The U.S. Air Force is expected to resume control over a long-delayed aerial refueling airplane competition between Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing Co., a Pentagon official said on Thursday.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave the Pentagon chief weapons buyer control over the program last summer after government auditors upheld a Boeing protest and faulted the Air Force's handling of the tanker competition. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told the Senate Armed Services Committee the service was working closely with top Pentagon officials to move ahead on the high-priority program.

Two previous Air Force attempts to buy new tankers have failed. Northrop and its European partner, Airbus parent EADS, won the second competition in February 2008, but it was canceled after federal auditors upheld a challenge from Boeing.

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