The Department of Defense is rethinking its recent decision to cancel a new electronic system for identifying military aircraft that was being developed by the Towson-based Bendix Communications Division of Allied-Signal Inc., two members of Maryland's congressional delegation said yesterday.
At the urging of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, the DOD has asked Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to re-examine the need for a system that would include identification of ground vehicles as well as aircraft.
"This is really big stuff," an enthusiastic Senator Mikulski said yesterday. "If they agree there is a need for a new IFF [Identification Friend or Foe] system, they will have to find someone to build it, and Bendix would be at the front of the line of competitors" vying for the contract.
Bendix was selected by the Air Force to build the $4.5 billion Mark XV "friend or foe" system in November 1988. But the Mark XV got caught up in the Pentagon budget crunch and was terminated earlier this year. As a result, Bendix laid off about 250 workers in February.
The Mark XV system was being designed to replace a system that dates to the Korean War. It was to use a transmitter to send out a signal to an aircraft; if the plane was friendly, it would automatically transmit the necessary information to identify itself.
Ms. Mikulski said yesterday there were times during Persian Gulf war when French Mirage fighter planes had to be grounded because the Iraqi air force has the same model aircraft and it was difficult to tell them apart.
Mrs. Bentley, among the most outspoken critics of the government's cancellation of the Mark XV, said the "recent debacles in the Middle East war showed the need for such a system." She was referring the the deaths of an estimated 23 U.S. soldiers -- including seven Marines in an armored vehicle hit by a U.S. missile -- who died from so-called "friendly fire."
David Passeri, head of Bendix's Towson complex, said that as originally requested by the Pentagon, the Mark XV system could have been used on ground equipment such as tanks and armored personnel carriers. But when the contract was eventually awarded it no longer contained this provision.
"I've told the top people at the Pentagon, including [Defense Secretary Dick] Cheney and [Deputy Secretary Donald J.] Atwood, that they were making a serious mistake getting rid of the Mark XV," Mrs. Bentley said yesterday.
Mr. Passeri was not overly optimistic of Bendix's chances of winning a new IFF contract if the Pentagon places an order for the system.
He said the company's past experience would be a big help in competitive bidding for new work, but it would be inconceivable the military would order a system identical to the Mark XV.