The 2010 merger of Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base is not at the point where officials can quantify budget savings, but it is encouraging the two service branches train together and operate more efficiently, the outgoing colonel who managed the consolidation said last week.
Examples of that new “jointness” between the Army and Air Force in the South Sound include McChord’s cargo jets practicing precision air drops at the Army’s Yakima Training Center and increased collaboration between Special Forces units from both branches, Army Col. Thomas Brittain said.
“The home installation jointness has opened doors for training jointness, and that didn’t happen in the past,” Brittain said.
He took command of the Lewis-McChord garrison in late 2009 just before Lewis and McChord consolidated. The merger resulted from the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Committee recommendation to combine 26 military installations into 12 joint bases.
At the time, the Defense Department estimated mergers would save some $2.4 billion in expenses over 20 years. Since then, the Government Accountability Office has revised the estimate to less than $250 million in savings.
Among the mergers, Lewis and McChord offered one of the most logical combinations. They were adjacent, and the Army’s mission here of keeping thousands of infantry soldiers ready for combat in the Pacific dovetailed with the Air Force’s logistics hub at McChord.
Those missions – infantry soldiers relying on Air Force crews for supplies and medical evacuations – have been operating together throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, Lewis-McChord is the Defense Department’s third-largest military installation, with 42,000 active-duty service members and reservists. Its expanding ranks help the base make its case for steady military construction funding to keep pace with the rapid growth of the Army’s units in the South Sound since 2003.
In recent years, the base has experience banner years for military construction projects. This year’s Pentagon budget set aside close to $300 million for improvements there. That pace should continue through the 2014 budget, Brittain said, before declining in 2015.
“This place has been here since 1917. It’s going to be here for years to come,” Brittain said. “There is nothing else that is power projection platform with operational forces on the Pacific Rim other than what you see here at JBLM.”
Combining the service branches has yet to manifest in significant savings partly because the Army and Air Force were committed to different service contracts that expired at different times. Some of the contracts are ending now, giving the joint base an opportunity to look for savings by combining orders and making larger purchases.
Other important challenges remain, including completing a road to connect the Air Force side of the base with the Army side. The base plans to break ground late this year on a two-lane road that could handle some of the traffic.
As is, service members need to get on Interstate 5 to go from the Army side to McChord. That can be frustrating for service members on McChord because the Lewis side of the base near freeway Exit 120 is the center for many military services.
Ultimately, the base wants a four-lane road to connect McChord and Lewis, which could relieve traffic from I-5, Brittain said.
Lewis-McChord has merged dozens of services, such as contracting, engineering and recreation programs. For the first time, those services report to Brittain as a garrison commander instead of the three-star general who leads the Army’s I Corps at what was Lewis or the Air Force colonel who leads the 62nd Airlift Wing on McChord.
“It’s a paradigm change,” Brittain said.
Brittain works with both mission commanders to rank priorities so the base can provide resources to military units and the families of service members. The idea is to free up the senior mission commanders to focus on training, deployments and reintegrating service members after overseas assignments.
“When we get joint-basing perfect, I’m going to have the coolest job in the world because all I have to do is plan combat operations,” said Air Force Col. Wyn Elder, the 62nd Airlift Wing commander.
Elder arrived at Lewis-McChord last year. He said the joint base gives the airlift wing extra muscle in requesting support services because it can draw on the larger Army staff next door.
That doesn’t mean the combined support staff will be as responsive to either the senior Air Force commander or the senior Army commander as it had in the past.
Elder used the engineering teams that work on McChord’s runways and other facilities as an example.
“The difference,” he said, “is I owned the civil engineering squadron and they had a customer of one: Me. My priorities were their priorities.”
Now, Elder works with Brittain to keep the air wing’s resources flowing. Things have gone well so far, he said.
In years ahead, Elder anticipates Pentagon belt-tightening as the nation looks to the Defense Department for budget cuts after the drawdown of combat operations in Afghanistan.
At that time, he’s concerned the military families living on McChord will have to make more and more trips to the Lewis side of the base if the Pentagon consolidates more services.
For example, child-care services could become centered at Lewis. Or McChord could fall behind on plans for a new gymnasium because the Defense Department has spent more than $1 billion building resources on the Lewis side of the base since 2007.
For the time being, service members have access to the best of both branches, the commanders said.
“Airmen stationed at JBLM have a much broader range of (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) type of services and support services available than they did under McChord Air Force Base,” Elder said.
Brittain’s next assignment is to move over the headquarters for the new 7th Infantry Division at Lewis-McChord, where he will be chief of staff. The division will manage Lewis-McChord’s five primary combat brigades and report to the I Corps.
He is to be succeeded by Col. Charles Hodges, a former Stryker battalion commander at Lewis-McChord and officer in the I Corps.