TAMPA — You won't find many taxicabs or Humvees at MacDill Air Force Base on Friday when Gen. David Petraeus takes the helm of U.S. Central Command.
As Americans cope with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, CentCom is renting 40 luxury sedans and 40 high-end sport utility vehicles to ferry generals and VIPs, purchase documents show.
And they don't come cheaply.
While documents show CentCom estimated the vehicle cost at $56,000, a CentCom spokesman said the figure was closer to $40,000 and included rentals for additional buses and vans.
"They can't take cabs? What's wrong with Humvees?" asked military analyst Winslow Wheeler. "This is extremely offensive, and this should provide an example for Sens. McCain and Obama about the excesses of defense spending."
CentCom officials, however, said on Monday that Pentagon rules spell out exactly what types of vehicles are used to drive generals three-star or above and other VIPs for official ceremonies.
CentCom has little discretion, the spokesman said. Pentagon officials could not be reached to comment late Monday.
"Every effort is made to do this as frugally as possible while fulfilling Department of Defense protocol and force-protection requirements," said Maj. Joe Kloppel, a CentCom spokesman.
MacDill did not have adequate or appropriate transportation to meet CentCom's needs, he said.
And Kloppel said CentCom doesn't ask for luxury vehicles. CentCom could provide no breakdown on what kinds of vehicles will actually be delivered to MacDill.
But a copy of a "Request for Purchase" obtained by the St. Petersburg Times shows CentCom sought "luxury sedans" and said that the sedans be "Cadillac type," no older than 2008 models.
Documents suggested the SUVs be Chevrolet "Suburban type" vehicles.
The vehicles are rented for a week, documents show. CentCom declined to say which business is providing them, though Kloppel said the rentals were competitively bid.
He said CentCom needs the vehicles several days so security can screen them and the rental period would be less than a week. They are not specially outfitted with things like bulletproof glass or radio equipment. All come with unlimited mileage.
VIPs will be chauffeured and may use the vehicles for other official business beyond Friday's one-hour change-of-command ceremony, Kloppel said.
"They try to be good stewards of taxpayer money" and use the cars for other official business while in the Tampa Bay area, Kloppel said.
Kloppel could not say what transportation arrangements have been made at previous changes of command.
With U.S. defense spending somewhere north of $600-billion annually, taxpayer watchdogs say a few thousand dollars spent on vehicles may not amount to much.
But some say expenditures like this may demonstrate how out of touch the military may be with the economy at large.
"The fact that the defense budget is sacrosanct in Washington makes them more insulated from financial concerns," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington.
"It's a statement that they're just going to do this as they have always done and we're going to have a big splash."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or at (813) 269-5306.