Raytheon Joins the UAV Race

Is it just me, or is Raytheon (NYSE: RTN  ) turning into the go-to guy for building all the coolest weapons systems?

Raytheon has come up with an innovative system for guarding our nation's airports against the threat of shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles.

It's also part of the team (which includes Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) , Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) , and Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC  ) ) building the Air Force's new airborne laser.

And further living up to its name, Raytheon makes the Active Denial System -- like TASER (Nasdaq: TASR  ) with a vengeance -- which microwaves bad guys from half a kilometer away. (Actually, it "millimeter-waves" them and does so without killing them.) 

This week, Raytheon added further to its innovator cred with the announcement that the U.S. Air Force has hired it to "develop, integrate and test" a new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). It is called the MALD-J, short for "Miniature Air-Launched Decoy," the "J" refers to the fact that this missile will not only mimic U.S. aircraft when detected by enemy radar, but jam those radars as well.

Originally conceived of as a cheap, disposable decoy missile (called the ADM-160 and developed by Northrop), the MALD-J is a much more advanced toy, capable of carrying a preprogrammed flight path, being reprogrammed in flight, and traveling 500 miles. For its work on the program, Raytheon will receive as much as $80 million over two years. Raytheon could earn even more once the MALD-J goes into production in 2011. (If successful, I have little doubt it will be picked up.)

Still to come
One question that remains unanswered, and that may be decided over the course of the MALD-J's development, is whether the device will more resemble a missile or a UAV.

The former would be more lucrative, as missiles are "consumable" products, destroyed with each use and so having to be replaced. The latter -- the reusable UAV route -- would be cooler. It also would cement Raytheon's place in the growing field of companies (all those named above other than TASER, plus others like Honeywell (NYSE: HON  ) and Textron (NYSE: TXT  ) ) building the unmanned air force of the future.

For more on the great UAV race, read:

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