp carries a battery of observation and communications gear from key partners TRW, Mercury Computer (Nasdaq: MRCY ) , and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) . And unlike their Civil War counterparts, these balloons are designed to stay aloft for up to a month at a time. Their mission: to keep an eye out for incoming cruise and ballistic missiles and hostile aircraft. But according to the Army, the aerostats may also be useful for providing "a bird's-eye view of threats" on the ground.
Most important to investors, the military believes that its new blimp fleet will be cheaper to operate than the gas-guzzling fighter-jets and other unmanned solutions manufactured by rocket jocks at Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC ) , Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT ) and Boeing (NYSE: BA ) -- and much, much cheaper than lofting a satellite into low-earth orbit. With $1.4 billion at stake for itself and its partners, Raytheon has good reason to prove them right about that.
Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth ...
Just in case its blimp hopes deflate, though, Raytheon has other ideas up its sleeve, to keep the revenue growth pumping. This morning, for example, the company announced an innovative technology leveraging its experience in microwave weaponry to -- get this -- help secure the global grape juice supply. Up in Canada, Raytheon's installed an experimental "microwave frost protection system" that blasts "low-level microwave radiant heat" across vineyards to "prevent frost damage to crops."
Whether the new system proves cost effective may be less important than whether the organic gurus at Whole Foods will be willing to buy irradiated raisins, of course. And I have to admit: Investing in blimps and pre-microwaved foodstuffs sounds a little weird coming from Raytheon.
Still, priced at just 12 times earnings (with free cash flow far in excess of reported earnings), paying a tidy 2.6% dividend, and pegged by Wall Street for sub-9% growth, Raytheon shares already look pretty attractive. If just one of Raytheon's new out-of-the-box projects should prove popular, it could easily tip these shares into "buy" territory.
Meanwhile, Raytheon's stock has just paced the market's returns over the past year. How do you tell a bargain stock from a value trap? Find out here.