Analyst: Military bands to cost Pentagon $50B over next 50 years

The Defense Department could be shelling out nearly $50 billion in the next 50 years for its military bands, a prominent defense analyst says, a figure that could raise eyebrows amid Washington’s new climate of fiscal restraint.

“The nation's military services really are going to spend over $25 billion on music bands in the coming years,” Lexington Institute COO and industry consultant Loren Thompson said.

After adjusting that figure for inflation and other factors, Thompson projects the nominal costs of the bands will approach $50 billion — a price tag he derided as “ridiculous.”

The estimate comes at a time when Washington is grappling with the federal debt. Once considered immune from cuts, the Pentagon is getting a fresh look from lawmakers eager to find savings, and the department is expecting budget reductions in 2012.

Congressional leaders and the White House already slashed the military's 2011 budget request by $18 billion, and President Obama has called for finding another $400 billion in defense cuts over the next 12 years.

Senior House defense appropriators have told The Hill they already have some ideas about areas in the military budget that are ripe for cuts. The band programs could become a target.

The $50 billion tab calculated by Thompson includes travel for band members, salaries and a range of personnel costs.

The sheer number of military bands helps explain the projected total.

The Hill was unable to locate a single listing of all military bands, but the Army alone has more than 100, according to a U.S. Army Bands website.

The nation’s ground service has 35 active-duty bands, 18 Army Reserve bands and over 50 made up of Army National Guard groups, according to the site.

The Air Force has at least 15 bands, 11 regionally organized Air National Guard groups and at least one Air Force Reserve band, according to the Air Force Bands Program website.

Because formal ceremonies are ingrained in military culture, the number of bands has swelled over the years, analysts said.

“The military bands certainly serve a useful function for ceremonies and other important events,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Studies.

“Your performances might include parades down Main Street USA or the Avenue des Champs Elysees in Paris; military ceremonies aboard carriers at sea; public shows and concerts; and live radio and television broadcasts,” according to the Navy Music Program’s website.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has often used a line in budget speeches noting, “We have more people in military bands than they have in the Foreign Service.”

Gates has said he borrowed the quotation from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

With that many bands, overall costs can swell quickly, analysts said.

Thompson’s figures were generated from a 2010 Washington Post article that calculated the military spends $550 million annually on all its bands.

“Multiply that number by 50 years and then add in a modest inflation factor — say, 2.5 percent per year, compounded — and half a century later you're talking real money, as the late Sen. Everett Dirksen [R-Ill.] might have put it,” Thompson wrote on the think tank’s website.

“If you add inflation and indirect costs like retirement benefits, the ‘then-year’ cost of military bands is more like $50 billion,” Thompson wrote.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said the $25 billion figure is a "good ballpark estimate" for how much the bands might cost over the next 54 years, with adjustment for inflation. She said the total cost for the bands without inflation would be around $17 billion.

The spokeswoman said the Pentagon would spend around $320 million in 2011 for band-related bills.

A $500 million annual military-bands budget “does seem rather high,” Harrison said. “I’m sure the department would be just fine with a lower budget for music.”

The comment from Gates, who last year spearheaded an effort that trimmed over $100 billion from within the Pentagon budget, led some DOD observers to question whether he would eliminate some of the groups. Ultimately, that did not happen.

While trimming the military’s music tab might be an attractive target for Pentagon bean counters, Harrison said there is no shortage of targets within a nearly $700 billion yearly budget, a figure that includes war spending.

“There are literally thousands of items in the budget smaller than this that could be trimmed a bit to reduce costs without losing anything in terms of military capabilities,” Harrison said. “The challenge is finding them all and then making the cuts stick.”

Thompson said he decided to construct the post around the “cumulative cost for military bands between now and the year 2065” to combat criticism about the alleged life-cycle cost of the F-35 fighter fleet.

Over the same 53-year span, some allege the total cost of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fleet will top $1 trillion.

Thompson, a proponent of the F-35, said critics of the program fail to note the impacts of inflation.

“In the 1970s you could buy a new Mustang convertible for less than $5,000,” Thompson wrote. “Half a century is a very long time in economic terms.”

Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense spending for the Clinton administration, said projecting military costs 50 years into the future — either for fighter jets or bands — is "voodoo economics."

The number of military music groups is not likely to be pared, Adams said, "because people like all the pomp and circumstance."