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Middle River, MD -- Many Lockheed Martin employees wore shirts with the motto of the MK 41 Vertical Launching System, "Sword of the Fleet," at a Thursday ceremony to celebrate the reopening of the production line, thanks to a $253 million U.S. Navy contract.
Middle River, MD -- Many Lockheed Martin employees wore shirts with the motto of the MK 41 Vertical Launching System, "Sword of the Fleet," at a Thursday ceremony to celebrate the reopening of the production line, thanks to a $253 million U.S. Navy contract. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Lockheed Martin formally reopened a retooled missile launcher production line in Middle River on Thursday, a move the defense giant says will keep 150 people in work.

Workers and officials gathered in a cavernous factory building where a stage was flanked by two MK 41 VLS launchers, standing several stories tall. Behind them was the new line, painted bright blue and yellow, and a half-built launcher.

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Capt. Michael Ladner, the Navy's program officer for surface ship integrated weapons systems, said the launchers play an important role in combat because they can be used to fire a wide variety of missiles.

"Each one of you is on the critical path to our ability to be able to deliver this capability," he told the workers.

For a time, the future of manufacturing at the facility — which employed more than 50,000 people building bombers during World War II — looked to be in doubt. In 2010, Lockheed said it would be ending manufacturing work there and expected 60 people to be laid off.

Production briefly restarted with a new contract before winding down again in late 2014. But in 2014, Lockheed landed a $235 million order from the Navy, which wants the launchers for 10 new Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

So the company spent much of 2015 redesigning the factory, a process that involved developing 80 new tools to speed up production.

Bethesda-based Lockheed now says the 2014 contract will keep workers busy in Middle River for years. As part of the job, the company brought back to the plant the manufacture of the plates that cover the top of the launchers, a piece that hadn't been made in Baltimore County since the 1990s.

Rick Mattox, Lockheed's program director for the launchers, said he expects the factory to reach full production in 2017 and be churning out six modules a month. Each of the destroyers, built at Bath Iron Works in Maine and Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi, carries a dozen modules.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who wielded a pair of large, golden-handled scissors to help cut the ribbon on the new line, said the work at the factory would help keep the nation safe.

"We would not be the most the powerful country in the world if it weren't for each and every one of you," Ruppersberger said.

The Baltimore County Democrat praised the versatility of the launchers and called it the "Swiss Army Knife of the Navy."

The launchers have been used to fire cruise missiles at Islamic State terrorists and can be equipped to battle other ships, submarines and aircraft. The Navy also has been experimenting recently with using anti-aircraft missiles against ships, a technique that could give the fleet more flexibility and better range.

During a launch, the deck plates raise up and the missile blasts out of its tube before heading off to its target.

The launchers, first made in 1984, are now used by a dozen foreign navies around the world and the back wall of the factory was hung with giant flags representing those nations.

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