JERK THIS PERK

DAVID H. HACKWORTH
03 April 2001

Psst! Wanna visit exotic spots on a VIP jet? Sign up now and don't sweat the cost because there's no charge. Those blind suckers -- the U.S. taxpayers -- will be picking up the tab.

Air Force Major Jim Hecker recently sent this message to every U.S. senator's office: "Just a reminder about the Air Force trip to Alaska and Hawaii ... We currently only have two people signed ... We will need 2-3 more people to sign up or will be forced to cancel ... This should be a great trip."

The Pentagon moves tin filled with VIPs or wannabe VIPs with the same expertise as a private airline catering to the rich and famous. "You call, we haul in style" might as well be its motto. And if you don't call, the Pentagon will call you.

But when this reporter tried to get the specifics on what's going on, all I got was the old Pentagon runaround. Finally, an Air Force officer blew me off with: "It's a Department of Defense issue. Check with them."

I did find out that the USAF VIP air fleet has at least 130 aircraft, from Learjets to Boeing 747s. The price tag for all this tin is about $1 billion -- the annual running cost and number of crew, maintenance and administrative supporters, or about what it takes to maintain a major Air Force combat unit.

I asked a buddy in Kuwait about the VIP traffic that comes his way. He replied: "Over a 90-day period, we had over 40 DVs (distinguished visitors) -- secretaries, undersecretaries, congressmen and enough generals to fill a Greyhound bus. Today alone (29 March), we've had a four-star, a three-star and a two-star. The traffic always gets heavier at the end of the month ... so the top brass can get the tax break for being in a combat zone ..."

The U.S. military's toys and boys have been cut by 40 percent since 1991. But the size of the VIP fleet remains unchanged. Not only has it remained fat, a Senate aide says, "It's been modernized with vigor."

Major Hecker says, "The Air Force maintains and operates a variety of (VIP) aircraft to support peacetime and wartime requirements for the transportation of military and civilian leadership."

Of course, we can't expect Dubya or other big shots to fly coach when conducting the people's business. VIP birds are also needed for senior COs to run their operations, high-level delegations doing official business -- which certainly should exclude hunting expeditions to Alaska or shopping trips to South Korea, two current options in this category -- and for diplomatic missions.

For years, military and civilian brass and politicians have finagled trips on VIP planes when they should've flown commercial in the back of the bus. Not only do these boondoggles waste a lot of defense dough, they tie up air and maintenance crews who should be in operational squadrons. The size of the VIP fleet could easily be cut in half if such perks were zeroed out.

Since the government has negotiated extensive discount airfares with the airlines, those travelers without genuine priority business should take advantage of these cheap tickets. And if their designation is a base some miles from the nearest civilian airport, these users and abusers should try Budget Rental. No way should they be chauffeured directly to bases in USAF VIP jets for routine stuff.

In case you think our lawmakers don't know what's going on, think again. Remember, they're the very people being solicited and taken on irrelevant VIP free rides -- free for them, that is, not the taxpayer. Six years ago, a General Accounting Office study said to cut the fleet by half, but who's going to stop flying VIP Gold while the Major Heckers are out there hustling pleasure trips?

Our troops could sure use the savings the Pentagon bank would get from gutting and cutting its VIP fleet. Right now, the Army's mighty 3rd Division is not combat-ready. Naval and Air Force aircraft are falling from the sky like January snow in Anchorage, and tactical aircrews are short-handed.

If a billion bucks a year carved from the self-appointed privileged class went to the troops, it would go a fair way toward allowing our armed forces to do their primary job -- Defending America.