Led by wartime President Vladimir Putin, Russia has shifted into full-speed arms race mode. Despite instituting widespread spending cuts throughout its economy, America's once-and-future adversary has announced plans to boost its military spending significantly, bringing online:
- A massive, 65-ton beast of a 21st-century supertank -- of which Russia plans to build 2,300
- $9 billion worth of high-tech drone aircraft
- 150 new combat aircraft and helicopters for Russia's Arctic forces
- 40 new and reactivated warships, including nuclear-powered attack submarines, a nuclear "boomer," and a refurbished missile cruiser dubbed the Admiral Nakhimov -- nuclear-powered, of course.
And now it's official. In addition to the 40 warships mentioned already, Russia is building a new aircraft carrier.
And this one's gonna be nuclear.
Soviet means "excellent!"
There's an old Russian saying, dating from the Soviet Union, that "Soviet means excellent." By building the world's largest aircraft carrier (scheduled to appear sometime in the 2030s), Russia will try to prove that point. Interfax quotes Russian Navy Deputy Commander Rear Adm. Viktor Bursuk boasting that Russia's new aircraft carrier "will be a versatile warship equipped with manned and unmanned aircraft systems and also robotic systems capable of operating in all possible environments, including outer space."
Russian-language website Chto Proishodit ("What's Happening?") further clarifies that the carrier will be the only one in the world capable of carrying 100 warplanes (America's new Gerald R. Ford-class carriers will carry up to 90). TVZvezda.ru reports the carrier's air wing will probably include next-generation T-50 stealth fighter jets in addition to MiG-29Ks, airborne early-warning aircraft such as U.S. carriers carry, and anti-submarine warfare Ka-32 helicopters. Despite the aircraft carrier's size, which makes it the world's largest, the website argues that it will sport only a small "island" topside, making it harder to spot on radar -- in other words, "stealthy."
And while Commander Bursuk says that Russia's new carrier "will significantly differ from heavy aircraft cruisers that our Navy used to have," the website further avers that it will carry "rocket weapons" in addition to aircraft. The title of TVZvezda's article: "The Nuclear Stealth-Monster."
So, give them points for poetry.
What it means to investors
For critics of U.S. military spending, and for investors who've wondered if the revenue streams of aircraft-carrier builders Huntington Ingalls (NYSE:HII) and General Dynamics (NYSE:GD) could survive a U.S. move away from aircraft carriers, this all makes for a curious change of pace.
After all, in recent years, a lot of defense strategists have wondered whether it's time for America to get out of the aircraft carrier business. (Over in Annapolis, they held a big debate on this just the other day. They called it the #CarrierDebate, and you can watch it right here). As I posted on Twitter, the key question to ask before we build anything costing $1 billion-plus is what purpose we're building it for.
Attempting to triangulate where the U.S. Navy might decide to go in the future, we've wondered aloud right here at The Motley Fool...
- Are mini-aircraft carriers the future?
- Could we build an underwater aircraft carrier instead?
- And will there be money in the budget to pay for any of these things?
But while we might be uncertain about the aircraft carrier's future, other countries seem to have their minds made up. It's not just Russia, you know. Japan, India, China, Korea, Thailand, Singapore -- they're all building aircraft carriers. A lot of aircraft carriers.
So, what does this mean for investors? Honestly, it could mean either of two things, both of them good for General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls.
If the U.S. Navy intends to stick with the past practice of owning more aircraft carriers, and bigger aircraft carriers, than every other nation on earth combined... well, that would obviously be a boon for our two biggest military shipbuilders. (Respectively, General Dynamics and Huntington get 24% and 100% of their revenues from military shipbuilding, according to S&P Capital IQ.) On the other hand, maintaining a big "aircraft carrier gap" in the face of so many navies building carriers is only going to get harder.
So, perhaps now that the rest of the world has decided to "zig" toward aircraft carriers, the U.S. Navy may prefer to "zag," investing its money in new technologies and cheaper carrier-killing warships, rather than in aircraft carriers themselves. This could mean more nuclear-powered submarines (which Huntington and General D both build). It could mean a new class of drone-carrying warships, either floating on the ocean's surface or beneath it.
As we've seen in past columns, military planners are pondering both possibilities -- as well as the option of continuing to build more and bigger supercarriers. Whichever way the carrier debate ultimately turns, though, and no matter how big our adversaries build their own carriers, one thing you can be certain of: Huntington Ingalls and General Dynamics will be there to build the U.S. Navy of the future.