Why Is Poland Buying $1.2 Billion in Blimps from RTX Corp?

It's ba-a-ck!

If you lived on the East Coast in 2015, you probably remember the saga of Raytheon's wandering blimp. A few days before Halloween, a Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) air defense aerostat that Raytheon -- now RTX Corporation (NYSE: RTX) -- sold to the military broke loose from its moorings and began floating willy-nilly up and down the countryside before eventually being shot out of the sky by Pennsylvania State Troopers armed with shotguns.

It probably made for a fun story back at the police barracks, but it was a bit of a black eye for the Pentagon. The tether that had originally (but no longer) secured the blimp to its location, you see, followed the blimp like a hanging tail, taking out power lines along its route, causing about 18,000 homes to lose power, and rendering $2 million in damages to infrastructure.

However, not to be dissuaded by the negative press, it turns out that Poland now wants to buy some of these aerostats for itself.

Blimps over Poland

Last month, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency -- the Pentagon arm tasked with coordinating weapons sales to U.S. allies -- notified Congress that Poland wants to buy "Airspace and Surface Radar Reconnaissance (ASRR) aerostat systems" with "Airborne Early Warning (AEW) Radars" for its air defenses and will pay $1.2 billion for the privilege.

It's unclear from the notification precisely how many such systems Poland is ordering. But this arms sale's $1.2 billion price tag implies several blimps will be involved. In coverage of the 2015 fiasco, CBS News reported that a single JLENS blimp cost about $235 million.

It's also not 100% certain that the systems Poland wants to buy are part of the JLENS program, although RTX's leading role in the sale does imply that this is the system in question. RTX is named as one of the principal contractors on the project, along with privately held TCOM (which helped RTX develop JLENS), ELTA (a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence), and Avantus Federal (a subsidiary of Britain's QinetiQ).

JLENS would also be a logical and economical system for Poland to order. JLENS aerostats are uncrewed and require very little maintenance. Thus, RTX says a two-aerostat JLENS "orbit" can provide 24/7 aerial and ground overwatch over distances of more than 300 miles for about one-fifth the total cost of buying and operating a single AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System)-style airborne early warning airplane.

What it means for RTX Corporation

Within the JLENS system, RTX's role revolves around the provision of radars and other sensors mounted on the aerostat -- the eyes and ears of the system. And good news for investors: This happens to be RTX's single biggest business and its second-most profitable. According to data from S&P Global, the company's threat detection division, which now bears the old name of Raytheon within the RTX conglomerate, sales of this sort generate above-average 9% operating profit margins for the company.

Therefore, a $1.2 billion sale run through this division as revenues are parceled out to RTX's subcontractors can reasonably be expected to add about $108 million to RTX's operating profits -- about $0.08 per share.

Admittedly, that's not a huge number for a $120 billion defense giant like RTX. Last year, the company cleared just under $69 billion in revenue. This current aerostat contract, therefore, probably represents no more than about 1.7% of the company's annual revenue stream and 3.4% of annual profits. But as the saying goes, "every little bit helps."

As Europe looks for ways to balance the need to upgrade its defensive systems in the face of the Russian threat with the need to keep budgets under control, JLENS would appear to be a workable solution to both problems. Poland may be the first European nation to ask RTX to sell it some aerostats. It probably won't be the last.

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Rich Smith has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends RTX. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.


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