Swords into Plowshares

March 12, 1993

President Clinton chose well when he went to the Westinghouse plant in Linthicum to publicize his program to help defense industries and displaced workers adjust to the post-Cold-War world.

The Electronic Systems Group headquartered there has been in the forefront of Pentagon suppliers converting their skills and products to civilian uses. Once almost totally dependent on military contracts, the Westinghouse plant now produces more than a quarter of its goods for civilian use.

However, this large Maryland operation also illustrates the huge task that faces the defense industry and the Clinton administration. Cancellation of defense contracts has forced the layoff of one-third of the Linthicum plant's workers in the past two years. The 4,500 suddenly jobless workers were employed at a company that planned comparatively well and had started two years ago to convert its production lines from swords to plowshares. The specter of defense contractors that lag behind Westinghouse must be a significant drag on administration efforts to rejuvenate the economy.

Mr. Clinton was treated to a typical corporate dog-and-pony show with colorful exhibits of Westinghouse products converted civilian use. That was appropriate, for the president's trip to the outskirts of Baltimore-Washington International Airport was pretty much a political dog-and-pony show. The $1.5 billion for displaced workers and companies is old money, appropriated last year but unspent by the Bush administration. It's a start, but only a small down payment on the $20 billion the Clinton administration thinks it needs to spend on conversion in the next five years.

Still, defense contractors elsewhere can learn from Westinghouse's experience. A military radar system becomes a sensor for wind shear, the sudden downward blast of air that has destroyed several airliners. A laser system reads fingerprints and checks them against FBI records. Night scopes serve police as well as they do infantrymen. Powerful batteries also propel pollution-free automobiles. A lot of products designed to help win wars can serve peaceful uses as well, in the hands of engineers and marketers with vision. The administration's help is welcome, but it has a long way to go.

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