What's behind quite facade could blow your mind Despite high-powered mission, Navy lab, on DOD's "hit list," is due cuts.

May 06, 1991|By Stacey Evers | Stacey Evers,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- From New Hampshire Avenue in White Oak, the Naval Surface Warfare Center appears tranquil, almost retiring.

Drivers cruise smoothly past the red and yellow tulips at the front gate, meander through the nine-hole golf course and approach the main brick building set comfortably against a wooded backdrop.

But, what goes on beyond the backdrop could blow your mind. Literally.

The center is the U.S.

Navy's primary research and development center for ship combat systems, explosives, warheads, mines and ordnance.

In layman's terms, that means researchers use giant air guns to shoot miniature torpedoes through 1.75 million gallons of water, testing how the weapons enter and exit the fluid.

That means scientists simulate missile re-entry into the atmosphere at 14 times the speed of sound in a giant wind tunnel.

That means your lost luggage could have been among the suitcases used in recent tests to determine how to strengthen air cargo carriers against terrorist bombings.

Since 1946, the military laboratory -- one of about a dozen in Maryland -- has quietly minded its own business and gone peaceably about its inventions, which have been part of the space shuttle, the strategic defense initiative (SDI) and all Navy underwater warheads.

Now the Naval Surface Warfare Center is at the center of a political storm, joined by 70 other military facilities recommended by Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney for closure or consolidation. Six of the 71 sites are in Maryland.

The White Oak lab, a detachment to the center's headquarters in Dahlgren, Va., is slated to lose about 1,250 of its 1,800 employees in the next five years. Some of the cuts will be made based on a 20 percent, five-year downsizing of all the armed services.

The remaining jobs will be at the mercy of a base closure commission, President Bush and Congress. All must give their blessing to Cheney's proposal before it can become reality.

Capt. Richard W. Moore, the officer in charge at the detachment and the deputy commander of the overall center, has been fielding anxious questions from employees since Cheney made public his "hit list" more than a week ago.

Mostly, the staff wants to know which positions will be transferred to Dahlgren or eliminated altogether.

While many of the specifics are in the air, Moore rests assured that certain operations at the White Oak lab will never -- can never -- be transferred because they are not duplicated anywhere else in the country and would be too cumbersome to move.

It would seem safe to say that the nine-story hydroballistics tank will remain, as will the wind tunnel, which can simulate altitude up to 180,000 feet. The lab recently received funding to boost the giant tunnel's simulated velocity beyond its current Mach 14 capability.

Noting that Dahlgren is expected to gain about 1,000 positions ++ from the realignment, defense officials predict that attrition will fulfill the Pentagon's across-the-board reduction for White Oak and Dahlgren, opening up room at the Virginia lab for hundreds of Maryland transfers.

The ultimate disposition of the White Oak facility is anyone's guess, Moore said. The 550 employees to remain at White Oak after the realignment will be working on sensitive projects that need a protected environment, he said.

"That means you just can't bring a civilian business and plop it right in the middle of White Oak," he said. "The Department of Defense must have an alternate plan for this facility. You wouldn't want 750 acres just sitting here."

More important, Moore said, is how many employees are willing to make the 65-mile move down the road to Dahlgren.

"How many people instead are going to say, 'I don't want the hassle and I'm just going to go over here and work for Martin rTC Marietta,' " said Moore, who is in the second year of his three-year assignment.

Not that anything is wrong with Martin Marietta, but private companies won't take as many chances as the military to see if an idea leads to improved technology, he said. Much of the work performed in Defense Department laboratories is too formative to attract defense contractors, who want "big-dollar pay-offs," he said.

"The bottom line is they're going to go out of business if they make too many mistakes," he said. "Not that we want to make mistakes, but we . . . still have the flexibility of going down the wrong path."

Moore is sketchy in describing the center's funding and how much the mistakes cost. The Naval Surface Warfare Center does not receive a direct appropriation from Congress. Instead, other agencies that receive federal funding "contract" with the center to conduct research.

The overall lab receives about $720 million a year in work, he said.

Some projects are more predictable than others.

In the oldest section of the White Oak lab complex, researchers are trying to reduce the magnetism of ships so they won't detonate mines that they pass over. In a nearby building their opposite numbers are trying to make mines more sensitive to magnetic changes.

At the back of the complex, researchers can test up to 50 pounds of explosives in a building so solid that someone standing outside wouldn't even notice a wall shudder when the gadget blows up.

But some projects border on science fiction. For instance, researchers have been developing "smart" materials that can remember their shape and return to their original configuration when deformed.

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