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Secrets Away : Navy Lifts Veil on High-Security Research Lab in Port Hueneme

September 04, 1995|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORT HUENEME — For 45 years, scientific experiments conducted inside the Navy's oceanfront laboratory here were shrouded by security guards, barbed wire fences and the lab's penchant for secrecy.

But peacetime is changing the Navy. And even the security-conscious laboratory wedged next to the Port of Hueneme is coming around now that it must justify its worth to compete for federal dollars in the post-Cold War era.

As Pentagon cutbacks force the lab to abandon its 33-acre site and move onto the adjacent Seabee base, Navy officials are beginning to lift the veil on its research.

What emerges is an eclectic array of scientific endeavors designed--not to provide the Navy with bigger guns or faster ships--but to help the service run more smoothly and efficiently.

Scientists and engineers test high-tech materials to make waterfront piers impervious to salt-water corrosion. They nurture microorganisms that can clean up contaminated soil by feasting on oil spills.

They play with photo-chromatic house paints that change color--lighter shades to reflect the hot sun or darker shades to absorb the heat. They designed a canteen to keep water from freezing in subzero European winters and remain cool in the merciless heat of the Egyptian desert.

The lab recently joined with five smaller Navy outfits to form the Naval Facilities Engineering Service Center. It was a consolidation recommended by the 1993 base-closing commission that also ordered shutting down the lab's 33-acre base.

But unlike the threat of other base closures, this one has done nothing but benefit Ventura County, said Capt. John P. Collins, commanding officer of the engineering service center.

Most people fear that base closures bring loss of jobs and economic ruin, Collins said. "This is a case where the community gets a new $20-million facility and [gets] to keep nearly all of the jobs," he said.

By next spring, the service center's team of 500 scientists, engineers and technicians will pack up their instruments and relocate to a massive two-story building now under construction in the middle of the Seabee base.

The transformation coincides with the Navy's new openness after the end of the Cold War, said Pete Edward Tafoya, a longtime engineer at the base.

"We have gone from a lab, which was very secretive in nature, to a center, which is very open," Tafoya said. "It is a transition going on throughout the federal government."

As a result, the public can finally learn what lies behind the security fence on the beachfront base:

* A concrete blockhouse with thick, plexiglass windows that are pockmarked by blowtorches, drills and explosions that tested resistance to terrorist penetration. It was part of the lab's work to improve security at U.S. embassies and foreign outposts.

* A deep ocean lab with a seawater-filled chamber that can simulate extreme pressures experienced on dives miles below the ocean's surface. Even Jacques Cousteau has used the chamber to test deep-sea equipment.

* A lab with a walk-in freezer that simulates the arctic environment and checks out how equipment and materials stand up to extreme cold.

* A dive tank filled with murky water to experiment with contraptions that enable ocean divers to coordinate their movements in seawater with little or no visibility.

* A large swimming pool draped with dozens of electrical and communications cables. Huge pumps circulate salt water, creating a swift current to test the durability of underwater cables.

The service center, as the lab is now called, has expanded its focus from the days when its inventors churned out hundreds of patents and embraced the lab's motto: "I will find a way or make one."

Now, it is often a clearinghouse for new technology available on the civilian market. The center's engineers sift through the dizzying array of new high-tech equipment and scientific breakthroughs and adapt them for military use.

"We make sure that the Navy is taking advantage of the newest technology," Collins said.

The service center is testing new high-tech devices used in commercial warehouses to overcome the logistics nightmare of tracking materials during a fast-paced military mobilization.

Typically, the Navy puts boxes of food, machinery, ammunition, spare parts or other equipment into huge shipping containers, which are loaded on ships or planes bound for overseas.

Instead of keeping track of the material on a clipboard, engineers attach "radio labels" that are encoded with a list of contents to each box. Using radio waves, the labels can talk to a tiny computer mounted on each shipping container and transmit information about their contents to commanders in the field.

When linked to satellites and computers, the devices will enable military commanders to quickly pinpoint the exact location of needed equipment anywhere in the world.

The potential time savings, Collins said, could eliminate the logistic troubles that befell U.S. forces during their 1990 Mideast buildup before the Gulf War.

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