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Is the Air Force's T-X Program in Limbo?

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The Air Force is long overdue for a new trainer aircraft, officials agree. At least three major defense companies have bid on the program.

But after Congress passed another stop-gap spending bill known as a continuing resolution (CR) in lieu of a real budget, new start programs hang in the balance as leaders crunch numbers.

One of those at-risk programs could be the T-X, the service's effort to replace its current T-38 Talon trainer. While officials still want to award a contract by the end of the year, budget woes may force them to make tough decisions if the CR is extended past the current expiration in early December.

"There are no anomalies, there's no exceptions, there's no list of things [that say], 'You can start this or start that or go ahead and buy more munitions or continue on with the T-X [program],' " Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters Tuesday at the Air Force Association's annual conference outside Washington, D.C. "There's no negotiation like that. If we don't get a budget … we won't have any new starts."

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The Air Force in December launched a potential $16 billion competition to build a replacement for the Northrop-made T-38, which entered service in 1961. The service wants to buy 350 new trainer aircraft at a time when it must replenish its fighter pilot ranks.

Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, head of acquisitions for the Air Force at the Pentagon, said Tuesday the service is weighing options to announce the winner of the T-X contract, but potentially delay the start of the program and dispersal of allocated funding, given the current budget climate.

Bunch told reporters during AFA's Air, Space & Cyber Conference the timeline for the award is at the mercy of the continuing resolution. However, the goal is still to announce the winner before the end of the year, he said.

The news will likely come as a disappointment to firms publicly competing for the contract, including Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., and Leonardo S.p.A.

Boeing, the Chicago-based aerospace giant, is collaborating with Saab on the program and is the only bidder to offer a brand-new design.

Leonardo, which broke off from a dual venture with Raytheon Co. earlier this year to go solo  instead, is building on its T-100 integrated jet.

Lockheed is working with Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd. to design a modified version of its T-50.

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