Author Tom Clancy knew a scary idea when he heard one: a big Soviet submarine, Typhoon class, carrying 20 nuclear missiles, silent and undetectable to the U.S. intelligence network.
Powered by a new propulsion system that makes it "invisible" to the Navy's sophisticated electronic tracking equipment, it could secretly cruise to within 200 miles of New York or Washington.
But thanks to a group of engineers at a Westinghouse plant in Sykesville, this scene may never be played out in real life.
Last summer, Westinghouse was awarded a $177 million contract to build seven anti-submarine warfare combat systems technically labeled the AN/SQQ-89.
The production contract from the Naval Sea Systems Command is the first step of what Richard A. Linder, president of the Westinghouse Electronic Systems Group, based near Linthicum, says could be a long-term $5 billion to $6 billion program.
In layman's language, Robert L. Hackmann, one of the top managers at the Sykesville plant, says the combat system is designed to cope with the threat posed by the latest Soviet submarines, which are much quieter than their predecessors.
Although the SQQ-89 program is still cloaked in secrecy and Westinghouse officials are limited in what they can say about it, Mr. Hackmann says it will be able to detect enemy submarines at greater distances than is possible with today's equipment, track their movements and guide an assortment of weapons, including missiles and torpedoes, to destroy the subs.
Winning the contract was a big triumph for the Carroll County plant and a major setback for Westinghouse's chief competitor, General Electric Co.'s Ocean Systems Division in Syracuse, N.Y. Although Westinghouse was considered the Navy's second-source supplier of the electronic equipment, it received the full purchase order.
The Pentagon likes to have two suppliers for most systems, and the normal pattern is to divide the business between the two, with the largest percentage going to the company offering the best price.
Mr. Hackmann couldn't say why Westinghouse won the full award, but he noted that the competitors are scored by the Navy on various aspects of their proposals and said that Westinghouse must have gotten a better score.
He said the anti-submarine warfare work is actually divided into two programs, the SQQ-89 and an improved version of the combat system, the SQY-1, that is expected to go into production in the late 1990s.
"There has been some talk around here that our grandchildren could be working on this program some day," he said.
In 1986, when the Sykesville plant was producing heating equipment used by the steel, auto and chemical industries and ultrasonic cleaning equipment, it was Carroll County's 12th-largest employer. But Westinghouse announced that it would phase out its unprofitable industrial equipment operations the plant and lay off about 300 workers.
Mr. Hackmann says that employment is expected to rise from the current 220 to about 600 over the next couple of years.
Many of the new workers may be shifted from other Westinghouse sites.
In competing for the anti-submarine combat systems work, Westinghouse heads a corporate group that includes CAE Link of Silver Spring; Bendix Corp.'s Oceanic division; Alliant Techsystems Inc.; Everitt Companies; Librascope Corp.; and Norden Ground and Marine Systems Division.
The components made by these companies will be brought together at Sykesville, where the systems, composed of about 100 electronic cabinets, will be integrated and tested.