The Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory was awarded a $1.5 billion Navy contract yesterday for military research and development, including missiles to protect ships from enemy attack.
The size of the contract -- about three times the laboratory's usual annual military funding -- came as a surprise to at least some people at the Pentagon and at the Howard County institution.
A naval officer at the Pentagon said she assumed the dollar value was a mistake and double-checked the contract announcement.
Frank Proctor, a public relations officials with the Applied Physics Laboratory, also thought a mistake had been made. He laughed and said, "It's a mistake, unless we have invented something that is going to end the war tomorrow."
But the $1.5 billion figure was correct.
Edward M. Portner, assistant director for business operations at the laboratory, explained that the size of the new contract reflects a change in the way the federal government allocates research-and-development funding.
The laboratory has had a contract with the federal government that established maximum funding to the institution at about $400 million a year.
The contract is usually negotiated and extended each year. But this year, Mr. Portner said, the agreement has been extended to 3 1/2 years. It covers Jan. 1 of this year to June 14, 1994.
"It means less than it seems," said Mr. Portner. "It's a great vote of confidence in our research abilities on the part of the government, but it is not like they gave us a check for $1.5 billion.
"It's an indication the government is satisfied with our work. It's a real confidence builder."
APL does research for roughly 250 sponsors, about 90 percent of it for the Navy.
Under the new funding, a Navy organization might, for example, want to have $2 million in research done on a new missile program, Mr. Portner said.
The Navy unit takes that money out of its own budget, and the amount is drawn against the APL's $1.5 billion funding ceiling for the next 3 1/2 years.
Mr. Portner said the research covers a variety of programs, including the development of ship defense missiles, navigation satellites and communication systems that allow submerged submarines to contact each other.
He said APL might design a guidance system for a missile but would not get involved in missile production other than a few prototypes to test the system.
APL has about 3,000 employees and is traditionally one of the nation's top military research contractors.
"The reason they do its this way," Mr. Portner said, "is that it's more efficient for the government. It make government administration of our work easier.
"It's good news for us in that a fundamental mechanism has been put into place that allows the government to provide funding for the next 3 1/2 years, but it does not guarantee funding.
"Each sponsor has to look at their budget and say, 'We want APL to do the work.' "