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Boeing's F/A-18, Marked for Death, Gets a New Lease on Life

By Rich Smith - May 29, 2016 at 8:13AM

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Congress stepped in to offer some funding, and Boeing thinks (or hopes) there's more where that came from.

Boeing's (BA -1.98%) iconic F/A-18 fighter jet is back from the dead.

Image source: Boeing.

As recently as a couple of years ago, analysts were forecasting the imminent closing of Boeing's F/A-18 production line in St. Louis -- and not just analysts. At the time, even Boeing's own Defense, Space & Security head, Chris Chadwick, was quoted lamenting that Boeing had "to face reality," and predicting that the company was only months away from being forced to decide whether it should shut down F/A-18 production or keep the lines open in hopes new orders would magically materialize. Ultimately, Boeing decided to keep production running -- and good for them.

Because it turns out the F/A-18 just might have a future after all.

Earth Wars IV: A New Hope

Last year, Congress saved Boeing's bacon when it added $1.1 billion to the Navy's fiscal 2016 budget to fund purchases of five F/A-18 Super Hornets and seven EA-18G Growlers (an electronic warfare derivation of the F/A-18 built in cooperation with Northrop Grumman). Additional funding for as many as 16 new F/A-18s for the Navy is also possible through 2018, and currently under consideration by Congress.

Meanwhile, the company is doing all it can to keep the production line alive, even slowing production to just two airplanes per month to stretch out what little backlog remains until a bigger order can be won.

Where will that come from? Well, Boeing still entertains (increasingly fragile) hopes of selling F/A-18 fighters to Kuwait, as well as F-15s to Qatar. But Boeing's Great Blue Hope is still the U.S. Navy, and its multibillion-dollar annual acquisitions budget.

Earlier this year, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told Congress that he needs to buy two or three squadrons (24 to 36 planes total) of new F/A-18 fighters to plug a gap in his carrier air wings created by slow delivery of F-35C stealth fighter jets from Lockheed Martin (LMT 0.05%).

And taking a cue from the admiral, Boeing itself is going even further. According to F/A-18 program manager and Boeing vice president Dan Gillian, the Navy actually needs closer to 100 new fighter jets to bring its carrier air wings up to full strength. If Lockheed Martin can't supply F-35Cs fast enough to fill this gap, Boeing would be more than happy to build F/A-18s for the purpose.

What's this mean for investors?

"Based on the demand signals we see today," Gillian told Reuters in February, "I'm confident that we'll be building F/A-18s into the 2020s." That's a much more optimistic tone than we heard from Chadwick just two years ago, when Boeing was penciling in a 2017 shutdown date for F/A-18 production. But what does it mean in dollars and cents?

Well, I'm not sure how much faith I'd place in the Navy giving Boeing all the business the company is hoping for. But if the Navy were to order up another 100 Super Hornets, then at an average flyaway cost of $65.3 million per plane (according to BGA-Aeroweb), we'd be talking about an additional $6.5 billion in business for Boeing (plus additional revenue for servicing the aircraft). At the 9.8% pre-tax profit margin Boeing is currently earning in its Military Aircraft division, that would amount to at least $640 million in bottom-line profit for the company -- and $1 a share in extra profit for every Boeing shareholder.

It probably won't happen, but an investor can still hope.

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