Wolfish Eyes on L.A. Air Base


In one week, the Pentagon will publish a base closure hit list that will cause a great deal of economic pain for many Californians. No matter that the state lost more bases (29) and more jobs (93,000) than any other during four previous rounds of base closings. California still has much to lose because it remains home to 30 major military bases, dozens of smaller installations and 279,000 of the military’s uniformed and civilian employees.

Politicians around the country are drooling at the prospect of winning the military and civilian jobs that California will shed as local bases are shuttered. And nothing could be more appetizing than the economic bonanza hidden away in the nondescript Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo.

The base, which looks like an office complex, doesn’t have fighter jets booming overhead or unexploded ordnance buried underneath. What it has is authority over $60 billion in high-tech defense contracts and 4,500 civilian and military employees who work on next-generation, space-based radar and communications systems, along with high-tech ballistic missiles, rockets and satellites. It is being eyed hungrily by such politicians as Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.). He wants the Pentagon to transfer the base’s jobs to Kirtland Air Force Base, which, not surprisingly, sits in his backyard.


California’s typically fractious congressional delegation and Sacramento have pledged to fight for the state’s bases once the Pentagon list is made public. The best way to do that is by presenting a united front should the Los Angeles air base show up on it. The loss of any base in the state would hurt, but not as much as the loss of this one. In addition to base employees, the operation spins off 50,000 additional jobs in Los Angeles County and 62,000 more around the state. Its annual statewide economic impact is estimated at $16 billion.

Base closure decisions shouldn’t be dictated by what’s best for a given state’s economy. If that were the criterion, nary a base would be shuttered. But the very economic footprint created by the Los Angeles Air Force Base underscores why it -- and its jobs -- should stay put.

It made military and economic sense to close a Marine Corps base in Tustin and pack the crews and helicopters off to a similarly equipped base in San Diego County. But it’s another thing to endanger the development of future high-tech weapon systems by disregarding the accumulated scientific and engineering expertise that has grown up over five decades to support the Los Angeles Air Force Base.

Reasonable estimates suggest that 80% of senior civilian personnel at the base (who outnumber their military counterparts) won’t move if their jobs are transferred. Logic dictates that the same would be true for thousands of rocket scientists, engineers and support staff at aerospace and research companies that ring the installation.

Moving the base’s operations to another state would cost the military years to reassemble the scientific and technical expertise that elects to stay behind.