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Defense cuts could hurt Beechcraft

WICHITA, Kan. — The plane maker Beechcraft, formerly Hawker Beechcraft, emerged Tuesday from bankruptcy protection, freed from much of its debt and its unprofitable business jet operations.

It is now focused on its turboprop and piston aircraft and its military work. But the prospect of massive defense spending cuts comes at a crucial time for the company, as it competes for a $354 million government contract to build aircraft for use in Afghanistan. The high-stakes ‘‘light air support’’ contract could ultimately be worth nearly $1 billion, depending on future orders.

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The single-engine turboprop, dubbed the AT-6, that Beechcraft proposes to build is crucial for the company. It has not been put into production yet, but chief executive Bill Boisture said building such a plane is a major objective this year. Winning a customer is one of the top three goals to get Beechcraft ‘‘off on the right foot’’ in 2013, the company told its employees.

‘‘If the LAS contract is not awarded, or we don’t win for some reason, we would have to take some small, interim steps until we have achieved a launch customer,” Boisture said. “But we will go forward with the program.’’

Beechcraft is exiting bankruptcy with 5,400 employees worldwide. Boisture anticipates employment to remain stable.

The company has long said the AT-6 contract would generate about 700 jobs, but on Tuesday Boisture said it is ‘‘not useful’’ to speculate about whether all those would be additional jobs if the company won the LAS contract, or whether there would be more layoffs if the company did not get it.

Employees at meetings on Tuesday were told Beechcraft’s other objectives include making sure world markets know that ‘‘Beechcraft is back — that it is well-capitalized, soundly financed, and able to develop new products.’’ Beechcraft no longer builds business jets.

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