Merger of Lewis-McChord at 'final operational capacity'

The long engagement's over, and the marriage papers have been signed.

Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base as of today are at “final operational capacity” as Joint Base Lewis-McChord, one of 12 joint military bases in the United States and Guam.

“We are one team with all the resources and authorities to execute our responsibilities,” said base commander Army Col. Thomas Brittain.

The merger brings together Pierce County’s largest and third-largest employers – the Army and Air Force. In 2008, they had a combined civilian and military payroll of $2.3 billion.

The union is intended to help the Defense Department save money by taking advantage of efficiencies it can achieve by streamlining some services, such as police, fire, security and family support. It’s not clear how much, and estimates of those savings have been falling since the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission first recommended joint bases in 2005. Twenty-six Army, Navy and Air Force installations were ordered to merge into joint bases.

Brittain is optimistic that savings will materialize, and that they’ll be replicated at other joint bases.

“It’s not the nickel and dime that come out of Lewis-McChord,” he said. “It’s the larger dollar across the (Defense Department) that will come out of this.”

Most of the major changes required for the merger took place in February, when the joint base was at its initial operational capacity. Since , officials have been reviewing Army and Air Force policies to see where they need to be changed so the base can function as a single organization.

“It could be as simple as delivering supply parts to a customer,” said Air Force Col. Kenny Weldon, the deputy base commander. “We have two different computer systems that order parts. Which systems can be combined, and which do we have to maintain separately?”

Base leaders aren’t done making those changes, Brittain said.

“There are going to be refinements that we’re going to continue to make,” he said. “This is really based off of making it a partnership, comparing Army regulations with Air Force guidelines, identifying best practices as to the best way we can deliver support to our mission commanders.”

Lewis-McChord is the largest military installation on the West Coast. It is the home of the Army I Corps and the Air Force 62nd Airlift Wing. Some 40,000 service members are stationed there. An additional 15,000 civilians work on the base. The base estimates that more than 61,000 family members live in the region.

“This is a national asset where you have combined an Army (three-star general) headquarters and all of its capabilities with a wing associated with the western air defense in the station,” Brittain said.

The Army is the lead partner in the joint base, and about 650 civilian Air Force employees will begin getting Army paychecks today and Oct. 12. The changeover lines up with the new federal budget year, which starts today. The Air Force continues to manage the air field at Mc-Chord, and civilians who work there will remain on the Air Force payroll .