Talking turkey about ‘jointness’

November 21, 2012

Sorry on Thanksgiving to again be focused on Pentagon spending, but it seemed timely to talk turkey about “jointness.”

More fat can be trimmed to help yield bigger savings.

A Government Accountability Office report last week said the Defense Department — under the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure program, known as BRAC — planned to consolidate 26 military installations into 12 joint bases “to take advantage of opportunities for efficiencies . . . and elimination of duplicate support services on bases located close to one another.” That meant consolidating bases operated separately by the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps.

The Defense Department estimated in 2005 that it could “save about $2.3 billion over a 20-year period,” saying that “the installations either shared a common boundary or were in proximity to at least one other installation, and performed common support functions,” the report noted.

But within four years, the savings as projected by the GAO in a 2009 report had dropped to $273 million, and in its newest report, the figure is $249 million.

Why? The answer has its roots in 2005. In good military tradition, the joint base program first required the office of the secretary of defense to decide which military branch would be the lead for delivering support services at each joint base.

And there was another issue. As the GAO reported, the Defense Department in 2005 had no common framework for identifying support functions on military facilities. In fact, there wasn’t even “a common terminology across the military services in defining” those functions.

We are talking about some 48 “support areas,” such as airfield operations, grounds maintenance, custodial services, and even child and youth programs. There also needed to be common standards for providing the services.

Today, there are 280 joint base common standards — from fire protection, security, chaplain and legal services all the way to “establishing the acceptable waiting time for ensuring that 100 percent of eligible children are placed within the base-run child development program,” says the newest GAO report.

It took three years to work out these very detailed details.

One “landscaping and ground maintenance” standard said that “the joint base is to maintain the grass height at 2 to 4 inches and accomplish necessary trimming, edging, pruning, and landscaping to maintain healthy vegetation and a professional appearance,” the 2009 GAO report noted. For law enforcement, it was that “90 percent of law enforcement investigations be completed within 30 days,” according to the most recent GAO report.

Implementation was carried out in two phases, with five joint bases established in October 2009 and the remaining seven bases established in October 2010. But by 2009, it became clear to the GAO that “instead of decreasing, support costs at the joint bases are expected to increase.”

Turned out the new Defense Department common standards were costing more than the individual military services had provided, and thus “implementing joint basing will result in additional administrative costs and the loss of some existing installation support efficiencies,” the GAO reported three years ago.

The 2012 GAO report said one-third of the joint bases had gotten approval to deviate from common standards, and others have been modified.

The GAO insists that the initially anticipated savings have not yet appeared, nor does the Defense Department have “a reliable method of collecting information on the next costs or estimated saving and efficiencies specifically resulting from joint basing.” Nonetheless, the Defense Department in June reported projecting an annual net savings of $32 million from joint basing. The GAO disputes that, saying the “joint bases do not systematically track cost savings and efficiencies achieved as a result of joint basing.”

There have been some efficiencies. At Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, where Air Force, Navy and Army facilities were joined under the Air Force, nine maintenance support contracts were merged, saving $1.3 million a year. At Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, where Navy and Air Force facilities were joined under the Navy, $400,000 was saved last year through consolidating their morale, welfare and recreational departments. At Joint Base Charleston, under Air Force management, $55,000 in annual savings resulted from consolidating multiple chaplain contracts from Navy and Air Force facilities.

Standards remain problematic.

At Joint Base McGuire, snow removal is an unexpected cost because the Air Force, unlike the Army and Navy, removes snow only from roads and parking lots on base. That left Army and Navy personnel “surprised when they had to shovel the sidewalk around their buildings because previously this service was provided by the base.” Navy officials also expected maintenance of alarm systems and fire extinguishers to be done by the Air Force, but that service was left to the building occupants.

The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 was considered the first major step toward jointness in the services. At heart, though, the military services are still separate.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter still has Air Force, Navy and Marine versions. There is a Special Operations Command, but each service has its own special forces. They each are developing their own drones.

Can the country afford all of them? I could suggest merging the four military bands stationed here in Washington — but I won’t. Too radical.

But as service numbers decline — and they will over the next decade — there will be a need for a new basing structure and a new BRAC process. President Obama suggested one this year, and it will have to come whether Congress likes it or not. Joint basing should be a part of any plan.

As Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Tuesday at the Center for a New American Security, “We know that we’re going to be smaller; we’re going to be leaner.”

Here’s hoping your turkey is deliciously lean, too. Enjoy.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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