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Southland Defense Industry Quietly Heeds War's Drumbeat

September 27, 2002|PETER PAE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Southern California's defense industry--the nerve center for advanced weapons and surveillance technology for the U.S. military--is quietly gearing up for a potential attack against Iraq.

At Pentagon contractors throughout the region, engineers have been ordered to put vacations on hold. Some have been told to plan for longer spells at the office. And companies that make sophisticated intelligence-gathering equipment have been directed by the government to field new technologies ahead of schedule.

TRW Inc. engineers in Carson, for instance, were told last week to immediately begin supplying a new battlefield computer system to troops in the Persian Gulf region, although the equipment is still in the testing phase. The computers, similar to civilian laptop devices, are designed to give Army units down to squad level instant access to battlefield information, including the positions of enemy targets and the locations of other U.S. troops.

Citing the need for discretion, industry executives are declining to comment publicly on the surge of activity. But based on interviews with engineers who requested anonymity, the busiest companies appear to be those that specialize in technologies for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance work, as well as those working to improve the accuracy of missiles and bombs.

"We can't talk much about what we are doing, but the activity here has definitely stepped up," a TRW executive said.

A Southland aerospace engineer, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, said: "It sounds like we're going to get pretty busy." The engineer, who had to work through several seven-day weeks providing technical support for U.S. troops during the initial military operations in Afghanistan last fall, said he was told to expect a similar schedule starting next month.

Nearly a quarter of the Pentagon's research and development funds are funneled to companies in California, by far the largest of any state. The bulk of those companies are located in Southern California and employ a total of about 50,000 people.

Or at least that's the official estimate.

In fact, many Southern California companies are engaged in so-called black programs, highly classified military projects whose budgets are secret. Because of the hidden nature of these programs, the precise number of engineers and companies involved in military preparations in the Los Angeles region is not known--or, for that matter, even visible. Much of the work here involves classified engineering research conducted in nondescript, often-windowless buildings deep within office complexes.

One of the biggest players in the local aerospace community is Century City-based Northrop Grumman Corp. The company's Integrated Systems Group in El Segundo, which developed the B-2 stealth bomber, is designing the latest unmanned aircraft and airborne surveillance equipment.

Other notable defense companies in the area include:

* TRW Inc. in Redondo Beach and Carson, which builds mili- tary communication satellites and battlefield command-and-control systems.

* Boeing Co. in Seal Beach and Anaheim, which designs and develops next-generation spy satellites and military communication systems.

* Raytheon Corp. in El Segundo, which is developing radar-jamming equipment, sensors for spy planes, and targeting and guidance systems for missiles.

* Lockheed Martin Corp. in Palmdale, which conducts classified aircraft design and development programs at its famed Skunk Works. Lockheed Martin also engineers upgraded equipment for F-117 stealth fighters and U-2 spy planes.

* Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo, a government-funded research center, which assists and supervises development of advanced spy satellites and other classified intelligence programs.

Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine reported last week that six such satellites have been maintaining a close watch on Iraq. Three of the satellites are equipped with optical and infrared sensors that can see through darkness and foul weather for evidence of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons development, the report said.

At Raytheon, engineers who work on precision-guided weapons and other classified programs were told--without explanation--to postpone vacations between October and the end of the year.

A Raytheon spokesman declined to comment but acknowledged that the company had received Pentagon orders to accelerate production of certain products including "Little Buddy" electronic decoys. Raytheon engineers in Goleta, near Santa Barbara, designed the decoys, which are towed behind fighters and bombers. The Little Buddy is designed to electronically fool an antiaircraft missile into hitting it instead of the aircraft.

The anticipation of hostilities with Iraq has sent defense industry stocks surging in recent months, with investors figuring that a conflict would boost weapons orders and fuel additional research funding.

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