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Closure of Marine Boot Camp in San Diego Seen as Unlikely

The chairman of a key House panel says the depot is cost-effective. But L.A. Air Force Base in El Segundo is seen as vulnerable.

October 16, 2003|Tony Perry and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO — The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday that it is highly unlikely that the Marine Corps Recruit Depot here will be recommended for closure and that he would oppose such a move if recommended.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) said the depot, which trains 21,000 recruits a year, has proved its cost-effectiveness and its sizable contribution to military readiness.

Of several California military installations thought by consultants and others to be at risk of closure in an upcoming round of military cutbacks, the recruit depot is probably the best known. Opened in 1923, it is one of two Marine boot camps nationwide.

Hunter said that the depot's proximity to Camp Pendleton, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and San Diego Navy bases made it "an invaluable asset." With its 12 major bases and other facilities, San Diego County has the greatest concentration of U.S. military troops of any region in the country.

"San Diego is the complete military complex," Hunter said. "Historically, those assets that are most vulnerable are those that are limited or 'niche.' That's not San Diego."

Hunter and Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego) met Wednesday with Navy Secretary Gordon England to press the case for retaining the depot and other San Diego installations.

"I am optimistic as we head into this process, but recognize that we face many potential challenges ahead," Cunningham said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said he believes that the U.S. military has about 25% "excess capacity" at its 425 bases.

Among sites thought by some Pentagon watchers to be vulnerable to closure is the Los Angeles Air Force Base. Located on 113 acres in El Segundo, it houses space and missile systems employees and provides communications and satellite technology.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) has vowed to fight to protect the base. It "can and should stay right where it is," said a Harman spokesman. "Its military functions are vital, and its economic impact to the region is unquestioned."

By law, the secretary of Defense is required by May 16, 2005, to submit a list of proposed closures and realignments. A nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission has until Sept. 8, 2005, to submit its list to the White House. The president must either accept or reject the entire list. If he accepts it, Congress can still block the closures.

Like many communities, San Diego has launched a vigorous lobbying campaign in Washington to prevent any local base closures. Many officials think earlier efforts were too slow to influence cutback decisions in the 1990s.

"You're seeing a much stronger effort earlier than during the last round of cuts," said Mitch Mitchell, vice president for public policy at the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce. "Nothing is being taken for granted this time."

A former Pentagon official hired by San Diego has identified the recruit depot, a submarine squadron at Point Loma, a repair facility at North Island Naval Air Station and two facilities of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command as being "at risk of closure."

"I'd be cautious about taking too seriously these lists," Rep. Hunter said. "About every three days somebody comes to the House with 'the list.' "

Although civic leaders plan to fight against closure of any San Diego facilities, the recruit depot is considered particularly significant to the region's self-image as the West Coast home of the Navy and Marine Corps.

Even as Marines from Camp Pendleton were surging into Iraq in late March, San Diego officials were in Washington arguing the need to keep the recruit depot and other local bases open.

One of the local officials fighting to protect the depot was county Supervisor Bill Horn, a former Marine and combat veteran of Vietnam. Asked to explain the significance of the base, Horn said merely, "HOO-rah!" the Marine cheer.

The recruit depot contributes an estimated $200 million a year to the local economy. Although it is pinched in size because of proximity to Lindbergh Field, Marine officials declined a suggestion last year that they consider shifting the boot camp to unused bases in Orange County.

Hunter said one argument for keeping the Marine depot is the unhappy experience the Navy has had since closing two of its three boot camps in the 1990s. Boot camps in San Diego and Orlando, Fla., were closed, leaving the Navy with its sole training camp at Great Lakes, Ill.

The reduction to one training facility has led to increased travel costs for recruits and instructors as they move to ships, Hunter said.

The closure of the Naval Training Center San Diego in 1993 was one factor leading the city to hire William J. Cassidy Jr. as a consultant. The former deputy assistant secretary of the Navy was a key official in making the 1990 cutbacks. At a meeting to introduce Cassidy to the public, Mayor Dick Murphy said: "He's the one that closed NTC. Now he's on our side."

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