But Seriously . . . a Note About the Air Force Band Program

Over the last few months, the JQP community has been periodically electrified with debate about the role and relevance of the Air Force’s burgeoning band program. At times, the verbal fisticuffs have devolved into exchanges of sophomoric jabs, with band members and apologists exhibiting insecurity and faux victimization syndrome on one side while their critics have taken various forms of pot shots — sometimes hitting below the belt.

The character of these discussions has sometimes trivialized them, obscuring the substantive and important issues animating arguments on all sides. But lurking in all of this sound and fury there is a serious point — one that needs to be squarely addressed by the Air Force at the highest level.

At the core of the band debate is the same question hanging over so many others: how to best allocate scarce resources in a time of (actual or merely claimed) austerity. Air Force Bands represent a considerable expenditure, with 10 band “squadrons” comprised of more than 600 airmen requiring not just direct compensation, but substantial travel and equipment budgets.

To some, this expense seems at odds with the message of conservation continually championed by service leaders and directly visited upon airmen through reduced training budgets, excruciating drawdowns in already-undermanned units, and across-the-board reductions to pay and housing allowances. The question asked by critics is very simple: how does the service justify tying up so many manpower positions and millions of dollars in funding on a vestigial capability with no combat role — especially when combat-relevant airmen are being cashiered involuntarily?

The Air Force’s answer, thus far, is a blend of official silence and weak argumentation through publicists and proxies. Neither General Welsh nor Secretary James have directly spoken to the issue of band funding, and inquiries to the Air Force Press Desk in preparation for this story went unanswered. By continually publicizing the activities of the service’s premier and regional bands through a seemingly ceaseless blitz of social media activity — at a level of intensity seldom applied to operational efforts — the Air Force sends an unspoken message that it greatly values its ceremonial capacity and is disinclined to consider further cuts. Band protectors argue that there have already been big reductions in the numbers of bandsmen over the past several years, and they argue further that bands provide a valuable form of community outreach while catering to the morale of fellow airmen. These arguments should be seriously considered, and indeed, it’s worth calling a “timeout” in the squabble between operators and bandsmen to carve out some common ground.

No one should question the individual worth, talent, or professional devotion of Air Force bandsmen. They deliver stirring and superb performances. They create amity in communities. They sometimes augment and enhance various forms of outreach undertaken by airmen and affiliates in a variety of contexts. While the claims of morale-boosting are specious with respect to active duty airmen, families and bases noticeably enjoy the services provided by bands. These are truly world-class performers, and that should never be in question.

But just as one can cherish the soldier while abhorring war, one can love music and adore musicians while questioning the value they represent to an organization that gets paid to fight and win wars. In a time of limited budgets, the question is not whether band members are amazing in their own right, and in fact we know they are. The question is whether they continue to represent the right sort of investment of manpower and money, and that’s a question that must be answered in terms of operational mission effectiveness rather than quality of entertainment.

The Singing Sergeants regale VCSAF General Larry Spencer with holiday carols.

In discussing this question with scores of airmen from dozens of different communities (including several current and former bandsmen with charitable views of the program), I’ve yet to have a single person make the argument that this exclusively ceremonial capability makes the Air Force better at flying, fighting, and winning. If indeed the band program is comprised of great airmen but they’re not doing a job that matters in combat results for the joint force, the rational, unemotional service response should be to reclassify those airmen to specialties where they are needed. This would affirm the dignity of the individuals involved without continuing to injure the service’s value stream by feeding an activity that is not connectable to its national defense mission.

One idea with promise relates to General Welsh’s 2012 push to rebuild squadrons by restoring administrative support — an effort that has not materialized for want of airmen to fill the billets Welsh ordered restored to unit manning documents. Without organic support staffs, squadron commanders struggle to interact effectively with the service’s lumbering personnel bureaucracy, and this leads to mis-prioritization on a mass scale as leaders sideline operational focus in order to complete necessary tasks related to the development and career progression of subordinates.

Welsh was right to recognize and attack this problem, but he was — in the opinion of many — wrong in not carrying through by ensuring the billets were filled. (His orders have been, in many cases, frustrated by his own personnel officers and civilians at base level and above — a story for another time). By dissolving regional bands and re-purposing the approximately 400 airmen comprising them, Welsh could provide two additional airmen to two hundred squadrons. This rapid infusion of organic support would put a huge dent in the problem of squadron under-resourcing, and would make commanders much more effective at juggling cumbersome administrative demands with continually worsening challenges of training and proficiency. Bandsmen would be more than capable of providing this support, and as an incidental benefit, would bring artistic talent to units across the service. To the extent the argument that “music equals morale” has any validity, this scheme would make that benefit more accessible where it is most needed.

While some have been mean-spirited in their criticisms of the band program, they have not necessarily been wrong. There are clues that beneath the veneer of ceremonial excellence and devotion to craft, bands sometimes devolve into some of the same sorts of wasteful and corrupt practices seen in other organizations.

Former band members speaking on the condition of anonymity gestured toward a few glowing examples of waste and abuse in the community. In one case, a regional band stationed in Germany is said to have used a significant portion of its annual travel budget to send a 70-person concert band on a pair of trips to Denmark and Austria — two countries with which the United States enjoys unquestioned diplomatic ties and favorable relationships.

USAFE Band performs on Veteran’s Day, 2014.

It’s difficult to see a rationale for playing shows in these garden spots — where we don’t need to show our flag much — rather than in places like Slovenia, Latvia, and Hungary, where growing interests argue for more interaction. The obvious question is whether these trips were necessary and justified. Insiders also say regional bands routinely eschew tight schedules and base facilities, instead opting for relaxed travel itineraries that allow for plenty of sightseeing launched from downtown hotels that cost taxpayers considerably more than base quarters.

There are also questions about how bands stock instruments and equipment, and whether these policies are appropriately budget-sensitive. Sources tell JQP that the process lacks rigor in many cases. Bandsmen are considered artists and given great latitude in determining when they need new instruments and which ones fit the bill. They’re often given essentially a “blank check” to shop around and locate their own equipment, often choosing boutique or customized articles rather than stock items. In one case, a keyboardist reportedly requested and was granted a $10,000 allowance to purchase a replica instrument for rehearsal in order to avoid the requirement to pack up and carry his keyboard on the road. This might make sense through a lens of pursuing excellence at any cost, but it flies in the face of basic fiduciary responsibility and seems to run counter to the ethos of a working band, which accepts the requirement of mobilizing instruments and tearing down/setting up for shows as part of the performer’s craft.

Each year, the Air Force reportedly sends every band commander and senior enlisted leader — along with a 70-person concert band — to an event called the “Midwest Clinic,” a gathering of high school and collegiate band directors from across the country. Billed as a community support and professional development activity, some insiders view it as a waste of perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars to facilitate a “rubbing of the elbows” for senior bandsmen. Through a filter of desiring and resourcing to have the best and most professional musical capability in the world, this might make sense. But through a filter of making enemies suffer from the sky, this and other examples provided by inside sources demonstrate a community utterly out of tune with the mission, and apparently free from the forces of austerity faced by operational units. The Air Force did not respond to media inquiries about these claims, and budget data on Air Force bands is not publicly available.

Band members perform at the Chief of Staff’s house.

If even a small percentage of the foregoing is taken to be accurate, why has the service been reluctant to divest its band program in the face of obvious misappropriation? Why hasn’t it recapitalized the attendant money and manpower to mission-centric activities? Is it because, as many have argued, general officers are attached to the bands as symbols of their status and importance? Is it because Brigadier General Kathleen Cook, who is responsible for all Air Force bands and would therefore be instrumental to a band drawdown, is herself a former band member with deeply rooted loyalty to the program? Or is there a larger point about losing prestige as a service — in a sense admitting in a very visible way that things are not as good as they once were?

Whatever the reason, rank-and-file airmen are looking for a justification from their leaders. As the service enters 2015, it has just come through the most painful drawdown in its history and is on the way to having less manpower than at any other time since its activation in 1947. Service leaders have said that every dollar counts. Airmen understand that message and want their leadership to act on it boldly while also recognizing that every airman counts. To the extent any program is not adding measurable value to the service mission, or to the extent that value can’t justify the costs incurred, service leaders must cease with dithering and stonewalling and act decisively to remedy the issue.

No one questions the need for a premier band to cater to the official and ceremonial functions of Air Force headquarters and to represent the service in a special way that only it can. But beyond that, there are serious questions about how much music is enough and how many ceremonial frills a budget-challenged warfighting service can afford. The debate over these questions is not a frivolous one — even if it sounds in flippant tones sometimes.

Airmen are right to insist these questions get an answer from their leaders. They are right to insist their leaders show the same level of budget consciousness expected of the rank-and-file. They’re right to point out obvious waste and mis-prioritization and expect that it be addressed.

But if the conduct of public affairs officials in 2014 is any indicator, the bands will play on without explanation.


Originally published at www.jqpublic-blog.com on December 29, 2014.

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