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Local Leaders Call Bases Irreplaceable

Military: As Pentagon aims to cut costs, officials say Edwards, China Lake offer unique benefits to defense programs.

May 21, 1997|GREG SANDOVAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LANCASTER — Many of Southern California's military facilities are too important to America's defense machine to be considered expendable in the Pentagon's new drive to save money for advanced weapons by closing bases, some local leaders said Tuesday.

Others went further, predicting that not only will Lancaster's Edwards Air Force Base and Ridgecrest's China Lake Naval Weapons Center not be closed, but they may even inherit programs and duties from bases that are shut down.

"Where else are they going to test their missiles?" asked Lancaster Mayor Frank Roberts. "We have the space, the geography and the facilities. They need vast, open spaces and Edwards and China Lake provide them."

On Monday, the Pentagon released a report calling for base closures and the elimination of 225,000 active duty, reserve and civilian jobs in order to pay for costly new weapons it says will better ready the U.S. military for the post-Cold War era. To prepare for the future, the armed forces "must shed more weight," Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen declared.

The report states that cuts will focus on testing and development facilities, a classification that includes Edwards and China Lake.

Steve Kosiak, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank, said there is no way to predict which bases will be shut down after the proposal is subjected to the political process but that the Pentagon will probably focus on consolidating the duties of each base.

"Some bases could lose some of their functions," Kosiak said. "And while it might hurt those bases, other bases would inherit their duties and they would come out of the situation with more work than they started with."

Vern Lawson, executive director of the Antelope Valley Development Corp., said he views the proposed cutbacks as an opportunity for the area's bases to attract orphaned programs from facilities elsewhere.

"We've been through these battles 100 times," Lawson said. "Panic is not setting in, because the dry lake beds at Edwards are a national resource . . . a testing facility that can't be replicated anywhere."

Past defense cutbacks have pitted Western interests against Eastern lawmakers fighting to preserve bases in their parts of the country.

The latest call for closures was anticipated by local officials from Lancaster, Ventura County and Ridgecrest, who joined forces with representatives from Arizona, Nevada, Utah and New Mexico this year to create the Southwest Defense Alliance to combat East Coast lobbying efforts in Congress.

Because of its climate and terrain, California should be the nation's exclusive location for airborne testing, said Bob Johnstone and Phil Brady of Aerospace Office Inc., a nonprofit agency that works for the city of Lancaster to promote the area to aerospace and defense companies.

"The truth of the matter is that East Coast facilities can't compete with us," Johnstone said. "They don't have the open flight space to test long-range, and they have flat topography in the East. You can't test what a cruise missile will do over hills if you don't have any hills."

But East Coast representatives strenuously argue the contrary, saying their region is uniquely qualified to be the nation's airborne test site.

In the end, the issue will be fought out in Congress.

"A nonpartisan committee is set up and analyzes what bases should be closed," Kosiak said. "The president and Congress then have chances to reject the whole thing or accept the whole thing, and most often they reluctantly accept. Nobody wants a base to close in their backyard, but in the end they realize that somebody has to sacrifice."

Kosiak said the competition is fierce but the decision-making process is supposed to be nonpartisan, and most times decisions are made with the best interests of the U.S. military in mind.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), who represents the area, said he is skeptical Congress will go along with any cutbacks at all, given the reductions already made since the end of the Cold War.

And though McKeon believes that Edwards AFB is crucial to U.S. defense needs, every other representative probably thinks the same about bases in his or her own area, he said.

What would happen to the Antelope Valley if Edwards were shut down? McKeon said he didn't want to think about it. "It would be disastrous," he said.

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