We've all heard the rumors. Lockheed Martin's (NYSE: LMT ) new fighter jet is a boondoggle. The engine United Tech (NYSE: UTX ) designed isn't as good as might be hoped, and an alternative engine from General Electric (NYSE: GE ) is having trouble getting out of committee. The F-35 isn't all that much better a dogfighter than the F/A-18. To top it all off, at a reported $1 trillion price tag, some say the F-35 costs too much.
But there's a plus-side to all Lockheed's troubles … for Boeing (NYSE: BA ) . Yesterday, Lockheed's nemesis began making noises about how foreign fighter jet purchasers are growing disenchanted with the F-35, and expressing interest in buying Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet instead. Supposedly, buyers from Southeast Asia all the way to the Middle East are queuing up to place F/A-18 orders, and turning up noses at the F-35.
Don't believe it. From where I sit, it sounds like Boeing is "talking its book." It's trying to create positive buzz on the Hornet, in hopes of convincing buyers that "everyone else" is buying it -- so they should, too.
An intriguing idea
Oh, I'll admit the idea has some merit. After all, the U.S. government is buying F/A-18s to "fill the gap" in its combat air patrol. I've argued for years that Boeing will continue making similar sales to budget-minded foreign air forces as well. It's not out of the fighter jet business yet.
But consider: Given their druthers, do you really believe foreign buyers prefer the F/A-18 over the F-35? In the Mideast, Israel is buying as many of the latter as it can get its hands on. I can't imagine that Arab governments in the neighborhood relish the idea of bringing a fourth-generation knife to a fourth-generation gunfight. In Asia, China's well on its way to building a home-grown stealth fighter jet, and what Japan would really like is to buy itself a few F-22 stealth fighters. If that's not possible, I expect they'll be willing to trade down to the F-35 -- but not go back one whole generation and load up on F/A-18s.
I'll bet most countries in the neighborhood think similarly. My read on Boeing's announcement: Until it backs up its words with a few honest-to-goodness international sales contracts, this is mere sales puffery. As for the F-35: It remains the key reason for owning Lockheed today, and the basis of Lockheed's multidecade growth story.
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