Suspicious Minds: Generals Herald Tops in Blue, Airmen Hear Symphony of Distraction

Formed in 1953, Tops in Blue is a traveling showcase comprised of airmen entertaining airmen.  But are airmen sufficiently entertained to justify the price tag?
Formed in 1953, Tops in Blue is a traveling showcase comprised of airmen entertaining airmen. But are airmen sufficiently entertained to justify the price tag?

In 1953, the Air Force undertook the odd exuberance of an in-service talent show that ended up succeeding beyond expectations, distracting airmen and onlookers from the threatening specter of an unfolding military competition with the Soviet Union. From this gambit was berthed a special unit known as Tops in Blue (TiB), a folksy handle reflecting a fledgling Air Force’s affection for Cold War propaganda. This wasn’t all frivolity; it was about sending a message to the reds about the power and reach of American culture, and portraying military forces as lethal, talented, and devil-may-care all at once. Music and militarism were both on the rise, making it easy to see how such a dubious novelty managed to persist into repetition and eventual permanence.

In the six decades since, TiB has become a fixture, annually extracting 40 active-duty airmen from their core specialties for a roadshow where they exhibit their capabilities not with guns and ammo, but with drums and banjos. It’s a stark juxtaposition. The group openly boasts of its talented amateur vocalists, instrumentalists, dancers, and technicians busily providing an entertainment showcase while their servicemates busily escort enemies to the gates of hell, often at great hardship.

But while TiB has endured by delivering the blare of the tuba rather than the thud of the hellfire, budgetary pressures have recently reached a crescendo, inviting tough questions about the expense and value of the merry band. Hordes of airmen responded to last year’s service-wide call for savings by suggesting TiB hang up its tap shoes once and for all. The service responded by insisting that the cello-plucking cabal represents a good – nay, excellent — value for money, gets some of its funding from sponsors rather than taxpayers, and provides morale to airmen. The speciousness of these claims makes it clear the generals are more interested in fighting for their right to party than walking the line of budgetary responsibility. But in the current fiscal environment, they can’t hide their lyin’ eyes.

When it comes to TiB, it seems the minions are restless, with airmen broadly calling for the program to be axed in favor of other priorities and less distraction.
When it comes to TiB, it seems the minions are restless, with airmen broadly calling for the program to be axed in favor of other priorities and less distraction.

Unwittingly, the Air Force already nominated TiB as a valid target for budget contraction by halting its operations for half of 2013. In doing so, the service celebrated savings amounting to an equivalent of around $3 million annually, but this number is incomplete. It excludes approximately $2 million in direct compensation to the members of the troupe, and ignores the roughly $4 million price tag associated with airlifting the show to its overseas destinations. Throw in hotels, meals, incidentals, cabs, and the $115,000 required to give each performer a monthly personal maintenance allowance, and the true monetary cost of TiB strains the scale at around $10 million per year.

This considerable figure doesn’t reflect the intangible cost of removing 40 airmen from the line (the Air Force sends each airman on a permissive temporary duty assignment, meaning their units do not receive replacements). It also doesn’t account for what airlift assets could be doing if they weren’t shuttling the team around. This number doesn’t even include the inestimable cost of ground transport for stateside shows, a number that could be quite high given that it takes more than two full-size tractor-trailers to move TiB’s gear and the members themselves.

The Air Force argues that the real cost to the taxpayer is less, given that non-appropriated funds (NAF) and sponsorship dollars cover some of the expense of operating TiB. But this begs the question whether supporting TiB is the best use of those NAF dollars. What else could $2.4M in organic funding be doing for the morale and welfare of airmen and families? It’s easy to imagine airmen offering a range of potential answers, if they were asked. But the Air Force isn’t asking.

As for the sponsorship argument, it’s disingenuous. Saying TiB is partially funded by sponsorships is like saying a squadron golf tournament is partially funded by the local Chevy dealership. Sponsorship doesn’t eliminate out-of-pocket (or in this case, out-of-treasury) costs, meaning there is still a discussion to be had as to whether that direct cost is vindicated by what is provided. This is the heart of the discussion the Air Force is affirmatively tuning out.

Does TiB provide a solid return on $10 million in taxpayers funds? What productivity enhancement can the Air Force hold out as evidence? Do bases perform better in subsequent readiness evaluations after a TiB performance? Do enemies dig their trenches deeper or lay down their arms? Are recruitment offices overrun with young Americans eager to cross into the blue in the days following a raucous 90-minute rendition of Vegas-esque cover tunes? Are commanders saturated with re-enlistment requests? Did we waste a decade hunting for Bin Laden when we could simply have invited him to a TiB performance in exchange for his unconditional surrender?

Is the Air Force talking straight or just whistling dixie on the subject of TiB?
Is the Air Force singing a high note or just whistling dixie on the subject of TiB?  Airmen do not seem entertained.

These questions, even the quasi-serious ones, aren’t getting asked or answered. Instead, the Air Force has offered a vaguely saccharine platitude, stating that it believes (not knows, but believes) “the program brings outstanding value and is an excellent tool for morale-building, community relations and recruiting.” This is a bundle of conclusions untethered from evidence. To attempt to support them, the Air Force points out that when it last asked wing commanders and senior generals in 2011, they overwhelmingly supported TiB. This carries the same evidentiary force as saying “last time I asked my golden retriever a question, it barked.” While demonstrative of basically nothing if taken at face value, this fact also predates the impact of sequestration. The dogs have been howling a different chorus in the years since, and should be consulted anew.

The most inexplicable claim made by the Air Force in defense of TiB is that it enhances morale. We have ample reason to doubt this notion.

TiB doesn’t go where morale is most needed — downrange. The band’s official schedule reflects no plans for a show anywhere in the United States Central Command Area of Responsibility. Indeed, the tour only makes it as far as Turkey before turning back, while private sector stalwarts such as Paul Wall, DJ Scoop, and Trae have published plans for a Persian Gulf tour. When the non-airmen start taking more risk than those who have been trained to fight and die for their country, we’ve got a bona fide musical absurdity on our hands. 

TiB’s aversion to sand dunes apparently does not extend to coral reefs, vineyards, or ancient ruins. While avoiding tour stops in places like Kandahar, Al Udeid, and Cannon — places where morale could use a boost — the tour touches down in Guam, Germany, and Italy, where morale is just fine (at least in the sense the term is employed by the Air Force in this discussion. More on that later). It’s certainly possible, given that the TiB calendar reveals a luxurious 26-day hiatus over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, that downrange tour stops will be added. (Ed. note: TiB did indeed add downrange tour stops in December 2014). But to the extent they are, it’s not clear the impact on airmen will be as the Air Force expects.

The Air Force believes that because generals say they like this show band, their airmen do too. This is an invalid assumption. Airmen overwhelmingly do not prefer TiB. It’s not their thing. They have favorite musical acts, and this isn’t one of them. They generally resent being coerced or directed to attend a show, having to interrupt their normal duties to set up for a TiB show or tear down after one, and quite commonly harbor resentment that TiB members are drawing the same paycheck and wearing the same uniform without being asked to bear the same gritty, sacrificial load for national defense. These are, of course, rebuttable propositions. But the only way to rebut them is for the Air Force to stop protecting TiB as a sacred cow and start asking itself what’s best for the farm.

Why does any of this matter? Who cares? 

Well, first of all, despite the pernicious habit among defense bureaucrats to pretend $10 million is “budget dust,” it’s actually a huge sum of money legally and morally entitled to stewardship. The Air Force is firing airmen. The money spent on TiB could keep a couple squadrons worth of those airmen at their duties for another year, perhaps preserving actual airpower capability that could end up mattering in a rapidly shifting national security picture. The budget dust argument has always been dumb anyway, because it depends on an isolated analysis. By itself, $10 million won’t shift the defense calculus significantly, but aggregated with all of the other instances of waste and abuse, it very well could. TiB isn’t the largest wasteful expenditure in the Air Force budget, but it’s one particularly susceptible to reform if rationally analyzed.

Have senior leaders lost their sense of what morale is (and what it isn't)?  The answer, it seems, lies between the notes.
Have senior leaders lost their sense of what morale is (and what it isn’t)? The answer, it seems, lies between the notes.

But there’s a bigger reason this all matters. It shows just how wooden Air Force leaders have become on the issue of morale. If they believe TiB enhances morale, they really have no idea what makes their people tick, and that raises a bunch of additional questions about what else might be out of tune in the grand orchestra of Air Force leadership. They think TiB is “cool” and worthy of protection because they tend to value ceremony and pageantry much more than their people, who see TiB and its numerous ilk as huge, noisy distractions from what matters, namely concluding or at least surviving involvement in hostilities and getting home to their families.

Morale grows from knowing and doing the difficult and important job of airpower as part of a cohesive team, not from watching a TSgt impersonate Elvis. If Air Force leaders really don’t get that, there aren’t enough amateur saxophonists in the world to drown out the Alarm Blue we should all be hearing. Enemies will be vanquished and security provided by inspired, tough, smart, dedicated airmen. They won’t get that way by playing silently resentful spectators to an over-priced, half-baked Partridge Family episode, no matter how much tinsel and blue paint is slapped on the exterior.

Is this a critique of individual TiB members? Not at all. They are wonderful and should be cherished, preferably as airpower practitioners who happen to have other talents rather than musicians who happen to hold rank in the Air Force.

Is this an argument to abolish TiB? Not exactly. It’s an argument to ask airmen what they want done with it. If it’s supposed to be for airmen, ask them if they think this is the best use of the $10 million. They might say the money would be better spent clearing the redeployment backlog at Al Udeid, or they might say TiB is awesome. Who knows, they might list other performers they’d like to see, and maybe a whole new idea could evolve — one that would involve channeling money to professionals airmen desperately want to watch but can’t because they’re always too busy or too deployed to make tour dates.

Why doesn’t the Air Force ask its airmen their opinion about Tops in Blue? Maybe it’s afraid of the answer. Maybe it truly labors under the mistaken notion that what made sense in 1953 makes sense six decades later, an odd notion for a warfighting service more wedded to evolving technology than the timeless value of human performance. But most likely, it’s because Tops in Blue’s existence supports the comforting notion that all is well. After all, a service with its own traveling show band can’t also be in the middle of a struggle for its ethical soul and institutional survival . . . right?

(drops mic)

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