"There are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter. I'm one that's inclined to believe that."
-- Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff
"The solution to future threats is not something that has a pilot in it."
-- U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
Ah, but who will build this elusive "solution to future threats?" That's the question that bedevils investors. Will it be UAV pioneer and Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation AeroVironment (Nasdaq: AVAV ) ? (Unlikely. The company's mysterious Switchblade UAV might be capable of taking out a child's kite in-flight, but I doubt it stand much chance of catching a MiG.) Or how about Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC ) or United Technologies (NYSE: UTX ) ? (Better luck there. But to be honest, I'm more interested in their prospects building robotic helicopters than fighter jets.)
No, it seems the company that's taken the single greatest lead in unmanned airpower dominance -- at least for now -- is Boeing (NYSE: BA ) . Because after months of hemming and hawing, the U.S. Navy last week chose Boeing to build its hottest new UAV for use on-board ships: the small, tactical, unmanned aircraft system (or "STUAS/Tier II" in Pentagon Scrabble-speak.)
According to reports, Boeing has been awarded two low-rate initial production (LRIP) contracts to build one "Integrator" STUAS system each for the Navy, and for the Marine Corps. Losers in the Navy's decision include rival bidders Raytheon, Textron (NYSE: TXT ) , and General Dynamics. Winners include Boeing subcontractors L-3 Communications (NYSE: LLL ) , which is developing the Integrator's digital data link, and Harris Corp (NYSE: HRS ) , which is doing the comms package.
Now begins a 24-month marathon of engineering, manufacturing and development work as Boeing and its partners attempt to get the Integrator ready for primetime. At the end of it all, according to the analysts, could be a payoff of as much as $450 million on the project.
But if I might make a small, Foolish request? Perhaps given 24 months to work with, Boeing can come up with a better name for its new bird? I mean, seriously, "Integrator" is a name only an engineer could love. Taxpayers deserve something more for their money -- or at least more poetic.
Suggestions, anyone? Drop 'em in the comments section below.