"There are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter. I'm one that's inclined to believe that."
-- Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff

The last manned fighter, huh? So that's it -- Lockheed Martin wins, everybody else loses, end of story? Well, not quite. It's been several months since we last checked in on the UAV world, and as it turns out, quite a lot has been happening in the field. Seems to me, it's high time for an update on the fascinating story of flying robots ... that kill.

Where is the world is Osama bin Laden?
We begin today's column above the mountains of Northwestern Pakistan, where just a few short weeks ago, America's flying robot army helped prevent a massive "Mumbai-style" commando assault upon Europe's capital cities.

In September, CIA information on an impending al-Qaeda attack in Europe sent more than a score of unmanned aerial vehicles winging their way to Pakistan, where the ringleaders of the plot were hatching their nefarious plans. Not everyone's pleased with the result, of course. Howls of protest over violations of sovereignty abound. Yet if news reports are to believed, the UAV strikes prevented a reprise of the 2008 assault on Mumbai, India, which claimed the lives of 166 innocents in that city -- and this summer's planned attacks would have been carried out against multiple targets in London, Paris, and possibly Berlin.

France says: "Oui" want Predators, too
So ... whose UAVs were these, exactly, making the world "safe for Democracy?" Odds are they were Predator drones manufactured by General Dynamics (NYSE: GD) spinoff General Atomics -- and they're the most popular Christmas gift item since sliced croissants. Speaking of which, we recently learned that France wants to buy a few UAVs for its own use.

Spurred by the need for defense budget cuts, France and the U.K. said to be collaborating to develop a new UAV jointly -- but it won't be ready before 2030 at the earliest. The U.K. is building another UAV (the BAE "Mantis") in-house, but even that won't be ready for seven more years. Likewise, the EADS Talarion isn't expected to arrive before 2013 at the earliest. So to fill the gap, France wants to buy something "off the shelf" right now.

NATO recently opted to purchase eight Global Hawk UAVs from America's Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC). And the ongoing dispute between EADS and Boeing (NYSE: BA) over the KC-X Tanker project notwithstanding, France seems to be leaning toward GA's Predator for its own air force. (Winners if this deal goes through would include publicly traded United Technologies (NYSE: UTX) and Honeywell (NYSE: HON), both of which manufacture engines for the Predator.)

Unarmed UAVs? How quaint.
Why would the notoriously prickly over-defense-contracts French favor an American arms manufacturer with their largesse? One word: Necessity. Alternative systems are largely unproven, undeveloped, or out of its price range. In contrast, the Predator is a proven weapons platform (saving the Eiffel Tower from a possible terrorist attack this summer couldn't've hurt.) It's also cheaper than the EADS Talarion or Israeli Heron. Best of all -- it's got guns. Most unmanned aerial vehicles, don't you know. They're robotic spyplanes for the most part, only capable of shooting snapshots -- and yes, you know where I'm going with this.

Let's be honest here, Fools: One of the primary reasons we invest in defense stocks is because they're fun. They go "bang!" Blow stuff up. As P.J. O'Rourke once put it, describing the launch of a Tomahawk missile aboard-ship in the Persian Gulf: "The flip lid whips open, and for a moment you see ... something emerging in light and smoke ... a tower of blast and dazzle blanketing one bright, rising, white, fiery column ... This is the way to waste government money."

So un-armed spy planes? They're cool and all, I guess, but where's the "bang" for our investing bucks? Where's the "blast and dazzle?"

Guns 'r' U.S.
Hint: Ask Raytheon (NYSE: RTN). Recognizing that the biggest factor in keeping UAVs pacifistic is their small size, Raytheon's working up a series of small-ordnance solutions to the problem of arming tiny UAVs. Its new Griffin "precision-guided projectile," for example, masses just one-third the weight of the better known Hellfire missile that Predators commonly carry, but is still capable of getting the job done. Importantly, the Griffin rocket will be small enough to load onto a Textron (NYSE: TXT) Shadow UAV or Boeing ScanEagle.

With Griffin and its small-ordnance peers, Raytheon's in position to arm small UAV fleets the world over and widen the arms race in the UAV space. Today, only a very few nations boast UAVs capable of taking offensive action on their own. But already, ScanEagles and Shadows span the globe, landing sales competitions in Australia and Italy, Poland and Sweden, and even Pakistan itself.

Like it or not, this business is only going to get bigger. Because unlike the manned fighter jet, UAVs are here to stay.

Want to keep track of the major players in UAVs? Add any of the companies named above to your watchlist (or even, if you like, collect 'em all.)

General Dynamics is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection, but Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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