Dividend investing is a tried-and-true strategy for generating strong, steady returns in economies both good and bad. But as corporate America's slew of dividend cuts and suspensions over the past few years has demonstrated, it's not enough simply to buy a high yield. You also need to make sure those payouts are sustainable.

Let's examine how L-3 Communications (NYSE: LLL) stacks up in four critical areas to determine whether it's a dividend dynamo or a disaster in the making.

1. Yield
First and foremost, dividend investors like a large yield. But if a yield gets too high, it may reflect investors' doubts about the payout's sustainability. If investors had confidence in the stock, they'd be buying it, driving up the share price and shrinking the yield.

L3 yields 2.2% -- moderate, and certainly not cause for alarm.

2. Payout ratio
The payout ratio might be the most important metric for judging dividend sustainability. It compares the amount of money a company pays out in dividends to the amount it generates. A ratio that's too high -- say, greater than 80% of earnings -- indicates that the company may be stretching to make payouts it can't afford.

L-3's payout ratio is a conservative 20%.

3. Balance sheet
The best dividend payers have the financial fortitude to fund growth and respond to whatever the economy and competitors throw at them. The interest coverage ratio indicates whether a company is having trouble meeting its interest payments -- any ratio less than five is a warning sign. Meanwhile, the debt-to-equity ratio is a good measure of a company's total debt burden.

L-3 has a debt-to-equity ratio of 60% and an interest coverage ratio of 6 times.

4. Growth
A large dividend is nice; a large growing dividend is even better. To support a growing dividend, we also want to see earnings growth.

Let's examine how L-3 stacks up next to its peers:

Company

5-Year Earnings-Per-Share Growth

5-Year Dividend Per Share Growth

L-3 Communications

13%

24%

Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT)

10%

20%

Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC)

13%

13%

ITT (NYSE: ITT)

5%

21%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Over the past three years, L-3 has grown about in-line with its peers.

The Foolish bottom line
L-3 exhibits a more-or-less clean dividend bill of health. Its low payout ratio should be an important buffer in case defense spending declines.

To stay up-to-speed on the top news and analysis on L-3 Communications, or any other stock, simply click here to add it to your stock watchlist. If you don't have one yet, you can create a watchlist of your favorite stocks by clicking here.

Ilan Moscovitz doesn't own shares of any company mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter @TMFDada. The Motley Fool owns shares of Northrop Grumman, L-3 Communications Holdings, and Lockheed Martin. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of L-3 Communications Holdings. 

Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.