Ellen Mitchell from POLITICO has published this article profiling the desire of Congress to reduce U.S. military bands. This is not anything new. What might be new is the unprecedented level of scrutiny Congress wants to invest into military music, down to the quality of instruments that are utilized. Through the auspices of the Government Accountability Office, an entire review of military bands is being requested along with a detailed report from the Defense Secretary that also analyzes band recruitment, training, facilities and transportation. Keep in mind such reports cost time, manpower and taxpayer money.
So at best, what will this low hanging fruit really yield? In terms of dollars cited in POLITICO, eliminating the entirety of all U.S. military bands would save a paltry 0.075% of the defense budget ($437 million out of $585 billion). This 0.075% of budget dust actually returns an impressive and perhaps intangible investment. Examples include musical support for the funerals of our fallen and numerous other musical missions in outreach and international military diplomacy for millions throughout the world.
In fact, because of this 0.075% of the defense budget, a military band visited a combat hospital to sooth an injured child from a roadside IED, raised the morale for special operation forces with a rooftop concert on a remote compound in Afghanistan, and earned the admiration from Afghans who called in to a live radio show after hearing their own native musicians collaborating with a U.S. Air Force band. I know of these things because I was there.
So perhaps the Pentagon has not asked to reduce military bands because although they are a nearly invisible portion of the overall budget, they happen to provide critical soft power with visible impacts for millions of people around the world each year. But there is something that the Pentagon has asked Congress for...as many as five times consecutively.
In 2016 the Pentagon asked Congress once again to initiate a new Base Realignment and Closures process, known by the acronym BRAC. The Army’s excess capacity is 33 percent; the Air Force's is 32 percent; the Defense Logistics Agency's is 12 percent, and the Navy's is 7 percent, according to this Defense News article. In other words, the Pentagon needs a smaller house to lower the rent. Otherwise, it's wasted space and wasted money. The Pentagon has repeatedly asked for this in an effort to rein in billions of dollars over the long term - money that is critically needed to deal with issues such as these that truly impact the readiness and capability of our national defense. What has been the latest response from Congress?
Well instead of using BRAC to "lower the tree" and ensure resourcing for our top-line priorities, Congress seems more interested in picking the low hanging fruit that is our U.S. military bands. Sure, the military bands provide easy-to-see savings, but only if looking up under one tree. When zooming out to see the forest of our entire defense budget, the low hanging fruit of military bands seem nearly invisible. But if they are eliminated or reduced, so too will be the support to thousands of our brave military men and women, to thousands of our friends and partnerships around the world, and unfortunately to an untold number of military families who will not hear the bittersweet sound of military music to honor their loved one. This low hanging fruit nourishes a lot of people.
Unfortunately during these times of severe fiscal constraints, the "optics" of traveling military bands garners convenient scorn. However, instead of reducing military bands, I think we should at least double their percentage of the defense budget to a whopping 0.15%. Of course the return on that investment is not a dollar amount. Rather, it is an immeasurable and sometimes intangible benefit, likely only seen in the eyes of a smiling child in an allied foreign land, or heard in the proud vicinity of that deployed soldier, marine, sailor, or airman, or felt by a grieving but appreciative mother or spouse of one of our fallen. Those are the real optics. This is WHY we have military bands. But the bean counters will not understand this by reading spreadsheets. They need to deploy with a band, attend an outreach concert, or witness a military funeral before referring back to their spreadsheet's bottom line.
So is the position to reduce military bands for budget reasons just disingenuous, embarrassing politics, or both? I'm not sure but one thing is certain, as Benjamin Franklin would say, it seems penny-wise and pound-foolish.