Are Tops in Blue's days numbered?
The Air Force is surveying thousands of airmen to find out if they think the service's six-decade-old traveling showband should be continued as-is, should be modified to be brought in line with current trends – --or should be scrapped to save money.
The Air Force has long touted surveys showing that after Tops in Blue shows, 96 percent of commanders feel it provides an excellent value to airmen and the Air Force, and a 2011 survey of major command commanders that was overwhelmingly positive. But absent from those surveys has been the voice of everyday airmen -- – until now.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James requested feedback on the band from wings and airmen, Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Brooke Brzozowske said Tuesday. James will use that feedback to "assess the program with an eye toward further efficiencies."
"With any program such as this, the benefits of the program need to be weighed against the cost," Brzozowske said. "While the Air Force has collected feedback from MAJCOM and wing commanders, the secretary wanted to ensure airmen of all ranks were allowed to provide their thoughts."
The Air Force has attached a Tops in Blue question to an Internal Communication Assessment Group survey that went out on Monday to 2,249 enlisted airmen, 961 officers, and 1,464 civilian employees -- – for a total of 4,674 surveyed.
The Air Force 's deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, Lt. Gen. Sam Cox, also sent an email to major commands on Sept. 30 asking for further feedback from an unknown number of additional airmen, via wing commanders and command chiefs. Both surveys must be completed by Oct. 23.
A screenshot of an email sent out by one MAJCOM, which was posted on the John Q. Public Facebook page on Monday, asked officials to query younger airmen, as well as leadership on the program.
Tops in Blue is made up of amateur musicians and technicians drawn from the ranks of airmen, who travel the world to put on a show for airmen and their families. Between June and December this year, the 37 airmen making up the 2015 Tops in Blue team are scheduled to perform at least 53 shows at Air Force bases around the United States, as well as in England, Germany, Japan, South Korea and one date in Guam.
Some airmen say it's a welcome, family-friendly entertainment. But others – -- including some former Tops in Blue members – -- have said in comments responding to previous stories on the program that they think it's a waste of morale, welfare and readiness money. They also say that most airmen don't enjoy the programs, and ; in some cases, say they have been forced to attend.
The Air Force has officially budgeted at least $1.3 million for the program in 2015, which includes more than $1 million in MWR funds. That represents a nearly 13 percent increase in MWR funds from 2014.
Critics say MWR funds earmarked for Tops in Blue could be better spent on base amenities that are more popular with airmen and their families, such as movie theaters, swimming pools, libraries and hobby shops, which are themselves strapped for cash.
When the Air Force asks airmen what programs they think should be cut to save money, airmen often suggest cutting Tops in Blue, but those ideas have always been rejected. The Air Force said it believes Tops in Blue is an excellent ax excellet morale-building, community relations and recruiting tool.
The Air Force is also spending $319,000 in appropriated taxpayer funds on Tops in Blue this year, the same as in 2014. But earlier this year, corporate sponsorships were slated to decline, from roughly $170,000 in 2014 to $25,000 this year.
Critics also note that the Air Force's official budgetary estimates don't take into account the salaries of the members, which amount to at least another million dollars, or the travel costs for sending the team to concerts.