After helping to protect Ventura County's two Navy bases from threatened closure, a local lobbying group is now trying to shore up the bases' future by getting a piece of one of the hottest developing naval technologies: a "stealth" destroyer.
If the group succeeds, the Naval Air Warfare Center at Point Mugu and the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Port Hueneme could begin testing components of the future DD 21 destroyer, perhaps within two years, officials said.
A role in such testing would make the bases good candidates for long-term maintenance of the destroyers' weapons systems, which could mean more jobs and bolster the case for keeping the bases open in the event of future defense cutbacks, officials said.
Once built, the 32 land-attack destroyers are projected to each have a life of 35 to 40 years.
"Any new work is good," said Cora Fields, a Point Mugu spokeswoman. "We're the largest employer in the county and we want to stay a strong economic force."
The DD 21 is still in the design phase. Construction of the destroyer would not begin until 2004 and it would probably be 2008 before the first ship is completed, officials said.
The new ships would be virtually invisible on radar like the stealth bomber, allowing them to get significantly closer to enemy shores and more useful in land warfare, officials said.
Two teams of defense contractors are competing for the right to build the fleet, which the Navy estimates would cost about $750 million each.
The Regional Defense Partnership 21, the local base lobbying group, has traveled twice to Washington in the last year to promote the area bases for testing of the new destroyer. Local naval officials last year submitted proposals to both industry teams vying for the contract. One team includes Bath Iron Works and Lockheed Martin, the other Ingalls Shipbuilding and Raytheon.
It's those contractors, not the Navy, that would decide which bases will win the maintenance and testing contracts. In the meantime, local Navy officials are saying little about any early involvement in the project for competitive reasons, said Michael Sauthoff, technology manager at the Naval Surface Warfare Center.
In addition to competition among private industry, Navy officials say there also is fierce rivalry among naval testing sites across the country that want to be involved in DD 21.
U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who has sought to keep the local bases open, is seeking legislation that would make it easier for Point Mugu and Port Hueneme to win the testing contract for the new destroyer.
Gallegly's proposal would require defense contractors to use an existing naval facility as a testing site rather than build a new one.
Point Mugu has been threatened by closures before and could be again. President Clinton had proposed new rounds of base closures in 2001 and 2003.
Last year, Point Mugu secured 1,200 new jobs when it became home to the Navy's E-2 Air Wing, which was transferred from Miramar in San Diego. The move was viewed as a major victory by local boosters, who have fought to keep the county's bases open.