In southern Arizona, troops take part in a large-scale search-and-rescue exercise called Operation Angel Thunder.
In southern Arizona, troops take part in a large-scale search-and-rescue exercise called Operation Angel Thunder. Ted Robbins/NPR
Five Air Force Pave Hawk helicopters are parked or landing in the high desert east of Tucson, Ariz. They are transporting victims of a mock earthquake as part of a training exercise called Operation Angel Thunder.
"We were always known for staying really quiet and not really saying much," says Brett Hartnett, who started Operation Angel Thunder five years ago.
This year — with the Obama administration seeking 10 percent, or $450 billion, in defense cuts over the next decade — Hartnett realized that's not such a great strategy. So he pushed for public exposure through the media.
"I think there's concern everywhere that money might disappear, and we're as concerned as everybody else," he says.
Since the program began, it has grown to include military and civilians from 16 countries.
"We're the same guys who do the Katrinas, the Ritas, the pulling people off of Mount McKinley, are the same guys doing the combat rescues in Iraq, in Afghanistan," Hartnett says.
The two-week exercise costs less than $2.5 million, a pittance to the military.
A member of a helicopter flight crew participating in Operation Angel Thunder walks across the desert in southern Arizona.
A member of a helicopter flight crew participating in Operation Angel Thunder walks across the desert in southern Arizona. Ted Robbins/NPR
Todd Harrison, who analyzes the Defense Department for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, says programs such as Angel Thunder are probably safe.
"You could cut them, you could even eliminate them, but it doesn't free up enough money to be worth your time as a budget cutter," he says.
When you need to cut money, he says, you go where the money is.
"The largest program right now in DOD is the Joint Strike Fighter," he says. "So just by the fact of its size, it's going to come under increased scrutiny."
The fighter is also behind schedule and over budget. So far, it has cost taxpayers $235 billion. Some estimates say it could eventually cost up to $1 trillion. Weapons systems, though, can actually be easier to cut than other programs.
By Harrison's count, the military canceled 12 major weapons systems over the past decade — $50 billion spent, with none of them deployed. He says the current consensus is that the U.S. needs to cut troop levels.
"I can tell you that a lot of people think that we may now be overinvested in our ground forces," he says.
Ending two wars would allow a troop drawdown, but those are tough cuts — jobs. More than half of all federal employees work under the Defense budget. Local economies depend on existing defense programs. To keep funding, those programs need to maintain support — inside the Pentagon itself and among members of Congress. And finally, assuming your project is not top-secret, you get the word out to the public.
"People just don't realize what this really is until they see it," Hartnett says regarding Angel Thunder. "Once you see what this is, people are pretty amazed."
The one thing that could hurt Operation Angel Thunder regardless of its size? If Congress decides that it's too hard to pick individual programs to cut and orders an across-the-board reduction instead.