PENSACOLA NAVAL AIR STATION, FLA. — The Navy's Blue Angels have been thrilling audiences for more than six decades with their acrobatic flying in fighter planes, but a new era of federal budget worries and proposed deficit cutting has some inside and outside the military raising questions about the millions it costs to produce their shows.
Some want the popular shows grounded and some readers of the Air Force Times newspaper - most of them active or retired service members - recently listed eliminating the Blue Angels and similar programs as one way to cut defense spending.
The Pentagon spends $37 million for the Blue Angels, whose mission is to enhance recruiting for the Navy and Marines and to be their public good-will ambassador. That's a fraction of the Pentagon's $926 billion annual budget, but that's not the point, critics say. They argue that lots of smaller programs will have to be eliminated to meet required spending reductions.
Automatic cuts triggered by the collapse of the deficit-reduction supercommittee in Washington this week combined with spending reductions previously hammered out by President Obama and Congress mean that the Pentagon would be looking at nearly $1 trillion in cuts to projected spending spanning 10 years.
The Air Force's Thunderbirds and the Army's Golden Knights paratroopers also perform in big public shows.
"It goes to show the scale of the Department of the Defense budget - the defense Department always goes big," said Laura Peterson, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based group Taxpayers for Common Sense. She said the money could be better spent on other programs. "The point is to look at all federal spending. We can no longer afford the wants; we have to look at the needs."
But Capt. Greg McWherter, the Blue Angels' commander, said his team fills a vital national security role by improving morale, helping with recruiting and presenting a public face for the nation's 500,000 sailors and Marines. The Navy says about 11 million people see the squadron's F/A-18 fighter jets scream and twist overhead during each year's show season, from March through November.
"We still live in a country that has an all-volunteer force. Everyone that signs up to join the military does so because they were motivated and inspired; maybe it was an aunt or an uncle, maybe it was a teacher or maybe it was the Blue Angels, you never know," he said.
"It is difficult to put a price on that and on the number of young men and women inspired by a performance." But, he said, it helps ensure "that the Navy and the Marine Corps is strong 10 to 15 years from now."
Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the conservative think tank Lexington Institute in Northern Virginia, said it is very unlikely anyone in Congress would specifically target the Blue Angels, because the team is so popular.
"I think any legislator who called for eliminating the Blue Angels would be digging and digging through emails filled with outrage," he said.
But he said it is possible spending for the Blue Angels, Air Force Thunderbirds and other military promotional programs could be curtailed under a larger umbrella bill as Congress and the administration look for ways to cut federal spending.
"No provision specifically aimed at cutting the Blue Angels will ever pass, but that doesn't mean the Blue Angels are safe from budget cuts," he said.
Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican who represents the Pensacola base and serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said it's the popularity of the Blue Angels that will keep the program alive.
"You can ask the hundreds of thousands of people who come out each weekend and see them fly and know they aren't going anywhere," he said.