WASHINGTON — A contract for the Air Force’s T-X trainer program probably won’t be awarded until next spring, even if Congress is able to pass a spending bill that would remove restrictions on new-start programs, one of the service’s top leaders said.

At the time of the release of the final T-X solicitation last year, the service stated it planned to announce a winner before the end of calendar year 2017. Now, the Air Force is aiming for a later goalpost, said Air Force Under Secretary Matt Donovan during his first interview in his new role at the Pentagon.

“Source selection is never based on the calendar, it’s based on events that they finished the source selection, and they do expect that to be somewhere in the spring,” he told Defense News, adding that the new target date is probably sometime near the end of March.

Donovan did not explain why the award had been pushed back, but said broadly that “sometimes they have to go back out to the offerors and get more information, and it’s an iterative process.”

T-X is the Air Force’s biggest ongoing aircraft competition, with about $2 billion at stake over the next five years. However, the contract delay is no huge surprise to those who have been closely watching the program or budget deliberations occurring in Congress.

In August, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson acknowledged that the service would likely not be able to award a contract for T-X as long as a continuing resolution was still in place. The current CR expires on Dec. 8.

Donovan reiterated that same concern on Oct. 12, saying that even if the Air Force were to finish its source selection process in time for a 2017 decision, a CR prohibits awarding a contract for a new program unless Congress approves a request for additional funding, called an anomaly.

“The department did not submit any anomaly request this year for the CR because, I think, they were thinking it would just be sort of a normal CR year where it goes two and a half, three months into the beginning of the year. But if it goes past that, then there are definitely going to be some implications,” he said.

Three prime contractors—Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Leonardo DRS — are battling it out for the T-X award, and a contract for 350 trainer aircraft for the U.S. Air Force is up for grabs.

Lockheed Martin has partnered with Korean Aerospace Industries to offer the T-50A, a version of KAI’s T-50, which is in use in South Korea and several other U.S. partner nations. Boeing and Swedish aerospace firm Saab developed a brand-new design, the only clean sheet offered by a major manufacturer for the competition. And DRS, the U.S. subsidiary of Italian firm Leonardo, is marketing the T-100, which is based on the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master operated by F-35 users Israel and Italy.

Although the Air Force — like the other military services — have grown accustomed to working under an initial three-month CR, budget analysts are worried that Congress could have its attentions focused on other political quagmires, like heath care and tax reform, to pass a spending bill by the end of the year.

Donovan said an CR extension into the second quarter of fiscal year 2018 would cause “real problems,” including the delay of about fifty to sixty new-start programs.

“What that means is that our projected costs for those programs are probably going to go up, because we’re going to start them a little later than we thought, and remember, inflation waits for no man,” he said.

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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