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Lewis-McChord: A welcome new partnership

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 9, 2010 at 7:44 pm |
February 9, 2010 6:46 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Goodbye Fort Lewis. So long, McChord Air Force Base.

As of this month, the South Sound’s two immense military installations have fused into Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The Air Force and Army have officially tied the knot. The motto on the combined base’s logo emphasizes the partnership: “Soldiers and airmen defending America.”

The “new” arrangement harks back to the past, locally and nationally. What is now McChord Air Field once belonged to the Army, just as the Air Force itself was once a part of the Army. The repackaged Joint Base Lewis-McChord would seem a logical arrangement to those who served there before McChord (and the Air Force) won independence in 1947.

Independence can be overrated, though. The merger of McChord and Fort Lewis is part of a broader effort to restructure military installations in ways that make sense in light of limited budgets, evolving missions and the need for far greater coordination among the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

The independence of those four branches has always bred problems. For example, the Army’s Black Hawk helicopters were once equipped with radios that couldn’t communicate with the radios on the Air Force’s F-15 fighters. That wouldn’t have happened if enough people had been talking to each other.

The merger of Fort Lewis and McChord was proposed by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which has also engineered the closure or merger of many other installations.

One of the commission’s nine members, Army Gen. James T. Hill, served as commander of Fort Lewis from 1999 to 2002. The subject of his old post came up in the commission’s final deliberations, and he said, “When I commanded Fort Lewis with a fence line with McChord, I would have torn down that fence line. …”

The local Army and Air Force command structures didn’t fully connect except in Washington, D.C. (and some would say it didn’t connect even there). That limited joint decision-making. Hill complained that people in the Pentagon who knew little about McChord and Fort Lewis would wind up dictating minor bureaucratic arrangements here.

The merger, he said, tells the commanders at the two installations to “ sit down together, sort this out, and tell the department … what needs to be done.”

There’s good reason to keep the four branches independent, but no good reason to perpetuate any lack of cooperation, coordination or failure to share resources. Joint Base Lewis-McChord is the largest of the mergers dictated by the base-closing commission, and it represents a much bigger shift in Defense Department’s approach to its infrastructure.

We welcome the potential efficiencies of the joint base and the hard choices needed to make it happen.

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