The Base Realignment and Closure round is entering its stretch run with final decisions due next year. Kern County's two military bases, Edwards Air Force Base and the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, could be big winners or big losers when the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's recommendations are forwarded to an independent commission next May.

The BRAC 2005 assessment process will be much different than in the four earlier rounds instead of relying on the individual services to make their own decisions, Rumsfeld and his staff are deeply involved.

Rumsfeld set goals for realigning the base infrastructure to improve both efficiency and effectiveness with specific direction to enhance joint service activity. Encroachment of military base operations, a serious problem with many East Coast bases, has also been identified as an important BRAC goal. These goals support transformation of the armed forces to a more agile, responsive combat force, continually adapting advanced technology to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The transformed services will be welded into closely coordinated joint fighting units with the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps working seamlessly together in combat. Progress in conducting joint operations was demonstrated in Iraqi Freedom, but even closer cooperation is needed. In order to fight together the services must train together. They are doing that using major western land and sea ranges, such as those of China Lake and Ventura County's Point Mugu.

The community groups supporting China Lake and Edwards are keying their BRAC programs on Rumsfeld's guidance. Knowing that the military services and Defense Department are not particularly interested in past achievements, the China Lake Defense Alliance and the Edwards Community Alliance are pointing to the future benefits of the vast unencroached air and land space, ideal climate, full spectrum laboratories and ranges, and unexcelled work forces for research, development, test and evaluation.

But they aren't stopping there: working with their counterparts in Ventura County, the Edwards and China Lake community support groups have developed an "out of the box" proposal to provide a significant step toward defense transformation. This tri-community group proposes merging Edwards Air Force Base, China Lake and the Point Mugu Naval Air Station into a Joint Aerospace Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Center.

The three communities reasoned that if the services fight and train jointly, their development and test infrastructure also should be joint. In the air warfare arena, the Air Force and Navy already are developing weapons jointly, and versions of the new Joint Strike Fighter will have a high degree of commonality for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The proposed center would develop and test a significant portion of the services' air warfare needs at reduced cost and improved effectiveness.

Left on their own, the Air Force and Navy have insisted on maintaining separate development and testing bases, with consequent high overhead costs and competition for scarce appropriations for duplicative capabilities. Note the contrast with the aerospace defense industry, which quickly sized down through mergers to a level commensurate with available business. The operating forces and the American taxpayer are carrying the cost of the services' wasteful business model.

Congressman Bill Thomas and his colleagues, Reps. Howard McKeon and Elton Gallegly, recognized the logic of the center and sent a letter to Rumsfeld describing the concept with their recommendation that it be carefully considered in BRAC. A delegation representing the three communities led by Kern County Supervisor Jon McQuiston recently discussed the proposal with Assistant Undersecretary of Defense Phil Grone, the chief Department of Defense official directly engaged in the BRAC assessments. The objective is for the proposal to receive full consideration in the BRAC process.

If the center proposal is accepted, the Kern and Ventura County bases will not only survive BRAC in good shape, additional work and high-paying jobs will move to our area. All combat aircraft flight testing would be done at Edwards except for tests involving land-based catapult and arrested landing operations. Nearly all air weapon research, development, test and evaluation would be done at China Lake and Point Mugu. Where it doesn't make sense to move functions, such as aircraft research and development, the work would stay where it is.

For more than 60 years, Kern County's two military bases, Edwards Air Force Base and the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, have been major contributors to building the air combat systems that defended the free world. If good, objective decisions are made in the BRAC round next year, Edwards Air Force Base and China Lake will continue to contribute superior weapon systems for many years to come, and Kern County will be a big beneficiary.

Phil Arnold is co-chairman of the China Lake Defense Alliance.