The Bendix Communications division of Allied Signal Inc. in Towson confirmed yesterday that it received a "stop work" order from the Air Force Friday related to the development of the Mark XV "friend or foe" military aircraft identification system.
The company's initial reaction to the order was to begin winding down work on the program and to prepare for the layoff of 250 workers by the end of the month. Some workers were called into meetings yesterday morning and told that layoffs would be coming.
But in the afternoon Bendix put the layoffs on hold, following a telephone conversation between company executives and the Air Force that offered slight hope that the $4.5 billion program might not be terminated.
In the telephone conversation, the Air Force told the company not to assume that a stop-work order means that termination is automatic, a Bendix official said.
The order does, however, put the Air Force in the position of having to make a decision within 90 days to terminate, revive or restructure the program.
"This put a hold on the layoffs at least until we get more information," said a Bendix executive. "We should know something within the next few days after meeting with the Air Force."
The Mark XV system uses a transmitter to send out a signal to an aircraft's transponder. If the plane is friendly, it automatically transmits the necessary coded information to identify itself.
Bendix has been involved in the development of the $4.5 billion Mark XV program for several years and has said in the past that it would be hiring as many as 750 new workers at Towson once the program moved to full-scale production. The Joppa Road complex has about 1,600 workers.
Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, said she was "very disappointed" by the Air Force's stop-work order, which she said she assumes will lead to a termination, and called it "one of the most stupid decisions" it has ever made.
"This is a bad reflection on the Air Force," said Mrs. Bentley, who has headed congressional efforts to keep the program in the defense budget. "They spent $500 million on the system, and now they say they don't need it anymore. I don't understand that."
Mrs. Bentley said that she understood that the Air Force was looking to upgrade the Mark 12 identification system, which dates to the Korean War. "That would cost almost as much, and it would not be what they need. I've been told that by very high-ups in the DoD [Department of Defense] who don't understand the Air Force thinking on this issue," she said.
Several calls to the Air Force news desk at the Pentagon and to the Air Force Systems Command at Andrews Air Force Base failed to elicit any explanation of the stop-work order.
If the project is not resurrected, Bendix will be the latest Maryland defense contractor to lay off workers because of the cancellation of programs or contract interruptions.
About 1,200 workers at the Westinghouse Electronic Systems Group will be losing their jobs in coming weeks as a result of the Defense Department's termination of the Navy's A-12 attack-plane program. The demise of the A-12 has also prompted the Amecom division of Litton Systems Inc. in College Park to furlough about 200 workers.
Martin Marietta Corp. gave layoff notices last month to about 100 workers at its Glen Burnie Aero & Naval Systems plant, which makes towed arrays used by the Navy to detect and track enemy submarines.