Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Is Northrop Grumman Building a Super-Jet?

By Rich Smith - Feb 14, 2016 at 7:20AM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

Defense contractor kicks off the Super Bowl with an ad featuring a sixth-generation stealth fighter jet.

"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


Fighters fly through the sky -- through the magic of CGI. Image source: YouTube.

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.

Generation next
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.


Northrop thinks its new plane design is ready for a close-up. Image source: YouTube.

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.

Watch Northrop Grumman's commercial in its entirety on YouTube.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 241 out of more than 75,000 rated members.

The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Stocks Mentioned

Lockheed Martin Corporation Stock Quote
Lockheed Martin Corporation
LMT
$434.24 (1.26%) $5.39
Northrop Grumman Corporation Stock Quote
Northrop Grumman Corporation
NOC
$479.58 (1.97%) $9.27

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning analyst team.

Stock Advisor Returns
400%
 
S&P 500 Returns
128%

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 08/13/2022.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.