America is building a new stealth bomber.
That much is clear from the Pentagon's contribution to President Obama's 2015 budget request to Congress. While cutting finding for such popular programs as the U-2 spyplane and A-10 Thunderbolt II, the Pentagon has confirmed that its request for $109.3 billion in funding will preserve funding needed to develop the long-anticipated Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB).
But what kind of bomber will it be?
A stealthy, high-tech, high-priced warplane ...
We know a few things about the planned LRSB. First, it won't look much like those B-26s pictured up above. Second, that two teams of planebuilders are expected to bid to build the new bomber. One team will center on Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC), builder of the B-2 Stealth Bomber. The other team will include a collaborative effort by Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT).
We know, too, that the Air Force expects to take about a decade to build the LRSB, with the first units of the plane not going into service until sometime in the mid-2020s.
And we know that the Air Force anticipates spending upwards of $55 billion to build the LRSB, and that it hopes to eventually acquire between 80 and 100 of the new bombers. The Air Force plans to spend about $550 million per plane (exclusive of R&D costs), and if it can get 100 planes at that price -- great. But if it can't, then it may have to accept fewer planes at higher price tags.
... but "stealth" plane in more ways than one
What we don't know is what, exactly, we will get for our money. The Air Force says it plans to issue a request for proposals to build the LRSB sometime this fall. Sources suggest USAF will want the LRSB to carry a "significant" payload of munitions, both direct-attack and stand-off weapons.
Ordinarily, this would mean bombs and missiles. But according to DefenseNews.com, the LSRB might be an even more interesting plane. There is at least a possibility that the new bomber could be fueled by alternative energy sources, such as jet fuel developed from algae. And it could be equipped with such hi-tech weaponry concepts as "hypersonic" missiles, and even "directed energy" weapons -- real, honest-to-goodness laser guns.
Probably the biggest revelation from DefenseNews.com, though, is the possibility that the Pentagon may pick a robot to pilot its highest-tech, long-range stealth bomber. Discussing plans for the LRSB at the annual Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., last month, Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, plans, and requirements Lt. Gen. Burton Field said that early models of the LRSB will be "manned" aircraft. But the Air Force is giving serious consideration to making the warbird optionally "unmanned."
Put more plainly, this $550 million warplane could morph into a remote-controlled drone.
What it means to you
For investors, this offhand comment by the general could prove key to predicting who wins the contract to build the Long Range Strike Bomber. Currently, two companies are generally recognized as leaders in field of drone aircraft.
The undisputed, heavyweight champion of the drone-building world is General Atomics, a pioneer in unmanned aerial vehicles, and the maker of the popular Predator and Reaper drones. GA, however, is not expected to bid on LRSB. (And even if it did, GA is privately owned, so not something you could invest in in any event.)
The other leader in drone tech is Northrop Grumman, which built the B-2 bomber, and builds the Global Hawk and X-47B carrier-launched combat drone today -- and Northrop is a publicly traded stock. Priced at a P/E ratio cheaper than those of either Boeing or Lockheed Martin, Northrop is arguably a better buy than its rivals already. Add its twin advantages in drone technology, and in B-2 bomber-building, and Northrop could become the favorite in the contest to build the new LRSB -- and a long-term winner for investors.