It's official. Raytheon's (NYSE:RTN) Miniature Air-Launched Decoy is a hit.

The MALD is ready for deployment -- and deployment in bulk. Photo: Raytheon.

A sort of hybrid between the concepts of "missile" and "drone," MALD exhibits characteristics of each. Like a missile, it's disposable. Launched toward a hostile ground force the MALD flies until it runs out of fuel, and then it's done. It cannot "return to base" and land. But MALD also performs drone functions, flying as far as 500 miles after launch and moving among 100 preprogrammed checkpoints, and all the while flying like, and broadcasting the electronic signatures of, full-sized military aircraft -- and capable of imitating anything from a fighter jet to a strategic bomber.

Its mission: Convince enemy radar operators that it is a full-sized military aircraft, so that enemy anti-aircraft crews will fire their missiles at the MALD and not at the real warplanes it's protecting.

Big news in May
In a press release in May, Raytheon proudly announced the delivery of its 1,000th "MALD" decoy drone to the U.S. Air Force -- a drone that Raytheon says it's flight tested 33 times over the past two years, with perfect, 100% success. Since that announcement, Raytheon's already delivered a sixth "Lot" of MALDs (of unspecified number) to USAF.

You can pack a lot of MALDs aboard just one carrier aircraft. Photo: Raytheon.

That's pretty impressive, especially when you consider that the U.S. Air Force currently only has about 800 F-16 fighter jets in its inventory. The most popular fighter jet in the world is also the most popular jet in the U.S. military. But already, "fake" planes -- Raytheon's MALD drones -- outnumber the real fighter jets in the Air Force.

And last month, the defense contractor accepted a seventh Air Force order for 200 radar-jamming variants of the decoy drone. Dubbed "MALD-J," for "jammer," these particular drones are tasked with giving opposing forces an especially hard time. Not only do they mimic the radar signatures and flight paths of illusory fighter jets, they also play havoc with enemy electronics, sowing confusion across the battlefield.

What it means to investors
So how big of a deal is this for investors?

With a sales price of $80.8 million for the 200 units ordered in June, inclusive of containers and support services, Raytheon appears to be pricing its decoy drones somewhere below $400,000 apiece. How much lower, exactly, is unclear. But what is clear is that a MALD-J is a heck of a lot cheaper than the $34 million price tag on a Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) F-16.

That low price is key for investors.

Remember MALD's mission? To fly into hostile airspace and try to get shot at. And then, whether it does or does not get shot down, to crash. Either way, every MALD that gets deployed in combat is a MALD that's never coming home again and must eventually be replaced, generating new sales and revenues -- and profits -- for Raytheon.

By my calculations, sales of MALD to the U.S. military must be approaching -- or even have rolled past -- the $500 million mark already. That's enough to move the needle even on a $23 billion-a-year business like Raytheon. And the launch-restock-launch again nature of the drone means MALD should be generating sales for Raytheon for years to come.

See MALD in (simulated) action in this YouTube video. Source: Raytheon.

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