Ever since 9/11, Washington, D.C., has feared the threat from unidentified low-flying objects -- be they cruise missiles, drones, or airplanes.
To keep such threats at bay, in 2014, the Department of Defense hired Raytheon (NYSE:RTN) to float a pair of 240-foot aerostats (see above) over the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. There, from a perch 2 miles high in the sky, these high-tech blimps would employ powerful radars to seek out dangerous flying objects 340 miles in every direction.
Needing no fuel to stay aloft, nor pilots needing sleep on board (all functions are monitored from a ground station), each of Raytheon's Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) aerostats would be able to remain on-post for 30 days at a time. At end of watch, they would be reeled back in to their ground stations, have their helium supplies topped off, and then immediately be returned to service.
In theory, the setup was designed to provide AWACS-level aerial surveillance over Washington, D.C., and its surroundings, and for a cost just one-fifth what it would cost to maintain round-the-clock airborne AWACS coverage.
Theory and practice
In practice, JLENS received a big black eye last November, when one of the aerostats broke loose from its tether and led federal officials a merry chase across two states. Dragging more than a mile's worth of heavy cable behind it and knocking down power lines all along its route, JLENS was finally brought to earth by multiple shotgun blasts from Pennsylvania state troopers -- but not before causing an estimated $2 million in damage.
And it turns out, that's not the only damage JLENS's escapade caused.
Legislative trial balloons
With its operations suspended post-incident, and at risk of total cancellation, JLENS briefly received a lifeline from the Obama administration in February. The president's 2017 draft defense budget requested $45.5 million in funding to keep JLENS flying.
But that idea went over like a lead balloon in Congress. Committee after committee working on the budget recommended committing only enough money to JLENS to pay for winding down the program and closing it out. At last report, neither the version of the defense budget passed by the House of Representatives nor the Senate's version contained any mention of further funding for JLENS.
While a story that ran on DefenseNews.com last week suggests the Army still believes that "something JLENS-like is the only solution" to providing over-the-horizon surveillance of low-flying threats, it doesn't appear that JLENS per se will be that solution.
Until someone comes up with a better idea, therefore -- and funds it -- Washington may remain effectively blind to the cruise missile threat.
What it means to investors
That sounds like bad news for whoever inherits the White House in January. It's not great news for Raytheon, either.
You see, if JLENS were renewed, Raytheon wouldn't have gotten just the $45 million the Obama administration proposed. Continued funding of a three-year trial run of JLENS could have set the stage for additional years of funding once the system proved effective. It probably would have led, too, to additional purchases of JLENS systems for use in other locations.
Long-term projections suggested that eventually, as many as 16 paired JLENS systems might have been built. Exclusive of sales cost, just maintaining and operating all those blimps could have provided somewhere in the neighborhood of $900 million in annual revenues for Raytheon. Now that the system is finally and conclusively dead, however, so, too, is any chance Raytheon will collect those revenues.
Long story short: Analysts who follow Raytheon have been predicting long-term earnings growth of 8.7% for the stock, and it seems likely that JLENS factored into those expectations. With JLENS gone, you should expect estimates of Raytheon's long-term growth rate to take a hit.
Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of Raytheon. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 278 out of more than 75,000 rated members.
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