During the New Year’s week sports extravaganza, Americans are digesting plenty of reminders about their armed forces.
Navy was an official host sponsor of last weekend’s Military Bowl, held at the Naval Academy’s stadium in Annapolis, complete with a pregame parade. The Air Force flew F-15E jets over the stadium and had its parachute demonstration team swoop in at the Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise on Dec. 20.
And on Saturday, America’s best high school football players will be on national television at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
The marketing splurge, much of it with tax dollars or in-kind contributions, may seem contradictory for a Pentagon that for months has been publicly lamenting the impact of the sequester budget cuts and is preparing to roll out another austerity budget to a cost-conscious Congress.
The reality is the military is in the midst of trying to reduce its operations from two cash-heavy wars and move toward a leaner footprint still capable of fighting the war on terror. And, at the same time, it must find a way to recruit and retain talent for the next generation of war-fighting for its all-volunteer forces.
“Proactive community outreach ensures we connect with the American people to inspire the best and most qualified candidates to serve, support our troops at home and in dangerous places throughout the world and, ultimately, transition our military families back into communities ready to support them through education, employment and wellness initiatives,” Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, told The Washington Times in explaining this week’s marketing expenses.
To its credit, the Pentagon has tightened up its marketing outreach expenditures from their heyday, when some in Congress questioned why branches of the armed services had multimillion-dollar sponsorships of NASCAR racing cars but couldn’t justify a return on the investment.
Last year the Pentagon spent $129 million on marketing and outreach activities, down nearly half from the $233 million it spent in 2012.
Fiscal watchdogs may still find the current total way too high, especially when the Navy is experiencing problems ensuring that ships are repaired and ready to sail, and the Air National Guard is struggling to find enough funds to overhaul its aging aircraft.
But the totals, from the perspective of a Pentagon budget in the hundreds of billions a year, are a small drop. And some analysts believe cutting much more outreach may have a longer-term negative effect.
“You could cut out all public relations-related activities, every last one, and not buy an F-35 jet with it. It really is small money,” said Dan Goure, a national security analyst and vice president of the Arlington-based nonprofit Lexington Institute.
One strategic goal fulfilled by outreach spending is that the military needs to keep itself front and center and visible to the American people, both to recruit new fighting skills for cyberwarfare and to replenish traditional fighting ranks worn down by a decade of continuous war.
“At some point they will be damaging themselves,” Mr. Goure said about further cuts to outreach spending. “At some point, if you were to cut all this out, you will be damaging yourself, because you need the people, and if you can’t get them this way, then you’ll have to do more expensive things.”
The Pentagon is cognizant of the balancing act and sensitive to the criticisms that bowl game sponsorships, parade floats and flyovers can create the perception of budget excesses. That is why, in fiscal year 2014, it cut back significantly on flyovers, port visits, service weeks, military band travel and putting aircraft out on display at air shows, Mr. Urban said.
The question when Congress returns next week is whether the current outreach efforts will satisfy lawmakers eager to find more budget savings while rebuilding the U.S. military for its next challenges.