The Air Force has canceled a multibillion-dollar electronic aircraft identification system being developed by the Towson-based Bendix Communications Division of Allied Signal Inc., the company confirmed yesterday. The project was expected to add as many as 750 new jobs in the years ahead.
The recent action by the Air Force is just the latest chapter in the roller-coaster life of the Mark XV program. If it is not reinstated in the defense budget, it could lead the Baltimore County company to lay off as many as 300 workers in the coming months.
The "friend or foe" aircraft identification system has faced the threat of extinction at least three times in
recent years and has made its way back into the budget each time, said Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, one of the program's strongest supporters in Congress.
But she seemed less optimistic this time. "I've talked to the powers [that] be at the Pentagon," Mrs. Bentley said, "but I'm not too sure we'll be able to save it this time."
She said the Air Force is adamant about its decision on the Mark XV because of the tough budget situation and the high cost of Operation Desert Shield.
To the program's advantage, Mrs. Bentley said, the military still recognizes the need for such a system, and there is strong support for it from NATO officials, who see advantages in having all allied forces use the same system. The system is being designed for use by all U.S. military planes and those of NATO forces.
The Mark XV uses a transmitter to send out a signal to an aircraft's transponder. If the plane is friendly, it automatically sends back information that would easily identify it.
A Bendix official said the company is still hopeful that the program will survive the budget cuts. He said the NATO allies want the system and are making their concerns known to the Defense Department.
Mrs. Bentley said the newest strategy for salvaging the Mark XV program is to convince the Air Force that the system will cost less than original government estimates. She said the Air Force originally estimated the cost of full-scale development and production at $4.5 billion, but
Bendix thinks it can be produced for about $2 billion.
"We're still trying to resolve the difference," said Mrs. Bentley, adding that the lower the cost, the greater chance the program has of surviving as defense spending declines.
Bendix shares the work on the Mark XV with Raytheon Corp., a Lexington, Mass., defense contractor. Mrs. Bentley said two-thirds of the money would go to the Baltimore County company.
Donald J. Atwood Jr., deputy secretary of defense, killed the Mark XV program in late 1989, but it was given a new lease on life a few months later when he reinstated $87 million in fiscal 1990 funding while the department completed a new study on the need for the program.
That review recommended the continuation of the program, and the Pentagon said it would continue funding until at least the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30.
According to Defense News, an industry trade publication, the latest threat to the Mark XV stems from a Pentagon plan to slash at least $9 billion, or 8 percent, from its budget for electronic warfare programs over the next six years.
Mrs. Bentley noted that the Mark XV has been in development for a number of years and that the Air Force has already invested $230 million in it. In addition, the Army and Navy have chipped in $100,000, and the Italian government has invested $14 million. She said that with that much of total cost of the program already invested, she questioned the logic of ending it now.