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Air Force ads’ intent questioned

Times Staff Writers

Troubling images flash across the screen, showing black-clad terrorists, tsunami-flooded villages and the Chinese army.

“Only the United States Air Force has the speed, power and vision to defend our nation for the century ahead,” the announcer intones as an F-22 fighter jet flies over a snowy mountaintop. “U.S. Air Force, above all.”

There is nothing unusual about seeing military recruiting ads right now. But in Congress and the Pentagon, many believe that the new Air Force ads are less about recruiting and more about lobbying for extra money.

Some lawmakers perceive the ads as an Air Force effort to acquire newer equipment. And, in rare criticism from others in the military, some Pentagon officials believe that the ads are meant to buck Bush administration spending priorities and to push the Air Force’s agenda. “It doesn’t look like a recruiting ad,” said a senior Pentagon official. “The Air Force does appear to be pushing the envelope.”

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The ads are part of a $25-million campaign called “Above All,” for television, radio, the Internet and newspapers. Unlike traditional recruiting campaigns, the ads do not highlight what the military offers individuals who join. Instead, they stress how the Air Force protects the nation.

Some Pentagon officials are asking why the Air Force needs recruiting ads, since the service has no trouble meeting its recruiting goals and is supposed to be downsizing, not growing.

The slogan also puzzles some military officials. One Defense official said “Above All” evoked the phrase “uber alles” from the national anthem used by Nazi Germany, which roughly translates to “above all.”

Air Force officials reject all of those charges, defending their ads as an innovative, and needed, recruiting campaign.

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“It’s designed to be a little provocative, to create a dialogue, to engage, so that a significant portion of the public is informed about what we do for America so as to help people join our team,” said Maj. Gen. William A. Chambers, Air Force communications director. The main target is not potential recruits, but adults who advise young people about whether to enlist, Chambers said.

The ads contain no explicit pitch to sign up, but they do refer viewers to a recruiting website, www.airforce.com.

The service has asked for more than $50 million to fund another round of “Above All” ads next year, as part of a $112.5-million advertising budget. Air Force officers said they brought in German language experts to make sure the “Above All” catchphrase did not evoke the words “uber alles” with German speakers.

And Air Force officials said that like all recruiting ads, the campaign emphasizes the uniqueness of an individual military service, but is not meant to put down the other branches.

When it comes to asking for money, the military services must walk a narrow path. The Pentagon has large planning and acquisition staffs that set national security priorities. And Congress requests a “wish list” each year to highlight the needs of the various services that did not receive Defense Department funding.

But it is against the law for the military to directly lobby Congress for money.

To some members of Congress, the recruiting ads look suspiciously like a lobbying effort.

Rep John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, called the advertising campaign “outrageous” and questioned in a recent letter to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates whether it amounted to an illegal lobbying effort. Gates asked Air Force officials to talk to Murtha, who said through a spokesman that his concerns have been addressed.

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Other lawmakers continue to be uneasy. In a statement, Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.) said the Air Force responded to his concerns but he still believed Congress should “thoroughly examine” the ads. “Congress has an obligation to make sure that our taxpayer dollars are being spent responsibly and appropriately,” Boyd said.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) questioned top Air Force leaders about the ad in a March 11 hearing. Jim Specht, a spokesman, said Lewis still considers the ads part of an effort to secure a larger share of the budget.

“It may be within the letter of the law in terms of lobbying Congress, but it is way past the spirit of the law,” Specht said.

Lewis is particularly incensed over ads that have seemed to target the Washington area. Two full-page newspaper ads ran in the Washington Post, which has a very low circulation outside the capital region. That suggests the ads were “strictly designed to lobby Congress,” Specht said.

Suspicion within the Pentagon is fueled by perceptions that the Air Force has been pressing too aggressively for more money to update aging air fleets.

Gates has not seen the advertisements and has not singled out the Air Force for criticism, a senior Pentagon official said. But Gates expresses frustration whenever he sees a military service pushing Congress for extra funds, the official said.

“He believes that despite what they might wish, that people should support the president’s budget,” said the official.

Although Gates is “mindful of the need to prepare” for potential future conflicts, the official said, “we are fighting two wars right now, and he wants to make sure no one is overlooking that fact or conducting business as usual.”

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One “Above All” ad on the Air Force website highlights the service’s contribution in Iraq. But the bulk of the campaign is focused on other challenges, such as cyberattacks.

Air Force officials say that the fact that they are emphasizing preparation does not mean they have shifted their focus from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It is our No. 1 priority to win the current fight,” said Chambers. “Do we have eyes on the future? Yes. But that is part of giving good military advice.”

And though the Air Force is supposed to shrink, top officials say, they have asked Congress for money to halt the cuts and restore its ranks. The Air Force’s budget proposal, released in February, says the objective of the advertising campaign is to increase the service’s “brand awareness.”

“The program seeks to change a mind-set by educating the American public on how today’s Air Force is the most engaged, versatile and high-tech of all military services,” the budget document says.

Officials more recently insisted that the ads first and foremost are recruiting spots.

Ads have run on the History Channel and during the NCAA tournament. The ads aim at parents, teachers and other adults in a position to act as “influencers” to potential recruits, officials said.

“If we are even thinking about turning around from a declining Air Force to an increasing Air Force, we need to show what we are doing in support of the nation,” said Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne.

“We need the influencers not to think about the Air Force as a dead end.”

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com


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