Naval lab's closing marks post-Cold War reality; Warfare research budget cut; Arundel facility moves on after 96 years


John Sofia looked glum yesterday as he stared at the cavernous, empty Annapolis warehouse where mock-ups of submarines and warships once filled a bustling laboratory.

Here in Building 100, Sofia was one of the scientists designing the kinds of imaginative technology that became the grist for Tom Clancy's Cold War thrillers.

They designed wiring systems that would allow a Navy destroyer to take a direct missile hit and still have electrical power.

They helped engineer amphibious ships that could skim the water on cushions of air to land troops on a beachhead. And they invented machinery so quiet that massive nuclear submarines could creep undetected through enemy waters.

"The ideas and concepts that were imagined here are on every ship in the Navy fleet," said Sofia, 40, now a director for research at a Navy laboratory in Philadelphia. "We pushed technology as far as it could be pushed."

Quiet farewell

Yesterday, Sofia and about 1,000 other former employees gathered outside Building 100, at the end of a street called Innovation Road, and watched silently as Marines lowered the flag at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, marking its official closing.

The latest victim of base shutdowns and cutbacks, the cluster of laboratories has, over the past few months, been dismantled and shipped to research facilities in Philadelphia and Carderock, in Montgomery County.

About 400 employees -- down from 1,500 at the facility's peak in the 1950s -- have been transferred to other stations.

The closing, officials explained, has to be swallowed as a reality of the post-Cold War world. Budgets for research of this type have been slashed.

"These places don't get closed because they are a failure," explained Robert B. Pirie Jr., assistant secretary of the Navy. "It's just a matter of having too much of a good thing. If we don't do it we'll drown in our own overhead."

Wild innovations

For 96 years on the leafy Annapolis campus, just across the Severn River from the Naval Academy, scientists here boasted innovations to warships that range from the impossibly complex to the wildly imaginative.

They helped invent systems that allowed sailors to breathe fresh air on a submarine that had been underwater for more than three months. They created paints that wouldn't catch fire and metals that wouldn't burst under intense pressure.

"When I first started working here, the earliest nuclear submarines could be heard 3,000 miles away," said Larry Argiro, 78, who spent 40 years in charge of the lab's ship-silencing division. "When we finished, we're talking about measuring noise in terms of hundreds of yards" underwater.

Over the course of several months, the Navy has worked with officials from Anne Arundel County to fill the 45-acre facility with private companies that do similar research.

This week, County Executive Janet S. Owens said, the county expects to receive final proposals from eight or nine companies interested in moving into the space the Navy is leaving behind.

The challenge, Owens said, will be to bring in a private company but maintain the strong sense of community that developed over the past 96 years. It was a closeness evident yesterday, as workers from the Navy lab swapped stories about the time they spent together.

"The people here are much more than their technical accomplishments," said Richard E. Metrey, director of the Naval Surface Warfare Center's Carderock division. "I have never come through these gates without experiencing a camaraderie and warmth that is totally unique."

Pub Date: 9/26/99

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