The Northrop Corp. has taken legal action to prevent a Texas company from marketing a new product Northrop says might be confused with its B-2 Stealth bomber.

The product: Stealth Condoms.

In opposing the company's application for a trademark, Northrop contends that the use of the name "is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive" people in the marketplace. It does not specify how this confusion might occur, or how dire might be the consequences of such a confusion.

Northrop also charges that the Stealth Condom slogan could bring the military hardware manufacturer, and its products, "into disrepute."

The slogan?

"They'll Never See You Coming."

The fancifully named contraceptive was the brainchild of John Hughes, the 28-year-old owner of Stealth Condoms Inc., a family enterprise in Taylor, Tex., created last year around a marketing concept. SCI is a packaging company; the condoms are made in New Jersey, packaged in Texas and sold regionally. From the beginning, the name was everything.

"I was driving down a little two-lane country road, tooling along in my '54 Chevy pickup, when all of a sudden the idea hit me," Hughes says. "I have no idea what made me think of it. It just hit me, wham! I got excited."

He calls Northrop's claim that the name might confuse people "absolutely ridiculous."

Still, Hughes concedes he has taken some liberties with the Stealth bomber program.

Stealth Condoms, for example, come in packages shaped like the bomber. (They are $5 for a package of three; one red, one white, one blue.) Also, there's the matter of Hughes's voice-mail message on his business phone. It says, in part: "Howdy, this is John. Me and the rest of the Stealth test pilots are out right now... ."

Monty Whitham, the Reston attorney representing Hughes, suggests Northrop might not be laying all its cards on the table.

"Perhaps they're concerned about the congressional deliberations over whether the B-2 bomber should be funded," Whitham says. "Maybe they're concerned that my client will make the bomber appear to be a little bit less than a serious item."

Officials at Northrop, based in Los Angeles, declined comment.

Hughes says he is baffled by the attention, but appears to be grateful for it. It's made him something of a local celebrity in his town of 12,000.

"People here think that I'm nuts; but they've thought that for long time," he says. But they support him, he claims.

"They're angry that their tax dollars are being spent by a big corporation to put a little guy out of business," he says.

Hughes says he will fight to keep his company's name. He feels he's got the better case, and the better product: "We offer a heck of a lot more protection than the Stealth bomber, at a lot less cost."