The Army and Air Force got hitched in the South Sound four years ago; now officials are trying to figure out if the marriage that is Joint Base Lewis-McChord can help them save money.
They’ve begun tallying cost savings so they can make a case that the new structure works for the Defense Department in a time of federal budget uncertainty.
“The taxpayer should demand this,” said JBLM Base Commander Col. Charles Hodges. “Money’s tight. How can you make things cheaper?”
A total of 12 joint bases were formed across the country before the end of 2011 -- including the consolidation of Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base into the largest military installation on the West Coast. But the bases have fallen under scrutiny for not fulfilling their cost-saving promises.
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JBLM leaders say theirs is a long-term commitment and the fruit is starting to show. They don’t have a final list of savings they’ve made, but they’ve gathered some information for an anticipated Government Accountability Office report.
The main items from Hodges’ list of cost savings are:
• $3.3 million a year in fuel savings realized by steering more 62nd Airlift Wing exercises to the Army’s Yakima Training Center in Central Washington instead of a different site in Arizona.
• $5.7 million in one-time savings realized by streamlining a communications network contract for both service branches.
• $350,000 a year in maintenance costs saved by creating a single fire department for the Army and Air Force sides of the base.
• Up to $7 million in annual savings to the Defense Department through improved programs helping military service members find civilian work after leaving the Armed Forces.
Officials say some of those savings emerged from informal conversations between soldiers and airmen. The nature of joint basing opens opportunities for them to talk, and they’re finding ways to train more effectively, according to Army and Air Force officers at JBLM.
Joint basing takes its lumps
Joint basing was one of the changes called for in the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure commission, the Defense Department’s last effort to realign its footprint in stateside military installations.
All together, the BRAC merged 26 installations into 12 joint bases.
That BRAC process, however, earned a poor reputation among defense experts and lawmakers watching the bottom line.
A 2012 GAO audit concluded the Defense Department overestimated its savings and under-budgeted the costs it incurred building new facilities. As a result, a BRAC that was supposed to save $36 billion over 20 years instead was on track to cut spending by less than $10 billion.
Joint basing was supposed to save $2.3 billion over 20 years. The GAO report, however, said that change likely would save less than $250 million.
The report’s depiction of widespread cost overruns has been cited as one reason Congress rejected the Pentagon’s recent requests for another BRAC.
Joint basing was dealt another blow in November, when Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno criticized it in well-publicized remarks at the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army.
“It’s been now three to five years, and it’s time for us to assess: Are we getting the benefits out of it? Is it working? Where are we having problems, because in some places we are having problems with joint basing,” Odierno said.
It’s unclear whether the services have answered his questions. Army public affairs officers did not have access to new information when The News Tribune asked for an update this month.
“The research is still underway,” said Dave Foster, an Army spokesman.
A new GAO report is expected to be published later this year. Lawmakers want to know if the Defense Department has made progress since the last update.
“The effects of joint basing have helped JBLM realize some operational and cost efficiencies, but questions remain about whether this is true across the (Defense) Department,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Officers call for ‘strategic patience’
Fort Lewis and McChord Air Field officially merged in October 2010, but the buildup began several months earlier. The public saw JBLM freeway signs pop up around the South Sound, while civilian and uniformed employees saw changes to everything from windshield stickers to payroll.
The first GAO audit was released in July 2012. Back then, JBLM could not point to any operational savings from the union.
Now, Hodges said, the two services have a few years of experience working together and can answer questions they could not two years ago.
“Sometimes we expect to see major change and benefits right off the bat. Joint basing is a decades-long process, so we need a sense of strategic patience,” said Col. Dave Kumashiro, commander of the 62nd Airlift Wing and the senior Air Force officer at JBLM.
Some of the recent combined operations that the services say improved efficiency included exercises in which C-17 crews flew Stryker vehicles to Central Washington for a training event and rocket-launching vehicles to California for another drill.
In the past, the Army would have to pay the Air Force to use the planes.
“There wasn’t a willingness to help each other,” said Hodges, who served at JBLM as a Stryker battalion commander and a battalion staff officer prior to joint basing.
Now, the services “piggyback” training exercises to make the most of their budgets.
The Air Force has to fly C-17 training missions regardless of whether its crews are carrying soldiers or empty pallets. Some of those missions now include ground troops because of better coordination between the services, officers said.
Troops benefit, commanders said, because they get more experience collaborating with another branch of the military in the same way they do when they deploy to a war zone or on a humanitarian assignment.
“For us, if we’re just flying what we call ‘pet rocks,’ it’s not really value-added” training, Kumashiro said.
Army takes the lead here
JBLM is considered an Army-run joint base. The Navy and Air Force are in the lead at most other joint bases.
Hodges said JBLM tries to keep an open door and reach out to airmen uncertain about whether they can use Army services.
For example, the Army runs full-service transition programs to help troops prepare for civilian careers. Normally, an Army post would call that an Army Career and Alumni Program. At JBLM, it’s called the Armed and Air Force Career and Alumni Program.
The transition programs are among the popular services for airmen that were not available to them under the previous command structure.
Hodges counts that as a savings tied to joint basing because it could reduce the amount of unemployment benefits the Pentagon pays while former military service members look for work.
“Joint basing is good for the nation,” he said, “not necessarily for one service over the others.”