Could Blue Angels fall to federal budget ax?
The Blue Angels kick off their annual Seafair spectacle Saturday, thrilling the hordes and burning an awful lot of jet fuel on taxpayers' dime. Could the $40 million-a-year aerobatics team get caught up in military spending cuts required by the debt-ceiling deal?
Seattle Times Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — The Blue Angels kick off their annual Seafair spectacle Saturday, thrilling the hordes, captivating future Navy enlistees — and burning an awful lot of jet fuel on the taxpayer's dime.
The debt-ceiling deal that President Obama signed into law Tuesday ushered in an era of budget cutting that could slash military spending by more than $1 trillion over the next decade. The bill requires the Pentagon to trim $350 billion on its own. An additional $750 billion cut would kick in automatically if Congress fails to agree on how to shrink the federal budget by $1.5 trillion by late December.
That's the kind of lean budget that might invite a second look at the Blue Angels, which, after all, are essentially a $40 million-a-year aerial ad campaign.
To be sure, no one on Capitol Hill is proposing to ground the Blue Angels, the Air Force Thunderbirds or other flight-demonstration squadrons. But they could get caught in the cross hairs of a Congress that has already taken aim at the Defense Department's sponsorship of NASCAR races and ballooning spending on military bands.
The Blue Angels and similar programs "are going to come under increasing scrutiny," said Laura Peterson, a national-security senior policy analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit watchdog group in Washington, D.C.
The Blue Angels are paid out of the Navy's recruiting and advertising budget. Thus the aviators are not performing core national-security duties, Peterson said.
In a country that ended the draft nearly 40 years ago, the Blue Angels and their 700 mph aerobatics serve as mobile recruiting stations.
The Navy has requested $38.7 million for the Blue Angels for fiscal 2012.
The House last month approved a $649 billion budget for the Pentagon for the upcoming fiscal year, $119 billion of which will pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The bill is pending in the Senate.
For Seafair, the Navy has a crew of 72 in town. Most were ferried by the Marines aboard a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft from Pensacola, Fla., said Lt. Katie Kelly, a Blue Angels spokeswoman.
Navy pilots flew the seven Boeing F/A-18 Hornets — older models whose tailhooks have endured plenty of arrested landings on aircraft carriers — from their base in Florida to Seattle.
The Navy charged Seafair organizers its customary fee of $6,000 per day of performance, or $12,000 total (no charge for buzzing Seattle and Bellevue during practice Thursday and Friday).
That nominal fee covers only a fraction of the cost of the flying shows, said Lt. John Supple, spokesman for Chief of Naval Air Training in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Supple did not have a breakdown for the costs of appearing at Seafair, but said they include fuel, lodging and per diem, among other expenses. Based on about 70 performances a year, the actual cost of each Blue Angel appearance would run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Already, an economy-minded 112th Congress has begun chiseling away at once-routine expenditures.
Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, inserted an amendment in the defense authorization bill to reduce Pentagon spending at NASCAR events. McCollum said the Army alone spent $12 million on NASCAR and drag races in 2011. The year before that, the National Guard shelled out $20 million to sponsor NASCAR stars Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.
McCollum also proposed to take away $125 million from military bands, leaving the musicians with an annual budget of $200 million.
Rep. Norm Dicks of Bremerton, the top Democrat in the House Appropriations Committee and an ardent advocate for the Defense Department, voted for both cuts. House Republicans helped kill the NASCAR measure; the military-band amendment awaits an uncertain fate in the Senate.
George Behan, Dicks' chief of staff, said the looming cuts to military spending are several times larger than any belt-tightening envisioned before by the Pentagon's brass — or by Congress.
Behan said the Blue Angels are popular and serve an important purpose.
"Can we afford it? That is going to be the question," Behan said.
Bill Harper, McCollum's chief of staff, said her aides have discussed the Blue Angels and their high-priced aerial maneuvers.
"We're moving into an era in defense and (other budgets) where this is about essential activities, not extras," Harper said.
Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Seattle Times news researcher David Turim contributed to this story.
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