With the Super Hornet close to joining the fleet, Patuxent River Naval Air Station will be gearing up in the coming year to host demonstration flights for the next fighter down the pike, the proposed Joint Strike Fighter.

"That's the big one this year," Capt. Paul Roberts, base commander, said recently.

Prototypes created by Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., which are competing for a Pentagon contract to produce the multi-service plane, will be flight-tested at Pax River during a fly-off next fall.

Should the program advance, Pax River probably will participate in some of the JSF testing for the vertical takeoff and landing version of the jet. "We'll definitely be involved," Roberts said.

The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, meanwhile, has finished three years of development testing at Pax River and has nearly completed its operational evaluation.

Moreover, the V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft built for the Marine Corps, also is undergoing operational evaluation at Pax River and other locations.

Between the Super Hornet and the Osprey, more than a few folks at Pax River are anxious as they await the results of the evaluation. "You always are during op-eval," Roberts said.

Roberts said the work force of 17,200 at the St. Mary's County installation should remain fairly steady this year, although he said there "may be a little dip" with the end of the Super Hornet testing and before the start of the JSF program.

Meanwhile, Southern Maryland's other large military installation, the Indian Head Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, is coming off a tumultuous year that saw the unexpected death of the division's director, layoffs and a rancorous dispute with a union.

In January, Roger Smith, who had been director for a decade and popularized the notion of Indian Head being the National Center for Energetics, died from heart problems. Hundreds of employees and friends gathered at the town pavilion in early February for an emotional memorial service to say farewell to Smith.

Mary Lacey, who was with the Dahlgren division of the NSWC, was named to replace Smith. "It's hard to believe it's been almost a year," Lacey said.

Lacey was soon faced with the need to cut jobs at Indian Head, Charles County's largest employer. "It's always a major challenge to manage in a downsizing environment," she said.

Measures offering early retirement and other incentives have not generated enough departures to meet the goal of about 150 reductions, Lacey said. She said that 26 employees took advantage of a first round of offers and that a second round is still under way.

The division will likely have a reduction in force of about 100 positions, probably in June, Lacey said. The positions targeted for cuts come from across the command, she said. "It's everywhere. It's not concentrated in any one spot."

Lacey said she does not expect more cuts in the near future. "I can never say never, but I don't anticipate it," she said.

Months of contentious discussions between the Indian Head management and the local office of the American Federation of Government Employees AFL-CIO Local 1923 culminated in Navy attorneys walking out of a hearing held by a federal arbitrator in December. The arbitrator had ruled that Indian Head violated federal labor relations laws by failing to adhere to arbitration rulings.

Lacey said, "We're going to do everything we can" to have more harmonious relations with the union this year.

A plan under consideration earlier this year to transfer command of much of Indian Head from the Naval Sea Systems Command in Crystal City to the Naval Air Systems Command at Pax River has been put on hold pending a study by the Pentagon to look at broader consolidation across services and the Department of the Navy.

"That's currently on hold, and we're looking at ways to manage in the current structure," Lacey said.

The 1999 Defense Appropriations Act included a provision for the secretary of defense to convene a panel of experts to study the consolidation of all military laboratories and test and evaluation facilities.

Indian Head's long-term prospects for staying open in the face of these consolidation initiatives are good, Lacey said. "I think we're very strongly positioned," she said. "We are the center for energetics in the Navy."

At Pax River, the year saw several command changes.

Cmdr. Ronald Weisbrook, the chief test pilot at the Naval Strike Aircraft Test Squadron, replaced Capt. Thomas Phelan as Strike's commanding officer during a change of command ceremony Dec. 9.

"As commanding officer, I want to continue the example of strong leadership that has already been set here by Tom Phelan," Weisbrook said. "I will run this command with honesty and integrity and help our personnel here anywhere that I can."

Strike will be incorporating the Super Hornet into the squadron's inventory this year.

In October, Capt. William B. Watkins relieved Capt. James H. Thompson as the Naval Rotary Wing Aircraft Test Squadron's commanding officer.

Pax River also picked up a new command chaplain. Chaplain (Capt.) Rick Gates arrived in November as the top operational chaplain in the Navy after a tour aboard the USS John C. Stennis.

Gates said his main focus for the Pax River Chapel will be to bring more people to worship and gospel services, religious education, outreaches and prayer groups. Gates also said he wants to become an advocate for people. "One thing I'd like to do here is to be involved in Captain's Mast," he said.

At Indian Head, about $45 million in military construction work has either been recently completed, close to being awarded or under construction.

The work includes a new detonation facility that will allow workers to test explosives of as much as 50 pounds in an enclosed setting, a method that protects the environment and allows for more exact testing, Lacey said.

In addition, officials expect a contract to be awarded in February for a continuous process facility that allows the division to make explosives in a more environmentally friendly manner, using less solvent.

A new waste water treatment plant also will be under construction this year at Indian Head.