ESSS lands major deal

$134 million share of a contract to plan satellite defense net

Missile-tracking `eyes'

Work is viewed as `a significant growth opportunity'

August 25, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Electronic Sensors & Systems Sector in Linthicum is racking up a healthy piece of business in the nation's controversial effort to create a space-based shield against ballistic missile attacks.

The former Westinghouse plant near Baltimore-Washington International Airport has won a $134 million share of a contract to plan a network of missile-tracking satellites.

Combined with work the company is already doing on another, related satellite system, ESSS is in position to dominate a key portion of national missile defense: building the infrared "eyes" that detect incoming attacks.

"This is a significant growth opportunity for us," said James Armitage, vice president of Northrop Grumman's Space Systems at ESSS.

The sector is the primary subcontractor on a $275 million, three-year contract the Air Force awarded last week to Spectrum Astro of Gilbert, Ariz., to plan a low-orbiting satellite system.

Called the Space-Based Infrared System-Low -- or SBIRS-Low -- the network of at least 24 satellites is supposed to track ballistic missiles in space before they re-enter the atmosphere. The data have to be accurate enough to not only alert anti-missile missiles that will try to knock the enemy rocket out of the sky, but also to pinpoint where the launch originated and where the warhead is going to hit.

Spectrum Astro is one of two finalists for the project; a partnership of TRW and Raytheon Co. won an identical three-year contract.

The teams beat out a pairing of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. to compete for the ultimate contract to actually develop the system, which is expected to be awarded in 2002 and be worth about $12 billion.

Even though it is a subcontractor on the program, the local Northrop Grumman sector will draw nearly half the value of Spectrum Astro's contract as it develops both the infrared trackers and ground stations that will relay data from the satellites.

"They have a world-class expertise there in all types of space-based sensors," said W. David Thompson, president of Spectrum Astro, which has only 260 employees and sales last year of about $50 million. "We were sort of seen as the underdog," Thompson said. "Having somebody with the capability of ESSS on the team, and of their size and strength, certainly helped the team, no question."

The Northrop Grumman sector is already building infrared sensors for a satellite warning system being assembled by Lockheed Martin called SBIRS-High, which occupies a higher orbit and is aimed mainly at detecting launches instead of tracking rockets in flight.

On the newer contract, Armitage said, ESSS will work with its subsidiary in Bethpage, N.Y., and with the corporation's Logicon division to develop a more complex system for tracking missiles and then distributing data on the ground.

The current contract will not affect employment levels in Linthicum, he said. But, if the Spectrum Astro team eventually wins the whole show -- and if political battles do not derail the costly effort to pursue national missile defense -- ESSS would add jobs to handle the volume of work.

"There could be a real big payoff down the road," Armitage said.

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