"There are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter. I'm one that's inclined to believe that."
-- Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff
"[The F-35] almost certainly will be the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly."
-- Ray Mabus, current Secretary of the Navy
For years, U.S. military top brass has insisted that once Lockheed Martin (LMT 1.26%) finishes building its F-35 fighter jet, American air power will be all drones, all the time. But it seems somebody forgot to send Northrop Grumman (NOC 1.97%) that memo.
Heedless of the Pentagon's plans to put fighter pilots out to pasture, Northrop joined the crowd of companies anteing up an estimated $5 million each to run 30-second ads during Super Bowl 50. The ad, which began running online days before the main event aired, features a selection of some of Northrop Grumman's most cutting edge military aircraft -- the X-47B carrier-borne stealth drone for example, the B-2 stealth bomber, and finally, about 10 seconds in, flying in formation across the screen, a trio of CGI fighter jets...that haven't been invented yet.
These, according to those who've seen the ad, represent Northrop's latest project: a sixth-generation fighter jet.
Although many people at the Pentagon think that Lockheed Martin's F-35 will be the nation's last piloted fighter jet, both the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy already have programs in the works to build a successor to the fifth generation F-35 -- dubbed respectively "F-X" and "F/A-XX". Neither program is very far advanced yet. Indeed, neither program is expected to produce any actual product whatsoever before 2030 at the earliest. But already, Northrop is thinking ahead about what such a sixth generation fighter jet might look like.
So what will it look like? There's only so much an investor can glean from a 30-second promotional video, but here's what we think we know after watching Northrop's ad multiple times, with multiple freeze frames to consider the new plane closely. First and foremost, what we saw is that Northrop's candidate for a sixth-generation fighter jet clearly has a pilot occupying a cockpit above the plane's nosecone. (So put Northrop in the "fighter jets still need pilots" camp.)
As for the plane itself, it appears to emphasize stealth. Sleekly designed to minimize its radar silhouette, Northrop's putative plane carries no external armaments or fuel tanks, keeping its radar signature to a minimum. What weapons it does carry appear to be contained in two internal bomb bays located on the plane's belly -- probably with room for two missiles each. Rumors that Northrop's plane will rely heavily on laser weaponry in air-to-air engagements may or may not be correct. In any case, there's nothing on the plane's chassis that screams "laser gun."
Mobility-wise, Northrop's sixth-generation fighter is designed as an elongated flying wing -- an airborne isosceles triangle, sans tailfins. In contrast to the F-35, which has been criticized for being underpowered and vulnerable to loss of power in one engine (in that it only has one engine), Northrop's design features two engines, both tucked into the rear and partially masked from below by the aircrafts fuselage -- again, a stealthy design.
Finally, in an overt nod to the Navy and its F/A-XX project, Northrop's CGI simulation shows its future plane swooping down to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier. This suggests that the company will try to get the most bang for its development bucks, by marketing the plane to both the Air Force and the Navy.
What it means to investors
Lockheed Martin has placed a big bet on its F-35 being the fighter jet to end all fighter jets. After beating Boeing in the competition to build it back in 2001, Lockheed has worked tirelessly to debug the aircraft, and ramp production from "low-rate initial production" speeds toward "full-rate production."
Ultimately, once mass production kicks in and F-35s start flying off the shelves, Lockheed hopes to rake in as much as $1.5 trillion over the anticipated 60-year lifespan of the F-35 program, including everything from producing the plane to maintaining and upgrading it. Over time, the F-35 could come to account for as much as half the money Lockheed makes in a year.
Of course, if Northrop Grumman can come up with a better airplane, and offer it to the Pentagon before the F-35 program becomes too big to fail, all bets could be off for Lockheed -- and it just might be time to bet on Northrop Grumman instead.