NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Raytheon, the world's fourth largest defense contractor, has built its reputation on sensors, weapons and electronics, rather than airframes. So at first glance, it is easy to question why the company would be interested in the T-X trainer replacement program for the US Air Force.

Analysts, however, point out that such interest — particularly if it ends with a team-up on the T-100 bid organized around Alenia Aermacchi's M-346 trainer design — comes with very little risk to the Massachusetts-based company.

In a conversation with Defense News at last week's Air Force Association conference outside of Washington, a pair of US Air Force officials revealed that Raytheon has been involved in discussions with the service about the T-X program since before May.

"Raytheon's involved because they came to us, saying they were thinking about aligning with one of the contractors," Col. Philip Wielhouwer, chief of the Air Education and Training Command (AETC) Capability Requirements Division, said. "This was in the spring of this year. We invited them to our pre-solicitation conference, which was held at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in May."

Wielhouwer added that Raytheon hasn't withdrawn from the competition, and so the Air Force has continued to invite them to industry events related to the T-X. That includes a recent industry day immersion held in September for new AETC commander Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, where all competitors for the T-X contract presented.

A Raytheon spokesperson confirmed the company's interest in the T-X competition, writing in an email that that "Raytheon has extensive experience, expertise and success equipping the United States Air Force and US Department of Defense with a wide range of relevant capabilities, including comprehensive training in the employment of advanced weapons systems and tactical airborne sensors, and is exploring potential roles on this program."

At first glance, Raytheon's interest could be limited to a desire to provide components to an existing bid. However, that path is cloudy, as the T-X program has been specifically managed to prevent requirements growth that could lead to something such as the inclusion of radars.

The question of Raytheon's involvement becomes clearer, however, with revelations by an industry source that Alenia and Raytheon have had ongoing talks about the possibility of joining forces for a T-X bid. The source was not clear if a final agreement had been reached.

Alenia is offering its M-346 trainer for the T-X program, rebranded the T-100, as part of a joint offering with simulation firm CAE. General Dynamics had been part of that offering as the prime contractor until March, when it surprisingly dropped off the team.

Since GD left the team, Alenia officials have made clear they are seeking another US prime. Raytheon could make sense, as the company would not need to actually develop and produce the airframe; the M-346 is already in production and has been purchased by Israel, Poland and Singapore, along with Alenia's home base of Italy.

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, sees no reason for Raytheon not to get involved in the competition.

"I don't see any risk for Raytheon," he said. "They aren't an airframer, so that hurts their ability to serve as a US manufacturer, but they have been in this position before."

That position was when the company teamed, and won, with Pilatus on the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (which would eventually be spun off into what is now known as the Beechcraft T-6).

"So there is the historical precedent of upside," Aboulafia said, "and I can't think of any downside."

Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners highlighted the fact that Raytheon has a training business that already does commercial and military work, existing systems they could incorporate into a T-X bid. AETC expects the T-X program to feature a significant simulation and ground station component.

"It's a business they have been in for a while," he said. "I suspect this is what they'd bring to the Alenia team if they joined."

He added that getting involved with a T-X bid would be "on profile" for a company that has been on a "hunt for growth."

A potential partnership would certainly be "good news" for Alenia, said an Italian analyst who declined to be named.

"It would get them back into the competition," the analyst said. "Alenia already has a proven product. It might have been better to have a US partner who actually builds aircraft, but partnering with Raytheon would be an important step."

A spokesperson for Alenia declined to comment for this articlepiece

The winner of the T-X competition will provide the Air Force with 350 new aircraft to replace the T-38, used for advanced jet training. The service believes a new trainer is needed not just because of the age of the T-38 fleet but because it cannot provide ample training for pilots who will be flying the F-35 joint strike fighter in the future.

Aside from Team T-100, competitors include a pair of clean-sheet designs being put forth by a Boeing/Saab team and a Northrop Grumman-led coalition that includes BAE Systems and L-3; an offering by Textron AirLand, perhaps based on its Scorpion design; and the T-50, the Lockheed Martin/Korean Aerospace Industries offering.

UPDATED 9/21/15 with statement from Raytheon spokesman.

Staff writers Tom Kington in Italy and Lara Seligman in Washington contributed to this report.