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"There are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter. I'm … inclined to believe that." -- Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff
It's been a couple years since Admiral Mullen declared Boeing's (NYSE: BA ) fighter-building days ended. The JSF -- aka the F-35 Lightning II -- is Lockheed Martin's (NYSE: LMT ) baby, so its coronation as our "last" fighter jet implies Boeing will never get a chance to sell another warplane. Don't believe it. The more we learn about the F-35's performance, the less I think we can count Boeing out.
"Just as good as an F/A-18"
The F-35's "B" variant is currently undergoing flight tests with the Marine Corps. DefenseNews.com gives us a progress report: "There are some subtle differences in maximum turn rates and some slight differences in where corner airspeeds are exactly [the same]." But overall, the F-35 bears a close resemblance to the F/A-18 Hornet. Quite similar in all but two respects:
First, price. Long-term, the Pentagon hopes to bring the average cost of a generic F-35 down to $80 million per plane, but flyaway costs on the F-35B are running $150 million apiece today. As I pointed out last year, Boeing's price concessions are likely to squeeze profits at the aerospace giant. But these sacrifices may be worth it.
The reason is our second point: Stealth. If Lockheed's F-35 basically duplicates the F/A-18 Hornet … why does it cost more than three times as much? The obvious answer is that the F-35 pairs F/A-18 aerodynamics with F-117 stealth capabilities. It's a much more "survivable" airplane. But does every plane in the Air Force, Navy, and Marines really need to be stealthy? When most of these planes are bombing caves and strafing pirates, in countries where the most serious anti-aircraft threat is an AK-47 pointed at the sky?
Seems a bit overkill. Seems a bit expensive for a military that's being asked to cut $1 trillion from its budget. And it seems to me this gives Boeing an opening to sell a few F/A-18s. After all, in some respects, they're "just as good" as the F-35...
Will Pentagon budget cuts give Boeing an opening here? Add the stock to your Fool Watchlist and find out.