Boeing's disputed $15 billion helicopter contract is further delayed by the Air Force until next year.

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WASHINGTON — The Air Force is delaying the award of a disputed $15 billion helicopter contract until next year.

The military service said today it needs more time to pick a contractor to replace a fleet of 141 aging combat search-and-rescue helicopters used to scoop up troops often stuck behind enemy lines.

Boeing won the initial contract, but the program has been on hold for two years after Lockheed Martin and United Technologies’ Sikorsky Aircraft challenged the deal. The Government Accountability Office backed the losing bidders’ protests, and called on the Air Force to reopen the competition.

The Air Force had planned to make a new award by December, but has notified the bidders it will be seeking more information from each before making a decision.

Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ann Stefanek said a new deadline has not been specified.

“It’s certain the next administration will decide who the winner is because we have run out of time in the Bush era,” said Loren Thompson, a defense consultant with the Lexington Institute.

When informed of the Air Force’s decision, Paul Jackson, a spokesman for Stratford, Conn.-based Sikorsky, lauded the service’s move to take additional time to make a selection. Representatives from Boeing and Lockheed Martin had no immediate comment this afternoon.

The program has a tortured history, including the protests, several delays and an ongoing probe by the Pentagon inspector general’s office over whether an earlier attempt to award the contract favored Boeing.

The inspector general’s office has been investigating whether program requirements revised by the Air Force met both its and the service’s guidelines — and did not benefit any particular competitor — which could have ultimately swayed the award to Chicago-based Boeing in 2006.

The Air Force said the delay was not related to the inspector general’s ongoing audit of the program and expects a final report will be released later this year.

A spokesman for the inspector general’s office was not immediately available for comment this afternoon.

The helicopter contract setback is the third large Air Force deal delayed in recent months, following a $35 billion contract for refueling planes and a spy satellite program worth roughly $6 billion.

The Pentagon last month canceled the service’s $35 billion competition between Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing to build a 179 aerial refueling planes after repeated delays and failed attempts to pick a winner.

Earlier this week, defense industry officials indicated the Air Force had pushed back an award for a new high speed networking satellite that the Pentagon wanted to improve battlefield communications. Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed and Boeing were vying for that award.

Associated Press reporter Stephen Manning contributed to this story.