Within the American aerospace and defense industry, few companies have reputations as storied as that of airplane manufacturer Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC).

During World War II, thousands of Grumman F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat fighter planes helped to win the War in the Pacific for the United States. The Hellcat in particular claimed 5,223 "kills" during the war, more than any other Allied carrier-based fighter plane. On the other side of the company, Northrop's P-61 Black Widow demonstrated just how innovative the defense company could be when it tried -- being the first aircraft specifically designed to carry a radar system that could be used to intercept enemy aircraft at nighttime.

U.S. Navy Grumman Hellcats. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Northrop Grumman doesn't make many fighter planes anymore, of course. But what it does make may be even better -- and may turn Northrop Grumman stock into the defense stock to own in the 21st century. Today, we're going to take a look at three Northrop Grumman products (two actual, and one potential), and tell you why together, they make for three great reasons why Northrop Grumman stock might rise.

X-47B: The future of fighter jets

This one is possibly Northrop Grumman's hottest commodity right now. For years, Air Force Predator and Reaper drone aircraft have been buzzing over Iraq and Afghanistan, sending back video feeds of their observations to troops on the ground, and raining down Hellfire missiles from the sky. To date, however, Navy warfighters have been largely bereft of combat-capable drone aircraft, making do largely with unarmed ScanEagles and Fire Scouts. That could soon change, however.

Over the past couple years, the U.S. Navy has been working with Northrop Grumman to develop a new class of unmanned aerial vehicle. Remotely controllable, able to take off from and land on aircraft carriers, and capable of carrying weapons as well, the drones are designated UCAS (unmanned combat air system). The most likely candidate to fulfill this role going forward is Northrop's own X-47B, which made its first successful launch and landing last year, and has been undergoing further flight testing since.

Northrop won its most recent UCAS contract for the X-47B in June of this year, providing funding for tests through March 2015. As we've seen in the past, though, the Navy is very eager to develop its own blue water drone program. Assuming initial results remain as promising as what we've seen so far, orders for Northrop's X-47B could begin flowing in even before testing is complete.

Fire Scout

That's not to say that the Navy is only interested in killer robots. Fact is, they're pretty impressed with the capabilities of Northrop Grumman's (unarmed) Fire Scout drone as well. 

Derived from a modified Sikorsky 333 helicopter, and now undergoing testing built with a Bell 407 chassis, the robotic Fire Scout is a vertical takeoff and landing UAV -- which gives it additional capability that even the X-47B will lack, in that it can be based on ships (such as an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer or Littoral Combat Ship) which lack flight decks.

Already, the Navy has purchased 28 MQ-8B Gen 2 Fire Scouts from Northrop, in addition to seven ordered by the U.S. Army. 19 MQ-8C Gen 3 Fire Scouts (based on the Bell 407) are now on order, with two already undergoing flight testing. Inclusive of development costs and an $18 million estimated purchase cost, this means the Fire Scout has already become -- or is just about to cross the line into becoming -- a billion-dollar program for Northrop Grumman.

And it means that as of today, Northrop Grumman's Fire Scout absolutely dominates the market for full-size robotic helicopter-like UAVs.

Northrop's $55 billion opportunity

Although it's probably the leading publicly traded producer of unmanned aerial systems, Northrop Grumman isn't entirely a drone play. In fact, the company has a whole series of legacy piloted war planes that it's still producing and maintaining -- everything from EA-6B Prowler and EA-6G Growler electronic warfare aircraft to E-2D Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft.

Our third reason to think that Northrop Grumman stock might go up, though, involves a piloted airplane that Northrop isn't yet producing.

One version of what the Long Range Strike Bomber might look like. Source: Source: Northrop Grumman

Namely: the Long Range Strike Bomber, aka the "B-3" (so named because it would be the third strategic bomber in a family that includes the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber -- also built by Northrop).

The U.S. Air Force is currently taking bids to build the new Strike Bomber. At an estimated $550 million per copy, and a planned Air Force buy of between 80 and 100 units, this is a contract that could easily net $55 billion in revenue for the winner.

Northrop isn't a lock to win, mind you. To the contrary, it faces strong competition from rivals Boeing and Lockheed Martin, who have teamed up to try to win the work. But as I argued earlier this year, the Pentagon has hinted that it may want to make the B-3 an "optionally piloted" vehicle -- an aircraft that can carry a flight crew, but that can also be flown remotely. In that case, Northrop Grumman's strong track record in unmanned aerial vehicles (plus its position as incumbent builder of the B-2) could well give it the edge to win the contract.

Is the mere possibility that Northrop Grumman will win the B-3 contract a guarantee that the stock will go up? No. But is it a reason to think that Northrop Grumman stock might rise -- especially as the 2015 deadline for the contract's award approaches, and even more especially if Northrop Grumman wins the work? Definitely.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.