(Adds CEO comment on R&D, recent contract win, updates shares)
By Mike Stone and Ankit Ajmera
Jan 29 (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp reported quarterly revenue on Monday that beat Wall Street estimates, helped by higher F-35 fighter jet sales, and forecast better-than-expected 2018 profit.
The U.S. defense contractor said quarterly sales in its aeronautics business, its biggest, rose 11.8 percent to $6.05 billion. The profit margin for the division grew by 20 percent in the quarter as the F-35 program continued to mature.
At the same time, Lockheed took a $1.9 billion charge in the fourth quarter, mainly due to bringing back overseas profits and writing down the value of future tax benefits. Both charges were related to the new U.S. tax code that was signed into law in December.
Lockheed gave an adjusted figure for earnings from continuing operations of $4.30 per share.
The Bethesda, Maryland-based company intends to take advantage of the tax cut windfall to front-load billions in pension contributions before tax rates fall in 2018. The move was foreshadowed by Chief Financial Officer Bruce Tanner during the third-quarter conference call with analysts.
Lockheed plans to pump $5 billion into its pension scheme before Sept. 15, allowing the funds to be redesignated to 2017.
Like its peers in the United States, Lockheed is also expected to gain from an increase in defense spending under U.S. President Donald Trump's administration.
Shares of the company rose nearly 2 percent to $351.42 after touching an all time high of $354.26 earlier on Monday, after it posted record annual sales in 2017 of $51 billion.
Excluding a deferred non-cash gain of $122 million, or 43 cents per share, and the tax charges, Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S calculations showed Lockheed earned $3.87 per share in the fourth quarter, versus analyst estimates of $4.07 per share.
Strength in the aeronautics business helped boost overall net sales to $15.14 billion from $13.75 billion a year earlier, beating Wall Street estimates of $14.72 billion.
Adjusted for new accounting standards from Jan. 1, Lockheed said it expects 2018 net sales in the range of $50 billion to$51.5 billion and earnings per share of $15.20 to $15.50.
Analysts on average had previously expected full-year earnings per share of $14 and revenue of $51.2 billion.
Lockheed's research and development included "a range of things that we're investing in, such as hypersonics and directed energy, and things that would help with any kind of a threat that comes early on," chief executive Marillyn Hewson said during a post-earnings call with analysts.
Electromagnetic "directed energy" weapons such as lasers and microwaves could soon be used more widely by the U.S. military.
On Friday, Lockheed was awarded a $150 million contract for a Surface Navy Laser Weapon System to develop, manufacture, and deliver two test units in fiscal year 2020, a contract that could eventually grow to $942 million, according to the Pentagon. The capability is being developed for Arleigh Burke class destroyers so the ships could temporarily debilitate surveillance craft.
The U.S. Defense Department expects to spend some $391 billion over 15 years to develop and buy 2,456 of the supersonic F-35 warplanes.
Trump is expected to ask for $716 billion in defense spending in the 2019 budget he is set to unveil next month, a 7 percent increase over the 2018 budget. The 2018 $700 billion budget still has not passed through Congress.
But analysts have panned the news of Trump's 2019 increase as small once adjusted for inflation.
For the year, sales in Lockheed's aeronautics division rose to $20.1 billion from $17.7 billion while profit margins increased slightly to 10.7 percent.
Rotary and Mission Systems, which makes Sikorsky helicopters and ships, ended the year strong with quarterly net sales up 14 percent to $4.35 billion from $3.81 billion.
Lockheed's CFO said that the CH-53K helicopter, a new program for the U.S. Marines, is expected to ramp up as the Black Hawk program slows.
Tanner told analysts, "you should think of the downturn in Black Hawk helicopter deliveries being offset by upticks in 53K volume."
Tanner said the CH-53K is slated to debut at the Berlin air show in April, as Reuters reported in November.
Lockheed said accounting issues it had identified at Sikorsky had been rectified, while reporting no significant problems. Lockheed purchased Sikorsky Aircraft from United Technologies Corp in November 2016.
Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington and Ankit Ajmera in Bengaluru; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and Rosalba O'Brien