"Like the original Dreadnought it would make all competitors obsolete. That's precisely the sort of new thinking we must encourage."
Michael Fallon, UK Secretary of State for Defence

HMS Dreadnought, circa 1906. Image source: U.S. Navy Historical Center.

It's been more than 55 years since the British navy boasted a true "line of battle" ship. But now, the drought is ended. For the first time in decades, Britain is building a battleship.

Dubbed the "Dreadnought 2050," Britain's new battlewagon is the dreamchild of Startpoint, an organization attracting "the best teams in naval defence systems" to advise the British Ministry of Defence. Last year, the MoD tasked Startpoint with developing a new warship to carry the Royal Navy into midcentury. As Royal Navy Fleet Robotics Officer Commander Steve Prest explained: "'the Royal Navy challenged the defence industry to innovate ... to give it an operational edge."

Startpoint did that in spades.

Wargaming the future at Startpoint. Image source: Startpoint Group.

Introducing Dreadnought 2050
Here's UK Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon, listing just a few of Dreadnought 2050's capabilities:

  • "3-D printed drones," built onboard and launched from a stern "garage" to perform reconnaissance
  • "supercavitating" torpedoes capable of rocketing through the water at speeds up to 300 mph
  • an electromagnetic railgun with a range up to 120 miles
  • a laser cannon
  • a "holographic command table" in the Combat Information Center, running all the above

Even that is not all. Further reports indicate that Dreadnought will tout hypersonic missiles, and tow an airborne quadcopter drone to provide 360-degree surveillance for miles around. (Looking something like this.) The hull, constructed of acrylic composites and coated in graphene, will have windows that will be electrically "toggle-able" from translucent to transparent, for easy visibility closer-in. And being designed as a trimaran, and propelled by electric waterjets in its outriggers, Dreadnought will travel stealthily at speeds up to 50 knots -- as fast as or faster than America's own Littoral Combat Ships.

Now -- how will all that compare to existing warships in the here and now?

Dreadnought 2050, as envisioned by Startpoint. Image source: Startpoint Group.

Putting Dreadnought in context
According to Startpoint, Dreadnought 2050 will stretch about 510 feet in length, with a 120-foot beam. The new battleship would thus be twice the size of America's Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers. Yet this entire beast of a battleship will be run by a crew of as few as 50 sailors.

Indeed, accounting for the added girth of a trimaran design, Dreadnought could resemble America's new Zumwalt-classsuper-destroyers in size, with a displacement of anywhere from 15,000 to 22,000 tons. Charged "by the pound," this implies a likely cost of perhaps $5 billion and change per battleship. (The number will doubtless be higher by the time the ship enters service in 2050, after 35 years of inflation.)

How feasible is Dreadnought? And how profitable? (And for whom?)
Admittedly, $5 billion sounds like a lot. It's roughly one-ninth of Britain's annual defense budget -- for just one ship. On the other hand, Britain has committed to building several Successor-class nuclear submarines already, and by our calculations, each of those boats could cost as much as $9 billion each.

One thing's for certain: If Dreadnought does get built, it will mean a lot of money for a lot of contractors. Logically, the bulk of the work going into Dreadnought would be "prime contracted" out to local defense giants such as BAE Systems (OTC:BAES.Y). BAE also happens to be one of the leading companies in developing railguns for the U.S. Navy -- and so would likely fill that role for the British as well.

The U.S. NAVY'S NEW ELECTROMAGNETIC RAILGUN. But check out whose name is on it. Image SOURCE: U.S. NAVY.

Other companies working on the very cutting edge of modern military technology, however, are largely U.S. contractors -- Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), for example, both hard at work developing hypersonic missiles capable of traveling at Mach 5 or better, and Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC), currently building the world's biggest laser cannon.

Chances are, if Britain decides to proceed with building Dreadnought 2050, it will require American military know-how to make it work.

What this means to investors
At present, Dreadnought 2050 is still something between a concept and a blueprint -- and far from a complete product. Even generalizing from what little we do know about the warship, though, we can already begin identifying the likely players in its construction. Laser cannons, railguns, hypersonics, and... drones, drones, and still more drones -- these are the technologies to watch. And the companies making the most progress in developing these technologies -- those are the stocks to watch.

And it seems to me that if you want to invest in the potential of the Dreadnought 2050, then BAE, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are good places to start looking.

HMS Vanguard was the last battleship of the Royal Navy. But the next battleship will be even better. Image source: U.S. Navy.

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.