The U.S. Air Force wants hit the eject button on the A-10 Warthog and replace it with a modern fighter jet. In furtherance of that goal, USAF has tossed out every possible excuse you can imagine to get rid of America's No. 1 tank-busting aircraft. To date, the Air Force has proposed replacing the A-10 with:
- $100 million-plus F-35 stealth fighter jets from Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) -- whose guns don't shoot.
- Retasked Boeing (NYSE: BA) F-15 fighter jets, and Lockheed F-16s -- designed for air superiority roles but operated by pilots retrained and "dedicated" to a close-air support role.
- Textron's (NYSE: TXT) lightly armed but budget-priced Scorpion light attack fighter.
- And -- in the case of one at least U.S. ally -- by substituting a Brazilian-built prop-driven fighter named after the Froot Loops mascot.
In fact, about the only thing the U.S. Air Force hasn't yet proposed is replacing the A-10 Warthog with a robot.
So DARPA just went ahead and did that.
Domo arigato, Mr. A-10 Roboto
Earlier this month, DARPA -- the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- issued a brief report on its progress testing out a "full prototype" Persistent Close Air Support, or PCAS, system for deployment with the U.S. Marine Corps.
PCAS utilizes two elements:
- A ground-based tablet computer operated by joint terminal attack controllers, or JTACs, to communicate the location of friendly forces and call in airstrikes; and
- A "smart launcher electronics," or SLE, device carried by aerial surveillance and strike aircraft, to spot targets, stream video of their location to the ground, and launch attacks from the air.
Communication between the two devices is designed to ensure aircraft can provide accurate close-air support to troops -- firing on hostile forces in close proximity to friendly forces, without injuring the latter. In essence, the troops on the ground and the "shooter" in the air simultaneously see the same thing, speeding up the conversation between JTACs and supporting aircraft, and eliminating confusion when discussing a target that must be hit.
In the recently completed DARPA test run, dubbed "TALON REACH," JTACs used an Android-based Kinetic Integrated Low-cost SoftWare Integrated Tactical Combat Handheld, or KILSWITCH, tablet to call in an airstrike on a hypothetical hostile target. From 5 miles away, a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey then fired a Raytheon (NYSE: RTN) Griffin missile at the target, striking "exactly where directed," says DARPA. In so doing, it demonstrated the Osprey's ability to take out a target from a distance, accurately and without risk to the troops calling in the strike.
Other tests of PCAS have used unmanned Switchblade drones from AeroVironment (NASDAQ: AVAV) in the "PCAS-Air" role. Importantly, DARPA said that in future tests it intends to focus on "transitioning the system to unmanned platforms."
What it means to investors
What this all means for the Pentagon is pretty clear: If even an Osprey transport aircraft or an unmanned drone can be used for close-air support, then the need to send in piloted A-10 Warthogs into harm's way, flying "low-and-slow" to perform their mission, is lessened. As USMC Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis explained, going forward the objective is to "network every one of our aircraft" such that "every aircraft [will be] a sensor, every aircraft a connector, every aircraft an [electronic warfare] node, and every aircraft a shooter.
What's more, with JTACs both calling in and pinpointing their own airstrikes, the need for dedicated close-in support pilots will diminish. Indeed, if PCAS performs as promised, JTACs could get faster, more accurate support from the air, calling in airstrikes via their tablets, than even an A-10 Warthog could provide. In that case opposition to the Air Force's plan to retire the A-10 Warthog could diminish.
But what does this mean for investors?
Basically, it shakes up the air warfare game significantly, accelerating the switch to drones, whose lower weight and fuel requirements make them both cheaper and more "persistent" close-in support weapons than any piloted aircraft could ever be. Even more so than in years past, investors should focus on the companies that are leading the switch to drones -- players such as Northrop Grumman and AeroVironment, for instance -- and less on traditional piloted-warplane makers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
As the technology marches on, and is spurred on by DARPA, Boeing's and Lockheed's piloted products are looking more and more like the historical relic that the Air Force claims the A-10 Warthog to be.
Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of Raytheon. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 353 out of more than 75,000 rated members.
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