Applied Physics Lab carries on Md. defense tradition


When it comes to Maryland contributions to the nation's military might, the John Hopkins University has to rank up there with Westinghouse, which developed the first radar, and the old Glenn L. Martin Co., which produced the B-26 Marauder bomber at Middle River.

At the same time Westinghouse engineers at a plant off Wilkens Avenue were developing a radar that detected the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 -- a warning that went unheeded -- a group of scientists was working at an abandoned auto agency in Silver Spring on another top-secret project -- a proximity fuse that would greatly increase the effectiveness of anti-aircraft fire.

Work on the fuse, which went into the noses of artillery shells and detonated them as they neared attacking planes, marked the beginning of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory -- now a sprawling complex of buildings on 365 rolling acres near Columbia that has quietly emerged as one of the state's largest defense contractors.

APL, as it is commonly known, has been working for the military since those wartime days and has established itself as the Navy's primary research center with a role in hundreds of defense programs, including the Aegis weapon system, the Tomahawk missile, Trident submarine-launched missiles, electronic jamming equipment, the "star wars" missile-defense system and the Standard missiles used to protect the fleet.

Reminiscent of movie scenes from "The Hunt for Red October," APL scientists are also engaged in ways to make submarines quieter -- and thus less detectable -- and the lab has developed a satellite-based navigation system that allows submerged submarines to pinpoint their locations.

The lab is also working on a propulsion system for an aerospace plane that is being designed to take off like a typical jetliner and soar into orbit and on a computerized artificial-intelligence medical system that can be used by Navy medics to diagnose illnesses and suggest treatments in the absence of doctors.

APL's primary mission, says Carl O. Bostrom, who took over as director of the laboratory a little more than 10 years ago, "is to enhance national security." He says about 75 percent of its work is done for the Navy and is primarily on defensive systems such as anti-aircraft missiles to protect ships. "But not all [are defensive weapons]. Obviously, Tomahawk is not a defensive system."

"Our role," he says, "is to apply advanced science and advanced technology to military systems and thereby enhance the capability and survivability of the Navy."

Based on recent developments, it seems that the Navy is quite satisfied with the lab's performance. Earlier this month the Navy authorized the release of up to $1.5 billion to APL over the next 3 1/2 years for continued research and development.

That is such an impressive sum that it sent Navy officials at the Pentagon news desk scrambling to double check the accuracy of the award announcement. Edward M. Portner, assistant director of APL for business operations, is quick to point out that it is not as if the Navy "gave us a check for $1.5 billion."

He compares the Navy funding arrangement with a consumer having a Sears credit card. "You just show your plastic," he says, "and you can buy this and you can buy that. But there is a limit. It's usually a $3,000 limit. In our case it is a $1.5 billion limit."

APL does research for roughly 250 Navy sponsors or organizations. Under terms of the new financing arrangement, these sponsors can charge the cost of the work they want done against the funding level authorized by the Navy. For example, if a Navy unit wants $2 million worth of research done on a new missile system, it still has to take the money out of its own budget, but the amount is drawn against APL's $1.5 billion funding ceiling for the next 3 1/2 years.

Mr. Portner says the the long-term funding arrangement amounts to "a great vote of confidence in our research abilities on the part of the government."

Speaking for the Navy, Lt. Phillip McQuinn, who is based at the Pentagon, says, "To date, the Navy has been very pleased with the work of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. The relationship has been mutually beneficial over the last several years."

In addition to its Navy funding agreement, Mr. Portner says, the lab has a similar five-year arrangement with the star wars system -- formally called the Strategic Defense Initiative -- for an additional $80 million a year in research work.

A big chunk of its Navy funding in past years has gone into the development, design and construction of the sophisticated Aegis weapon system, which is designed to protect Navy cruisers and other ships operating in the Persian Gulf.

Aegis coordinates the ship's radar, which can "see" in all directions simultaneously with its weapons systems, which include Standard surface-to-air missiles, Tomahawk and Harpoon cruise missiles, and the rapid-fire Phalanx cannon, which can shoot missiles out of the air.

Aegis is designed to respond automatically to simultaneous attacks by enemy ships, planes, missiles and torpedoes.

APL also helped develop the guidance system for the Tomahawk cruise missiles that have been used against targets in Iraq. News reports from the war zone have described the low-flying missiles following streets or highways to their targets, as if looking down at road signs for directions.

Dr. Bostrom laughs at the suggestion that the Tomahawk follows streets to its target, but he does say that the missile compares features on the ground with computer-stored scenes it carries and can make necessary adjustments in its flight path.

He says the lab has played "only a small role" in the development of the Patriot missile, another weapon that has been scoring high marks in its combat debut by shooting many Soviet-made Scud missiles out of the sky before they reach their targets.

APL has a larger role in star wars, but Mr. Portner says that "we're not involved in the development of exotic new weapons trying to shoot down missiles."

But its participation may be just as important. Mr. Portner says the lab is involved in the development and testing of satellite based-optic, radar or infrared sensor designed to detect the launch of enemy missile as they leave the pad or pick them up early in their flights.

APL has 2,800 workers, which Mr. Portner says is not likely to change soon. A Navy agreement that gives APL sole-source status for much of its research work also limits the lab's work force to its current size. Mr. Portner says the employment level is also endorsed by the university's trustees, who don't want to see the non-profit defense arm to grow too large in proportion to the overall size of the university.

"We are already a very large division of a small university, and it would not be appropriate for us to get any bigger," he says. "We don't want it to be a case of the tail wagging the dog."

That policy is likely to help APL maintain its employment base as defense spending declines in coming years. APL is in the position of taking only high-quality work while turning away other jobs, Mr. Portner says. "What the defense downturn means for us is that we will likely be turning away less work than before. We'll still be selective, but we won't be as selective as we used to be," he says.

Hopkins was heavily criticized during the Vietnam War by protesters who frowned on its relationship with the Defense Department. During that period, a number of other universities severed their connections with the military, but the Hopkins trustees stood firm.

Mr. Portner says the lab's position is that such work needs to be done. "We see it as a public service function we provide to the nation," he says.

Asked whether that was being patriotic, Mr. Portner pauses for a second, leans back in his chair and says, "Well, yes. It may sound corny, but the more I have been involved with this, the more its been clear to me that public service is the mission of the laboratory."

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