The Bendix Communications division of Allied Signal Inc. announced yesterday the layoff of about 250 workers at its plant in Towson as a result of an Air Force decision to halt the development of a new electronic system for identifying military aircraft.
In addition to the layoffs, the company said it had released some "outside contractors" who were not directly employed by Bendix but worked in the plant on the development of the Mark XV "friend or foe" system. A company spokesman could not say how many contractors were affected by the cutback.
The first workers who lost their jobs were notified Thursday afternoon, and as word of the layoffs spread through the plant it was referred to as "bloody Valentine's Day," said several workers, who asked not to be identified. At least one married couple was among those losing their jobs.
A company executive said that 240 to 250 workers will be affected by the layoffs and that not all of them worked directly on the Mark XV program. He said that some "particularly skilled" people working on the aircraft-identification system were reassigned to other programs and that some other workers were furloughed.
All of the layoffs, which were effective immediately, are considered permanent. The layoffs covered several job classifications, including engineers, software programmers and administrative employees.
The cancellation of the program was a double blow for Bendix and Maryland. The company had been expected to hire 750 workers at its Baltimore County plant if work on the program had proceeded to full-scale production.
The Mark XV system was being designed to replace a system that dates to the Korean War. It was also to be used by NATO planes.
Proponents of the system have argued that it is needed to ensure the proper identification of all planes. Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, who has led the congressional battle to retain the program, pointed out that Iraqi and allied pilots in the gulf war are flying the same kinds of planes.
The Mark XV uses a transmitter to send out a signal to an aircraft's transponder. If the plane is equipped with the proper electronic equipment and is friendly, it automatically transmits the necessary coded information to identify itself.
Mrs. Bentley said yesterday that the military's decision to halt funding for the program "reflects badly on the Air Force and the Department of Defense. "To say that they don't need this after investing $500 million dollars and 12 years of time doesn't make sense. I'm not happy about this at all. We tried everything [to retain funding] with no success."
One effort to save the program, Mrs. Bentley said, involved trying to get the Navy to pick up at least part of the cost, but no agreement could be worked out. There was also an attempt to have Bendix develop the system for a group of NATO countries that was to include Germany, Britain, Italy and France.
Bendix had notified some workers Monday that they would be losing their jobs when the Air Force ordered the company to stop work on the program. It withdrew those layoff notices later in the day, however, after a telephone conversation with Air Force officials offered some hope that a stop-work order might not necessarily lead to a contract termination.
A Bendix executive said yesterday that though the company still has not received "an official termination notice, we have been told they intend to terminate it in the near future."
Mrs. Bentley noted that the Mark XV project was scheduled to for cancellation at least five other times but that funding was found for it.
The Air Force had originally estimated that full-scale development and production would cost $4.5 billion. That was later reduced to $3.9 billion, and Bendix said last month that it thought it could produce the system for about $2 billion. The work was to be shared with Raytheon Corp., a Lexington, Mass., defense contractor.
According to Defense News, a military trade publication, the Mark XV is one of the victims of an Air Force plan to slash up to $9 billion from its electronic-warfare budget over the next five years. A Bendix official said the termination of the project is a result of the Pentagon budget squeeze and has nothing to do with the performance of the system.