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L.A. Air Base Could Wind Up on Pentagon's Target List

The military is under pressure to relocate the research and development center to another state.

October 29, 2003|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Sequestered behind warehouses and office parks in El Segundo is the 110-acre Los Angeles Air Force Base. But you won't find any runways, aircraft or barracks there.

The complex, which resembles a nondescript college campus, is one of the Pentagon's most prized research and development centers. Scientists and engineers at the Space and Missile Systems Center, the base's main unit, oversee development of the next-generation ballistic missiles, rockets and satellites being built by major defense contractors .

Overall, the base manages $60 billion worth of military space hardware programs, including the ubiquitous Global Positioning System satellite navigation system, the latest space-based radars, infrared satellites used to track enemy missiles and some of the nation's most secretive space weapons. About $8.5 billion in contracts are handed out each year, with about 70% going to aerospace companies and suppliers nearby.

The base is "a hidden but huge component of the region's economy," said Lee Harrington, president of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. "Other than some of our key infrastructures like LAX, it's one of the biggest economic engines we have."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 01, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Air base -- An article in Wednesday's Business section about the Los Angeles Air Force Base incorrectly stated that the Air Force was helping to finance a study on the feasibility of moving the base's space division to Colorado Springs, Colo. In fact, the feasibility study is being funded only by Colorado Springs officials.

Now the stealth unit is in the cross hairs of a high-stakes political battle. Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska and several other states are campaigning to host the space and missile center. If the L.A. Air Force Base was closed, the right to host the facility would be up for grabs.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld wants to cut U.S. military base capacity by 25%, which could mean closing as many as 100 of the nation's 425 remaining military facilities, beginning in 2005. Many states are drawing up plans to protect their bases and scrambling to raid high-profile military operations elsewhere.

Los Angeles Air Base is considered in a weak position because it's not part of a larger military facility. The base also has only one primary job: overseeing space hardware contracts. What's more, it needs major earthquake renovations that could cost more than $100 million.

The base, located along Aviation Boulevard about a mile south of Los Angeles International Airport, opened in 1954 as a focal point for the development of the nation's first intercontinental ballistic missiles. El Segundo was picked as the site because most of the engineers working on the missile program were based in the area.

"It's never been more vulnerable," said David Herbst, president-elect of the El Segundo Chamber of Commerce, who was involved in previous efforts to keep the base off the closure list. Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) "has wanted this base as long as I can remember," Herbst added. "Now he's more intent than ever."

Two years ago, Domenici urged the Pentagon to close the base and move space and missile center operations to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, arguing that would be more cost-effective. California's congressional delegation was able to thwart that effort.

Now the Air Force and officials in Colorado Springs, Colo., home of the Air Force Space Command, are financing a $200,000 study on the feasibility of moving the L.A. Air Force Base's space division to that area's Peterson Air Force Base.

"We're not advocating closure of anything," said Robert "Rocky" Scott, president of the Greater Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp. "But in the event of a closure" of L.A. Air Force Base, "we think Colorado ought to be considered" as a new home for the division.

Its loss would be a major blow to the Southland's aerospace industry, local politicians and business leaders say. "It would decimate our aerospace community," said John Parsons, chairman of the South Bay Cities Council of Governments, which represents 16 communities along the coast from El Segundo to San Pedro. "If the base leaves, our main anchor is gone."

In the upcoming round of base closings, those that are operated by a single military service with a single function could face the greatest risk of being consolidated.

A number of states have created special economic development groups and base closure panels. Bills have been introduced in Oklahoma and Texas to create funds to help communities beef up their bases.

State officials are "getting more savvy and trying to be pre-emptive," said Andrew Bunnell, project manager for the National Assn. of Installation Developers, an organization that assists communities with base closures.

In California, seven local governments have received $50,000 state grants to develop programs to protect potentially vulnerable bases.

Officials in Kern County, home of Edwards Air Force Base, used the grant to prepare a report that advocates consolidating research, development, testing and evaluation of aircraft and weapons taking place elsewhere with Edwards. The report touts Edwards' 360 days a year of flying weather, the fact that it boasts the nation's longest runway and its highly skilled workforce.

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