Photo: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin (LMT 0.22%) has an F-35 stealth fighter jet -- but can it shoot? We posed this question last month, in the midst of a "he said-she said" battle waged between the Pentagon's F-35 Joint Project Office and ... The Daily Beast, which alleges the Pentagon is misleading taxpayers (and Congress) about when the F-35's 25mm nose cannon will be ready for combat. 

Says the Pentagon, development of "3F" software needed to operate the gun is on track, and should begin rolling out by 2017. According to the Beast, though, the software is behind schedule and won't reach combat pilots before "late 2018 at the very earliest." As a result, F-35 pilots must go into combat without guns for at least the next three years, before the software becomes operational.

Bad as all this sounds, though, it could be the least of Lockheed Martin's problems.

Lockheed's got 35 problems, and the gun's just one
Bloomberg is now saying that Pentagon director of combat testing Michael Gilmore recently warned Congress of "serious deficiencies" in the F-35 stealth fighter -- deficiencies over and above those related to the gun. Already over budget and overdue for deployment, Gilmore says the F-35 still has only limited ability to:

  • drop bombs
  • share data with other aircraft
  • track hostile incoming missiles
  • identify enemy radar
  • and, in general, perform "effective combat operations against advanced enemy air defenses"

His understated assessment: This plane has "deficiencies remaining that will affect operational units." 

What it means to investors
Here at The Motley Fool, we've been following the story of Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ever since the company won the contract back in 2001. Like you, we love reading about this stuff. But what's even more important to us is figuring out how the twists and turns of the F-35 saga will affect investors' portfolios.

So ... just how important is the F-35 to Lockheed Martin? Well, it breaks down like this:

Most published analyses of the F-35 program cite the figure "$398.6 billion." As in, Congress is currently planning to spend about $398.6 billion to buy close to 2,500 F-35s for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps over a 60-year program duration. (The Pentagon has already acquired more than 115 of the warbirds, ordered 38 of them in 2014, and plans to order a further 57 in fiscal 2016. And all of this is before the company even begins "full-rate production" of the aircraft.)

With each passing month, more and more F-35s take to the air. Photo: Lockheed Martin

In fact, though, once you add in the cost of buying spare parts for the planes, and of servicing and maintaining them over the course of a 60-year lifetime for the program -- plus the revenue coming in from anticipated F-35 sales and services contracts to U.S. allies worldwide -- the F-35 program could easily surmount $1.3 trillion in total, worldwide value.

That means that presently, F-35 sales that represent 17% of Lockheed Martin's annual revenue stream could rise to nearly 50% of the company's annual sales over time. (Especially if we assume that revenues from sales of F-16 fighter jets, for example, will shrink as that plane is phased out in favor of the F-35.)

All of this assumes, of course, that Lockheed can get its quality control fixed in time to meet the Pentagon's deadline for deciding on whether to begin full-rate production of the aircraft. At last report, this decision is scheduled to take place in April 2019. Coincidentally, that's the same year The Daily Beast says the 3F software will finally be able to fire its gun in combat.

The upshot for investors: 2019 may sound something years away and not worth worrying about today. But with the Pentagon's decision looming, and the fate of the entire F-35 program -- and hundreds of billions of dollars of future revenues -- on the line, Lockheed Martin is cutting things uncomfortably close.

Lockheed Martin's can perform acrobatics -- and may need to if it's to navigate the Congressional budget process. Photo: Wikimedia Commons