PENSACOLA NAVAL AIR STATION — The Navy's Blue Angels have been thrilling audiences for more than six decades with aerobatics in fighter planes, but a new era of federal budget worries and proposed deficit cutting has caused some inside and outside the military to question the millions it costs to produce the 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 on the Blue Angels, whose mission is to enhance recruiting for the Navy and Marines and to be their public goodwill ambassador. It'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 debt supercommittee in Washington last week combined with spending reductions previously hammered out by President Barack Obama and Congress mean the Pentagon is looking at nearly $1 trillion in cuts to projected spending over 10 years.
The Air Force Thunderbirds and the Army's Golden Knights paratroopers also perform 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 Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington group. 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 that about 11 million people see the squadron's F/A-18 fighter jets scream and twist overhead each 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 to 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 Washington's Virginia suburbs, said it is unlikely anyone in Congress would 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.
Republican Congressman Jeff Miller, who represents the Pensacola base and serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said the Blue Angels' popularity 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.
It has already been a tough 65th year for the Blue Angels, based at Pensacola Naval Air Station in the Florida Panhandle.
McWherter, who commanded the team from November 2008 through 2010, returned in May when his replacement, Cmdr. Dave Koss, resigned after flying below minimum altitude at a Virginia air show. Koss realized the mistake and pulled out of the maneuver, but the error, which could have caused a crash, prompted an internal investigation and a monthlong safety stand-down. The Blue Angels had to cancel their traditional fly-over at the Naval Academy's graduation in Annapolis, Md.
The Blue Angels last had a fatal accident in 2007 when a pilot lost control of his F/A-18 and crashed in Beaufort, S.C.
A September crash of a civilian plane at a Nevada air race killed 11 spectators and the pilot, but McWherter emphasized that Blue Angels air shows are different from air races like the one in Nevada. Blue Angels follow strict FAA guidelines for each show and maintain a standard safety zone from crowds, he said. Blue Angels performances are designed to appear dangerous and exciting, but the shows are carefully choreographed and performed by experts.
The 2011 budget funded 70 performances in 35 U.S. cities, continuing a tradition that began after World War II when Adm. Chester W. Nimitz wanted to continue support for naval aviation during peacetime and spotlight the Navy and Marines for recruits who live far from Navy bases.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the Blue Angels are important because they show the incredible skill level of the U.S. military. The Blue Angels are "ambassadors for not just the Navy but for the entire American military across this country and around the world."