WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman has designed, built and flown a new plane for the T-X trainer competition, but that doesn't mean it will ultimately bid on the program, its CEO said Thursday.

During a quarterly earnings call, Northrop CEO Wes Bush said the company was reviewing the newly-released request for proposals and had not yet reached a committed decision on whether it would remain in the competition.

"Let me be clear, we have not reached a conclusion on that," he said, adding that the company was "really looking at each of these opportunities through the cold hard lens of what does the RFP really tell you, and what would the business case look like?"

Northrop, the incumbent manufacturer of the T-38 jet currently used to train Air Force fighter pilots, has already invested millions of dollars into its offering for the T-X competition. Although the company has been secretive about its entrant — a compact design with a large vertical tail, built with BAE Systems, L-3 and Northrop subsidiary Scaled Composites — its prototype has been sighted by aviation enthusiasts while conducting ground and flight tests in California.

One market analyst questioned whether the T-X competition had become a "low-cost shootout," making Northrop reticent to put forward a potentially more expensive clean-sheet design.  

Bush declined to comment specifically on the T-X contract, but acknowledged that the company is not always inclined to battle it out when cost is the deciding factor for an award.

Sometimes a customer makes it clear that it is looking for the lowest cost option available, and those opportunities can be attractive to Northrop if it has a unique engineering or design approach that results in a particularly inexpensive product, Bush said. However, the company is more interested in competitions where there "a little bit of a trade space between cost and performance and value."

"We are looking at the way the customer is communicating around its view of the business deal and what’s important to them to make sure that our offerings really line up the right way in a very competitive environment," he added.

Because of the high levels of industry interest in T-X, the Air Force has sought to shield the program from delays caused by a protest filed by a losing competitor. It has released multiple iterations of its RFP and sought input from industry, with service officials acknowledging that it had sometimes eradicated excessive requirements.

The RFP contains cost incentives for aircraft that exceed certain performance parameters, however analysts have questioned whether that will be enough to outweigh a strong preference for low-cost entries.

If Northrop decides to pull out of the T-X competition, it would be the second major defense contractor to do so since the RFP was released in December. On Wednesday, Raytheon and Leonardo announced that the two companies had dissolved their partnership on the T-100 aircraft, leaving the door open for Leonardo to offer it without a US partner. Lockheed Martin’s T-50A, Boeing’s clean sheet design and presumably Sierra Nevada’s "Freedom Trainer" are still contenders for the $16 billion contract.

The Air Force plans to award a contract to one of the competitors this year, with 350 aircraft included in the program of record.

Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group, said he understands Northrop’s uncertainty but would be surprised if the company did not bid, given the resources that had gone into its prototype.

Still, a win could be unlikely, he said.

"T-X increasingly looks like a price shootout, which means it comes down to a competition between the T-50 (which has no development costs) and the Boeing design (because Boeing will bid very aggressively)," Aboulafia stated in an email. "Northrop Grumman would have to spend considerable amounts on aircraft development, and given their bomber win, they’re likely to be less aggressive on price here compared with Boeing."

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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