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BRAC not easy or cost effective

The idea behind a 2005 plan to streamline the military is seemingly simple: Merge Army Post X with nearby Naval Base Y and let the savings begin.

But combining 26 neighboring Army, Navy and Air Force installations — located in the continental United States and the Pacific — into 11 joint bases and one joint region is proving far from simple and even farther from reducing costs.

Military estimates of potential savings over the next 20 years already have dropped significantly since 2005, from $2.3 billion to $273 million, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report.

Four joint bases and Joint Region Marianas became operational in October and the other seven follow suit this year.

The joint basing plan focuses on consolidating base support services — such as building maintenance, gate security and child care — to increase purchasing power and reduce potential overlaps in the work force.

The problem, according to the GAO, is that the Pentagon raised standards for joint bases that require them to fully fund support services — a practice rarely accomplished at traditional bases as the military attempts to reduce non-war spending.

Most commanders can keep costs down at their bases with measures such as reducing gym hours or postponing building renovations. But commanders of joint bases have no such flexibility.

The higher standards and the funding mandate “put a limit on how much you can save at joint bases,” said Navy Capt. Richard Kitchens, who is leading efforts at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, where a gate that for decades separated Naval Station Pearl Harbor and Hickam Air Force Base was removed Jan. 31 in anticipation of their official merge in October.

And along with higher-than-expected administrative costs — at least in the short term — and the loss of efficiencies some merging bases will experience by no longer being part of their services’ regional operations, it is “unclear whether joint basing will result in any actual savings,” the GAO report states.

Meanwhile, military leaders at the joint bases have put reducing costs on the back burner as they continue sorting out how to combine manpower and adapt to each other’s distinct military cultures and business practices.

“We’re still making sure we’re not going to impact the mission,” Kitchens said. “We’re going to do this right and then worry about the savings.”

The joint bases are expected to save money by joining forces for contracted goods and services and ultimately eliminating duplicate jobs, though the Pentagon has stopped short of mandating they do so for now.

“We’re reasonably a couple of years away from achieving savings, if there are any to be achieved,” said Steve Wolborsky, chief of Andersen Air Force Base’s development office on Guam.

Andersen and Naval Base Guam are the only two installations that combined to form a joint region rather than a joint base. One service at each of the other joint bases takes ownership of the installation, while Navy and Air Force commanders on Guam retain responsibility for their respective bases but are now considered Joint Region Marianas.

The base mergers are part of the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Act, or BRAC — sweeping legislation intended to make the military more efficient. The collective BRAC measures also are expected to save less than had been planned in 2005, dropping from $36 billion to $13.7 billion, the GAO reported in an earlier 2009 report.
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