Four years in, the Defense Department is struggling to persuade government auditors that it’s saving money from the round of military installation mergers that created Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The Pentagon claims streamlined operations at the nation’s 12 joint bases save $255 million a year in reduced expenses — tens of millions of dollars more than the Defense Department initially projected when Congress bought into the plan.
But the Government Accountability Office isn’t ready to take the Pentagon at its word.
A GAO analysis released this month concludes those reduced expenses might not be attributable to the merged operations. Instead, the lowered operating costs might reflect military belt-tightening as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to an end.
The report also urges the Pentagon to re-evaluate what it hopes to accomplish through joint bases because commanders at the different locations are uncertain how to move forward.
“We believe that the continued confusion at the joint bases over the goals of the program, as well as cost-savings estimates … indicate a continuing need to review the goals of the program and communicate them to the military services,” the GAO wrote.
The GAO report follows another study in 2012 that concluded significant cost overruns ate into the savings the Defense Department projected from what was billed as the “transformational” 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Commission.
That commission created joint bases by taking separate installations from different service branches and putting them under one command. In South Sound, the Defense Department linked the Army’s Fort Lewis and the Air Force’s McChord Air Force Base while putting the Army in the lead role at the joint base in 2010.
The commission also modernized a number of expensive military facilities, such as Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Up-front construction costs reduced the BRAC’s total probable savings to the government from the advertised $36 billion to $10 billion, according to the GAO.
This time, the GAO focused on how well the service branches are uniting their operations at joint bases.
On average, they have consolidated 80 percent of the services they were supposed to merge, such as fire departments, airfield management and housing.
JBLM is a little above average. It reported having merged 84 percent of services.
Some bases have successes in joining that they attribute to their being compelled to work closely with military service members from a different branch. For instance, airmen at JBLM reported saving $280,000 a month in training fees by moving a regular airdrop exercise from an Air Force site in Arizona to the Army’s Yakima Training Center in central Washington.
“The joint bases have been fully operational since October 2010 and have since proven they can deliver measurable and tangible savings across the installation support portfolio,” wrote Deputy Under Secretary of Defense John Conger in a response to the GAO findings.
But the GAO noted several barriers that its auditors said could delay joint bases in completing their charge, such as:
• Geography. In Virginia, Joint Base Langley-Eustis merged two military installations that are 18 miles apart. That base reported having merged the smallest share of operations, with 52 percent of its services considered partially consolidated.
At JBLM, Interstate 5 remains an obstacle because the base does not have a road linking what used to be Fort Lewis to McChord Air Field. As a result, troops have to drive on the highway and go through a security gate to get from the traditional Army side of the base to McChord.
• Functions that are distinctive to each service branch — for example, legal systems. Information technology systems also tend to be distinct among the branches of the armed forces. Airfield operations have been difficult to merge.
• Different approaches to privatization. The Army has privatized some installation support services that the Air Force tends to perform with airmen. That dynamic has led to difficulties in merging public and private operations. Some airmen have had trouble getting career training that would help them if they’re assigned to a new base because the missions they would carry out at an Air Force facility are done by civilians at Army and Navy installations.
The GAO also identified some inefficiencies that it traced to the creation of joint bases, such as the Army and Air Force insisting on separately inspecting the same child care facilities at JBLM. Staffers at JBLM also reported frustration with the duplication of certain personnel files because of differences in Army and Air Force record-keeping systems.
The GAO in its report urges Congress to direct the Defense Department to reconsider its long-term goals for its joint bases and to provide more direction about how to better manage the facilities.
But the Pentagon in a written response rejected the GAO’s call for more oversight.
Conger wrote that the joint bases are exceeding the Pentagon’s initial goals for budget savings and have the authority they need to complete their consolidation. He pointed to $255 million in annual administrative savings, noting that the Defense Department would have 1,600 more employees on its payroll if it had not merged operations at the joint bases.
“These installations have already saved more than projected by the BRAC 2005 commission by consolidating 80 percent of their installation support functions in the first four years of operations — in spite of the complexity and cultural differences involved,” he wrote, asking the GAO to shift its focus from tallying up the costs of the last commission to “performance oversight, reinforcing good practices and arbitrating the occasional inter-service dispute.”