Dischord: Problems With Traveling Show Choir Expose Disconnect Between Airmen, Senior Officials

Why is the Air Force protecting its expensive show choir as it cashiers mission-relevant airmen and aircraft? Because it isn't listening to its own people.
Why is the Air Force protecting its expensive show choir as it cashiers mission-relevant airmen and aircraft? Because it isn’t listening to its own people.

The Air Force, so says the conventional wisdom, is under immense fiscal pressure. At its smallest size since becoming independent in 1947, the service “cannot waste a single dollar,” according to Secretary of the Air Force (SECAF) Deborah Lee James. Combat readiness, she says, is half what it should be, and this means officials must make some “hard decisions” to give taxpayers the best possible return on military efficacy at the lowest possible cost.

A casual observer would believe that absent additional funding, the gates of America would soon crash open, giving way to invading barbarian hordes. Dogs and cats would soon be caught cohabitating. The dead could be expected to rise from their graves.

But even as she registers these shrill cries of imminent operational insolvency, SECAF gives observers reason to doubt them. She’s not, in many cases, making the “hard decisions” she says are necessary. This either demonstrates a lack of courage to follow through, or casts doubt on claims of a budget crisis. 

Take, for example, the service’s traveling show choir, Tops in Blue (TiB). At an opaque but reasonably estimated annual price tag of $10 million, TiB generates zero operational benefit while leaving the work centers of three dozen airmen short-handed for a year at a time. It is a mobile monument of waste, showcasing the unwarranted frills that became normalized deviations in the huge Cold War Air Force but are entirely hostile to the notion of fiscal responsibility in an era of austerity. Yet, despite SECAF’s insistence that every dollar must count, TiB persists, surviving sequestration even as needed aircraft and airmen are liquidated to save money.

Even more remarkable is the energy senior officials have devoted to saving TiB in spite of itself. 

Earlier this year, it was revealed that the program was having trouble recruiting a full performance ensemble for 2015 and might not be able to continue. This was a clear and comfortable basis for shuttering the program, especially given manpower challenges across the force. But senior officials did not act, and TiB announced on March 26th that it had successfully fielded a team and would press on with a performance season.

Despite an empty bank account, the band plays on. Should it?
Despite an empty bank account, the band plays on. Should it?

It was also recently revealed by Air Force Times that the program is in dire financial straits. Corporate sponsorship has plunged more than 80% from previous levels, while the program’s required budget surged almost 13% due to increased travel costs. By responsible business standards, TiB is insolvent and should discontinue operations. But even as they complain about a lack of funding, Air Force officials continue robbing their own Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) coffers to keep the band playing.

Behind the official shield that protects TiB, there are three hidden truths that stand to condemn the program if ever they’re exposed to the light of responsible transparency – something we should be able to expect without clamoring for it from a public agency.

1. Airmen Don’t Want It. The Air Force continues to justify TiB by citing a statistic that sounds impressive but says basically nothing. The service reports that 96% of wing/base commanders polled after a TiB visit believe it is an “excellent value to airmen.” This is manufactured consent. Wing commanders know their bosses are aligned with the institutional preference to keep TiB, and are unlikely to denounce the program as a result. In a pattern reminiscent of the recent missile cheating scandal and rampant VIP tourism, the service has constructed a system designed to produce a dishonest answer, yet pretends the answer is useful.

When airmen themselves are asked, the result is just the opposite. Year after year, the rank-and-file list closing TiB among their most favored ideas for budget savings. JQP recently conducted an online poll in which more than 92% of nearly 700 respondents said they believed TiB was wasteful and should be shut down immediately. While this poll was non-scientific and subject to methodological issues like self-selection, it manifests an intuition directly opposing what the Air Force claims – that TiB is entitled to scarce MWR funding because it is good for morale. Two former TiB members have attested that they “rarely felt like they were genuinely entertaining troops. Stateside shows were usually primarily attended by civilians and retirees,” according to Brittney Perry and Gavin Light, who spoke to Air Force Times about the program in 2014.

Given this evidence that senior leaders are out of touch with how airmen truly feel about TiB, SECAF should charter a service-wide study to accurately assess the morale benefit of the program. If it falls short, she should follow her own advice and make the “hard decision” to withhold funding and redirect it where it will have a greater morale impact per dollar spent.

The Air Force says Tops in Blue enhances morale. Service members themselves seem to have long since tuned out the program.
The Air Force says Tops in Blue enhances morale. Service members themselves seem to have long since tuned out the program.

2. It’s Funded Through a Shell Game. The Air Force has said in the past that approximately 80 percent of TiB funding comes from Non-Appropriated Funds (NAF). This is way of perceptually minimizing the cost of TiB by reinforcing how it doesn’t compete with operations for its main funding. But this doesn’t mean TiB is free, that keeping it going isn’t a struggle requiring budgetary gymnastics, or that it doesn’t compete with other priorities.

An insider close to the process told JQP that much of the funding comprising the service’s MWR fund is drawn from slot machine revenue generated at overseas bases, where clubs are permitted to run small casinos. Half of the funding generated at each base is folded back into that base’s MWR activities, with the other half ported to the service’s central MWR fund. That central fund is then raided to the tune of approximately $1M per year to meet TiB’s substantial monetary demands. Given the Air Force’s billing of TiB as “family friendly” entertainment, this raises questions about whether the troupe would enjoy the same support it now has if fans and sponsors were aware that it is funded in-part through gambling revenue.

But this funding process is unseemly on other grounds. The MWR fund exists to benefit all Air Force members, not just the scant few who enjoy TiB. Every dollar that funds the band is unavailable to fund other activities cherished by airmen and families – like bowling alleys, pools, and libraries, many of which have been shuttered by sequestration while TiB has played on. The Army uses NAF to heavily subsidize youth outings for the children of deployed soldiers, something that directly supports the morale of those impacted. All of which is to say that the Air Force’s minimization of TiB’s cost by citing the use of NAF is misleading, and the service should be pressed for more detailed answers.

Sustaining the group’s manpower requires a similar shell game. TiB has no dedicated manpower of its own, so it conducts annual auditions and selects volunteers from across the Air Force to fill its roster. These airmen are “loaned” to the band on a “permissive temporary duty” status, meaning their home units do not receive replacements. This leaves three-dozen billets sitting empty every year, sometimes in organizations with crushing tempos. While no one in the units directly impacted by this year’s selections was willing to be quoted for this story, several airmen shared stories of significant mission disruption and severe teammate consequences unfolding because of the absence of this year’s selectees.

3. It Has a Unit Climate Problem. A 2014 Air Force Times article detailed a dubious climate within TiB, with a management culture that places unhealthy demands on airmen and kicks them off the tour when they are unable to heal from injuries or lose weight quickly enough to appease higher-ups.

Sources tell JQP this is the least of the group’s problems. Beyond harsh managerial practices, some report a climate of sexism and sexual harassment. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a prior TiB member spoke of a particular senior staff member who yelled at, intimidated, and berated certain members during auditions and rehearsals, focusing his ire especially on certain male performers. “At first, you would think ‘it’s just tough love; he’s pushing them to be better. But when you realize that he’s only doing this to the gay male members of the team, the motive becomes much more clear,” the source said, explaining that after browbeating his subjects, this staff member would also send them inappropriate text messages and ask them to stay in his quarters while on the road.

The source also described a pervasively sexist environment that emboldened senior staff members to make inappropriate comments to female performers. In one such incident, a female auditioning for the dance category was asked if she had brought a dance partner. When she replied that she hadn’t, a senior staffer made an inappropriate crack about a “battery operated device” serving as her partner. The comment was reportedly repeated during the audition sequence, demoralizing the targeted airman and sparking an Inspector General complaint that resulted in a mandated apology from the unit leader who made the comments. No noticeable disciplinary action was taken.

Names and other details of those involved are not included here both because of the sensitivity of the allegations and because JQP was unable to independently verify the accounts given by anonymous prior members. But if even a fraction of what is alleged is accurate, the program appears deeply troubled. The Air Force owes a duty to TiB’s many stakeholders, including the airmen who participate and the others whose MWR funds are used to prop up the program, to conduct a proper and thorough investigation into TiB’s unit climate and management culture.

Worth mentioning here is the perceptual divergence between TiB’s apparently caustic unit climate and SECAF’s push to create a force-wide culture of dignity and respect among all airmen. Even if an investigation should vindicate the program of the particular allegations shared with JQP, the photo below – obtained from the Air Force’s official website – seems inconsistent with the notion of regarding female airmen as airpower professionals rather than sex objects.

Is Tops in Blue consistent with the culture SECAF seeks to create in the Air Force?
Is Tops in Blue consistent with the Air Force culture SECAF seeks to cultivate?

In response to a posting of this photo on the JQP facebook feed, many airmen wondered aloud if it would have survived the scrutiny of the service’s 2012 health and welfare inspection, which removed many items less provocative under the rubric of assuring appropriateness in Air Force workplaces.

★    ★    ★    ★    ★

These obscured truths need to be discussed at the Air Staff and shared with TiB stakeholders within and outside the Air Force. Officials need to understand what they’re protecting. Sponsors need to know what they’re enabling. Participants deserve to know what they’re getting themselves into. If TiB’s survival depends upon hiding its maladies and gaining recurring special treatment from senior officials who have a strong but inappropriate interest in maintaining the trappings of institutional prestige, it doesn’t deserve to continue as a program. It must instead succeed or fail on its own merit, and the Air Force must allow this to happen.

One thing is for certain. In continuing to run interference for their prized traveling show choir, Air Force senior officials are calling attention to a widening maw between themselves and the airmen they’re charged to lead.

Perhaps a change of tune is in order.

Comments are closed.