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L.A.'s Air War

January 20, 2005

Howard Hughes, hero of "The Aviator," proved to be the perfect public face for Southern California's aviation industry during the first half of the 20th century. Who better to push the glamour of air travel on a skittish public than a playboy movie producer whose bold airplane designs captured Hollywood's sense of drama? It's been a long romance, but the silver-planes part of it is drawing to a close.

Next year, the last locally manufactured commercial aircraft, Boeing's canceled 717, rolls off an assembly line in Long Beach. The good news is that aerospace still generates 120,000 jobs in the region. The bad news is that 50,000 of those jobs are at risk because other states hope to use the next round of military base closures to grab the functions of a little-known Air Force base that lies in the shadow of LAX.

Los Angeles Air Force Base has no runways or airplanes, but it oversees $60 billion annually in defense contracts. The base's two major tenants -- the Space and Missile Systems Center and an affiliated federal research and development center -- account for 62,000 jobs elsewhere in the state on top of the 50,000 in Los Angeles County. Job-hungry officials in Colorado Springs, Colo. (Peterson Air Force Base), Albuquerque (Kirtland Air Force Base) and Huntsville, Ala. (the Army's Redstone Arsenal), are drooling over the prospect of grabbing the two centers, which form the cutting edge of the nation's missile and satellite R&D.

If it were a question of excess Air Force runways, empty Army training barracks or an unused Navy dry dock, we'd say consolidate and let the jobs fall where they may. But this high-powered base succeeds because of its institutional knowledge and the brainpower embedded in the Southern California aerospace community. The federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission should remember what happened in 2001 when Boeing tried to save money by moving space shuttle engineers from Southern California to Texas. About 80% of the engineers refused to move; two years later, during the investigation of the Columbia explosion, officials were forced to reconsider the ultimate price of that cost-cutting.

The fate of the L.A. Air Force Base should be driven by what's best for the nation's defense, but the decision won't be made in a vacuum. Absent another Hughes to rally support, the job falls to the state's political leaders. Sacramento can help by preventing intramural bickering over which of the state's 60-plus bases should be protected. But the heavy lifting must be done by California's congressional delegation. A united front isn't what comes to mind with this contentious group, but there's no alternative that can counter political pressure by Colorado, New Mexico and Alabama. Granted, it lacks the right stuff for a great movie script, but it's the job that has to be done.

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