For years now, I’ve been a vocal critic of the Air Force’s multi-million dollar traveling show choir, Tops in Blue. I’ve called for its cancellation for as long as I can remember, long before retiring from active duty and starting this blog.
The criticism hasn’t been frivolous. In a time of declining budgets and tough choices (to include the recent revelation that three volleys will no longer be fired at veteran funerals), there’s just no rationale — and no excuse — for continuing to devote resources to something that provides no discernible military advantage, doesn’t enhance morale, and is somewhere between self-serving and a vanity project for senior officials.
Since starting this blog, I’ve tried to get beyond mere personal misgivings and effectively channel the qualms of airmen, who have overwhelmingly repudiated the show choir and called for its termination. It’s been a popular nominee for the budgetary gallows ever since the service started asking airmen their opinions. Actively ignoring those inputs has earned senior leaders the ire of airmen who are watching the service get eviscerated by manning reductions and mission escalations while waste continues unchecked.
Behind the public complaints, commanders have also quietly grumbled about giving away personnel and funds, generating airlift, and providing free labor to support shows absent any genuine interest — much less demand — among the rank and file.
After years of steadfast resistance, supported by propaganda exaggerating the value and relevance of the program, the Air Force has abruptly changed course. In something of a Festivus miracle, officials announced on December 21st that Tops in Blue will play its final show in January and close up shop thereafter.
Of course, the announcement tried to downplay itself, sounding almost like a coerced concession rather than than the obvious and simple choice it represents.
Lt. Gen Gina Grosso remarked that “[t]he decision to pause and reassess the 2016 Tops in Blue season was a tough one.” Really a rather ridiculous statement. How many airmen to cut or retain in which career fields is a tough decision. Whether to prioritize modernization or recapitalization is a tough decision. Whether to conduct an airstrike on an enemy target with the possibility of civilian casualties is a tough decision. Putting the axe to a frivolous and unpopular distraction is about as easy as it gets, and begs for a clear statement from a three-star leader.
Brig. Gen. Lenny Richoux said that feedback “indicated this was not a cut-and-dr[ied] decision.” Yet the service stipulates that 81% of airmen surveyed were not in favor of maintaining the show choir. In a recent unscientific survey here at JQP, 97% of more than 2,000 respondents said they preferred a free taco to a Tops in Blue performance. “Cut and dried” being defined as “completely settled or decided” … in the minds of an overwhelming majority of airmen, this issue has been cut-and-dried for a long time.
But while the statement from the Air Force is unsatisfying, the decision is right, and while the language sounds equivocal, the decision is final. Don’t be fooled by insistences that this is a “pause” to review options. Airmen made their voices heard, and literally forced the service to say goodbye to this particular frill if it wanted to maintain budgetary credibility. Now it’ll safeguard that credibility because it’s in the interest of the service to be free from this particular criticism.
That means the burden has shifted. Restoring the program after its canceled 2016 season would be an uphill battle requiring a meritorious argument that isn’t available. Tops in Blue is not coming back, and that’s a good thing.
There’s something very important worth registering here. Airmen are absolutely yearning for common sense decisions like this one — so much so that when they get news like this, it’s like icewater in the desert heat … they are ecstatic and cannot get enough. In the few hours after I shared this news to Facebook, I watched it go viral, rapidly reaching tens of thousands of newsfeeds. That’s remarkable for a story this far into the sidelight of mainstream Air Force coverage, and it shows just how hungry people are for decisions that are responsive to their inputs and make basic sense. In an era of rampant BS, the provider of a nickel’s worth of common sense is an instant millionaire.
The lesson for the Air Force here is to look for other ways to start making sense and to do so more often and more forcefully. Get the Air Force back under mission control and mission-oriented thinking. That’s how you’ll start to rebuild morale … one small step at a time.
Not to suggest that this is a small thing. It isn’t. It represents a Secretary who broke from the status quo championed by her generals to open her ears and listen to airmen … and it represents the death of a sacred cow that was overdue for the slaughterhouse by decades. Any time we can pocket $10M and find three dozen manpower authorizations simply by slashing waste, that’s a win. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a winning streak.
For those a little nostalgic about the impending conclusion of the often sharp-edged Tops in Blue commentary here at JQP, I leave you with this compendium. Enjoy.
Powered By Innovation: a Single-Question Morale Survey for Airmen [the Taco Survey]
Tops in Blue Performance Director Resigns
Dischord: Problems With Traveling Show Choir Expose Disconnect Between Airmen, Senior Officials
Suspicious Minds: Generals Herald Tops in Blue, Airmen Hear Symphony of Distraction
Emma Sky Recounts Embarrassing Tops in Blue Show; “To a Muslim, it was pornographic.”
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