WASHINGTON — The US Air Force is "really, really close" to announcing which industry team will build its next-generation bomber, according to top service officials.

"We are not going to announce it today, but we are very close," Air Force acquisition chief William LaPlante told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

Industry is still holding its breath for the contract announcement, which could come anytime in the next few weeks. The upcoming award pits three giants in the aerospace world against each other: Northrop Grumman, builder of the B-2 stealth bomber, is competing against a joint Boeing-Lockheed Martin team for the project.

Although the Air Force has repeatedly postponed the contract award, LaPlante stressed that the program has not been delayed. Leadership is committed to making sure the source selection process is done right, he said.

"It's not, oh boy, we have to get this done by Labor Day, oh boy, we have to do this, it's not that, it's because of the importance of doing it right," LaPlante said. "It's like saying the Cubs game last night had a delay in it — no, it took nine innings and it took this long. It's an event-based thing, not a time-based thing."

Call it what you will, the six-month delay in awarding the contract has already prompted lawmakers to cut $460 million from the program in fiscal 2016. But LaPlante said this cut does not reflect a lack of confidence in the program — rather, the Air Force recommended Congress reduce funding by that amount.

"There was a mark against LRSB this year, that was a good mark. We gave them that number," LaPlante said, adding that the team told lawmakers:  "Now that we look at it, we're going to finish a little later. We have this much extra money, we identified it, so it's good — it goes to the taxpayer."

The Air Force plans to buy 80 to 100 Long Range Strike Bombers to replace its aging B-52s and B-1s, which the service plans to retire in the mid-2040s. The target price is $550 million a copy in 2010 dollars. That unit cost is a key performance parameter for the program, meaning that a company can be disqualified if its price fails to reach that goal.

When the contract is awarded, it will come in two parts — a development contract that is cost-plus incentive fee, and an agreement on the first five low-rate initial production lots that is fixed-price incentive fee. Those first five lots will cover the production of 21 bombers.

LRSB is unusually mature for a program at this stage in its development, according to Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, the Air Force's deputy assistant secretary for acquisition. The program has completed preliminary design review and manufacturing readiness review, and the platform designs are "at the subsystem level," he said during the briefing.

"We have established a high level of tech maturity, higher I would say than any other developmental program that we've tried to initiate at this stage for a new aircraft," Bunch said, emphasizing that one key aspect of the program is that the requirements have remained stable since 2011. "These stable requirements and a mature platform design make us very confident in the cost and the execution of the program as we get ready to initiate."

The teams have already built component prototypes and scale models of the designs for testing, officials have previously said. LaPlante indicated during the briefing that the plane could begin flying relatively quickly after selection.

"People say, when will we actually start flying something?" LaPlante said. "If you count the first test article, it's not necessarily that long from now – but I'm not going to say anything more about that now."

LRSB is unusually advanced in part because it is being handled by the Rapid Capabilities Office, a small group inside Air Force acquisitions which handles secretive programs such as the service's X-37B space plane. Right now, there is no plan to change the management of the program, Bunch said, but the Pentagon may reevaluate as the program moves forward.

More In Pentagon