Fighter jocks get all the glory.
Last week, we introduced you to the 10 most popular fighter jets in the world -- and to the companies that build them and the stocks that profit from selling them.
Why focus on fighter jets? Mainly because everybody loves to read about them. Heck, everybody loves to go to movies about them. (Remember Tom Cruise grinning from the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat in Top Gun?) But believe it or not, a company's non-fighter jet products may be more rewarding for investors.
Take the C-130, for example. Since 1954, Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) has built and sold nearly 2,500 C-130 Hercules transports. At an average cost of $30 million per unit, each one generated nearly as much revenue for Lockheed as the $38 million F-14 did for its builder, Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC).
And Lockheed has sold three times as many C-130 Hercules transports as Northrop sold F-14s.
Lockheed Martin isn't the only company making big money selling glorified cargo jets to the military. To find out who else has mastered this trick, read on.
1. Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules -- List price: $30 million
Starting at the top, Lockheed's C-130 is hands down the most popular military aircraft (that isn't a fighter jet) on the planet. Today, 951 of these big birds are flying around the world -- 51 more than last year. According to Flightglobal Insight, the C-130 Hercules boasts a 22% global market share in military transports, which is more than three times the share of its closest rival.
2. Textron Beechcraft King Air -- List price: $7.5 million
Speaking of which, the C-130 Hercules' No. 2 rival is Beechcraft's King Air, the world's most popular small turboprop transport. Today, 295 of these aircraft are in service around the world, which is 25 more than last year. That gives Beechcraft (now owned by Textron (NYSE:TXT)) a 7% share of the global market.
3. Boeing C-17 Globemaster III -- List price: $329 million
Quickly rounding out America's top three military transport producers is Boeing (NYSE: BA) and its popular C-17 line of transports. Much bigger than Lockheed's C-130 Hercules, Boeing's C-17 "Globemaster" actually only masters 6% of the global market. But at $329 million per unit sold, the 263 C-17s currently in service around the world represent more than $86 billion in sales Boeing has accrued to date... and billions of dollars more in potential future revenues for parts, maintenance, and upgrades.
4. Airbus CN-235 -- List price: $34 million
Turning now to America's first serious rival in military aircraft -- that are not fighter jets -- our first challenger is European aerospace champion Airbus (NASDAQOTH:EADSY). Airbus calls its CN235 the world's "lowest cost tactical airlifter," a fact that's helped it win customers among the militaries of more than two dozen nations (and the U.S. Coast Guard, too). Together with the larger C295 model, 253 units of the plane are in service globally, giving this airframe a 6% market share.
5. Antonov An-26 Curl -- List price: $22 million
Russia's no slouch in the air transport department, either, and has several contenders on the top 10 list. First up is this An-26. Nearly three decades after it went out of production, 238 "Curls" remain in service (this figure includes the predecessor aircraft, the An-24 Coke). That's enough to give these turboprops 5% market share worldwide.
6. Ilyushin Il-76 -- List price: $30 million
The venerable Ilyushin Il-76 is nearly as popular. Russia's answer to the C-130 Hercules, and the workhorse of the mid-1970s Red Army, 176 Il-76s are still in service today (including four apparently returned to service over the past year). This gives the Il-76 a 4% global market share.
7. Antonov An-32 Cline -- List price: $15 million
Antonov's An-32 "Cline" and An-30 "Clank," (no, they didn't pick these names themselves -- NATO did it for them) were developed from the An-26 and An-24, respectively. They're said to be especially useful for their ability to take off in high-altitude environments, such as Afghanistan. Collectively, the aircraft number 139 around the globe, and command a 3% share of the military transports market.
8. Textron Cessna 208 Caravan -- List price: $1.6 million
Making its second appearance on this list, Textron offers another popular plane to foreign buyers in the form of its Cessna 208. According to deagel.com, Textron has built more than 2,000 of these planes since production began in 1985, most for civilian use. According to Flightglobal, 125 of them are in service with militaries around the world. Market share: 3%.
9. Transall Allianz C-160 -- List price: $24 million
Popular in Germany and France, which began building the planes back in the 1960s, 120 Transall C-160s are still flying today. This ties the plane with the An-32 and the Cessna 208 for 3% market share.
10. CASA C212 Aviocar -- List price: $5.2 million
Rounding out our list of the top 10 is the C-212 Aviocar, originally built by Spain's Construcciones Aeronáuticas SA and manufactured today by the Spanish branch of Airbus Military -- and also by Indonesian Aerospace, which builds the plane under license. Only 94 units of the twin-engine turboprop are still in military service, but they're widely dispersed among some three dozen national militaries around the globe -- and command a 2% global market share.
Why investors care about military aircraft -- even if they aren't super-cool fighter jets
If there are two key takeaways from all of the above that investors in the defense industry should focus on, they are these:
First, America builds the top three most popular military aircraft for transporting troops and cargo in the world. In fighter jets, and in combat helicopters, Russian companies claim at least one of the top three slots. But in military transports, American companies are absolutely dominant.
And second -- among these American companies, Lockheed Martin is far and away top of the heap. Its C-130 Hercules transports outsell the Textron's runner-up King Air by a 3-to-1 margin, and each C-130 sold brings in four times as much revenue for Lockheed.
Kick 'em while they're down (because that's the easiest time to kick 'em)
Little wonder, then, that Lockheed earns nearly 8% net profit margins on its revenues, while Textron ekes out a living on a 4.6% net (and third-place player Boeing barely breaks above 6%). As long as Lockheed retains pride of place at the top of this list, you can expect its C-130 franchise to continue aiding it in the profit margins race.
What's more, Lockheed has plans to parlay its C-130 Hercules dominance into even bigger sales, and profits, by marketing a civilian version of the big bird to air transport companies, air medevac services, oil companies, and even forest firefighters. Lockheed calls the new civilian version C-130 the "LM-100J." Initial estimates suggest the plane could add $5 billion in sales for Lockheed -- and probably at fat profit margins, given the scale of production already built out to supply the military C-130 Hercules market.
It's just one more reason we expect Lockheed Martin to remain a dominant player in the aerospace and defense market for years to come -- and one more reason to keep a close eye on who's who on the list of top sellers of military aircraft (even when they are not fighter jets).