Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock ...

The clock's ticking down to the final minutes on the Pentagon's multibillion-dollar purchase of an estimated 5,200 all-terrain armored vehicles for the war in Afghanistan. And with as much as $12 billion on the line, investors are humming the old Carly Simon tune (as popularized by the Heinz ketchup commercials): "Anticipation, anticipation ... why's the Pentagon making me wait?!"

Once again, the contestants are:

  • Force Protection (NASDAQ:FRPT) -- a small-cap defense contractor that was once recommended by the Fool's own Motley Fool Rule Breakers team.
  • General Dynamics (NYSE:GD) -- Defense contracting heavyweight, and one half of the team that is "Force Dynamics."
  • Navistar (NYSE:NAV) -- you loved the trucks, now try the armored vehicles.
  • Oshkosh (NYSE:OSK) -- fresh off its accounting disaster of '08, and looking to rebound.
  • And last but the opposite of least, Britain's BAE Systems, which managed the neat trick of getting two bids submitted to the MRAP-Lite competition.

Who will win?
No one knows. Collins Stewart, a longtime follower of the industry, believes Force Protection and BAE are the odds-on favorites. But the truth is that we're not entirely sure when this contract will even be awarded. Maybe as early as tomorrow ... and maybe not.

The bigger question, though, is whether anyone will win at all. We all remember the legal wrangling that derailed efforts to award an Air Force Tanker contract to first Boeing (NYSE:BA), then Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) -- efforts that to date have resulted in no awards to anybody. More recently, the ink was hardly dry on the Pentagon's narrowed list of vendors competing for the multibillion-dollar contract to build America's Next Top Humvee before losing bidders like Textron (NYSE:TXT) cried foul and filed lawsuits.

First thing we do, let's ... appease all the lawyers
Although it's fumbled the ball many times before, market pundits wonder whether the Pentagon might have finally wised up. Rumors are already circulating that while the Pentagon still intends to choose a single M-ATV design, it will order the winning bidder to subcontract part of the work out to one or more of the losers.

Thus, the Pentagon would reap the efficiencies of producing just one type of armored car -- interchangeable parts regardless of who builds it, ease of training the mechanics, and so on -- while at the same time minimizing litigation risk. As a fringe benefit, increasing the number of people building the M-ATV would accelerate delivery of the vehicles to the front.

Foolish takeaway
Does that mean lower potential profits for "the winner's" shareholders? Maybe. But like the man said: "A bird in the hand is worth two arguing it out in court."

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