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EARNINGS PREVIEW: US Defense Cos' 1Q Clouded By Uncertainty

By Tess Stynes Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES TAKING THE PULSE: The outlook for U.S. defense contractors in the first quarter remained clouded by continued uncertainty over future Pentagon budget cuts that won't likely lift until well after November's presidential election. Incremental news on new programs and ongoing shifts in spending--away from the Army and Marines as forces in the Middle East are drawn down--may provide some catalysts for investors, as will success in boosting overseas sales. COMPANIES TO WATCH: General Dynamics Corp. (GD) - reports April 25 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts forecast a profit of $1.69 a share on $7.92 billion in revenue, compared with earnings of $1.53 a share and revenue of $7.8 billion a year earlier. Key Issues: General Dynamics is the most exposed of the big contractors to U.S. pullbacks from Iraq and Afghanistan, countered in part by the positive outlook for the Navy in the latest Pentagon strategic review. This will be General Dynamics's first period to include its acquisition of Force Protection Inc., whose portfolio includes mine resistant ambush protected vehicles. Jefferies analysts recently cited Force Protection as a factor that may help the company offset the impacts from "a lower operating tempo" at the U.S. Army. Others included General Dynamics's work for countries such as Canada, Saudi Arabia and Egypt as well as sales of Gulfstream business jets. Chairman and Chief Executive Jay L. Johnson said at a conference in February that General Dynamics' major programs were "really very well supported" in the 2012 budget and that there weren't any big surprises in government spending plans for next year. Boeing Co. (BA) - reports April 25 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts forecast a profit of 93 cents a share on $18.36 billion in revenue, compared with earnings of 78 cents a share and revenue of $14.91 billion a year earlier. Key Issues: Boeing needs to demonstrate it can deliver the proposed replacement Air Force tanker within budget and on-time after battling so hard to win the contract from the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. (EAD.FR, EADSY), known as EADS. Delays to the F-35 fighter jet program also may help Boeing's F-15, with the recent deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia for 84 new F-15 aircraft and upgrades to 70 existing aircraft. International growth has been a key part of Boeing's strategy to offset leaner spending by the Defense Department. In one of its major programs, Boeing has been pinning its hopes on emerging-market orders for its C-17 military cargo plane to avoid shutting down production after reducing it sharply last year. Earlier this year Boeing unveiled plans to close military-jet and other operations at its Wichita, Kan., facility due to efforts to cut costs. Prospects in the commercial sector have been brighter, with Boeing recently reporting that its first-quarter commercial-aircraft deliveries climbed, adding to a mountain of orders for its best-selling 737 jets. Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) - reports April 25 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts forecast a profit of $1.59 a share on $6.27 billion in revenue, compared with earnings of $1.79 a share, or $1.67 excluding the Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. spinoff, which was counted as discontinued operations. Revenue was $6.7 billion a year earlier. Key Issues: The defense contractor, which builds pilotless aircraft such as the Global Hawk and is a provider of cybersecurity and logistics services, has been streamlining operations for the past several years to cope with anticipated changes in the industry landscape, such as the spinoff of its naval shipbuilding business in March 2011. While the company has seen the government's increased focus on high-tech weaponry as a potential plus, the Pentagon earlier this year canceled a version of Northrop's Global Hawk unmanned surveillance plane as part of an initial 2013 budget plan. In February Chief Executive Wes Bush said Northrop Grumman was working with the Pentagon to study alternatives. Investors likely will be watching for more details about plans for its Global Hawk platforms and other unmanned programs. Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) - reports April 26 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts forecast a profit of $1.70 share on $10.56 billion in revenue, compared with earnings of $1.50 a share, including 5 cents in losses from discontinued operations, and revenue of $10.63 billion a year earlier. Key Issues: Lockheed Martin is viewed as one of the most vulnerable to U.S. defense-spending cuts because of its role in large projects. Last year the company said it would cut thousands of jobs amid the belt-tightening. The market likely will be watching for any updates on the development of the new F-35 fighter jet program that has seen major delays. The company has been acquisitive lately, making so-called bolt-on acquisitions to gain access to new markets or technologies, part of its efforts to meet the changing needs of military and national security policies. Raytheon Co. (RTN) - reports April 26 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts forecast a profit of $1.16 a share on $5.78 billion in revenue, compared with earnings of $1.06 a share, or $1.38 excluding unfavorable pension adjustments and other items, on revenue of $6.1 billion a year earlier. Key Issues: Raytheon continues to focus on controlling its costs and efforts to expand its international business as it strives to offset the effects of uneven sales of missile systems, its largest business by revenue. The company also has been acquisitive lately, most recently adding two cybersecurity firms late last year. Chairman and CEO William H. Swanson in January indicated that international business has been a key driver of Raytheon's bookings in recent quarters, including a United Arab Emirates order for two TPY-2 radars--a key sensing component of the THAAD Missile Defense--which marked the first international sale for the product. Raytheon in November won approval from Congress and the State Department to upgrade Saudi Arabia's missile-defense system--a deal valued at $1.7 billion. (The Thomson Reuters financial estimates and year-earlier figures may not be comparable due to one-time items and other adjustments.) -By Tess Stynes, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2481;

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