Two Bradley Fighting Vehicles flank the stage being prepared in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Wednesday, July 3, 2019, in Washington, ahead of planned Fourth of July festivities with President Donald Trump. Picture: Jacquelyn Martin / AP Photo

WASHINGTON - The B-2 bomber could cost $700,000 (R9.8m). Two F-22 fighters, about $300,000 (R4.2m). The Blue Angels demonstration team, close to $320,000 (R4.5m). And two F-35 jets, upward of $660,000 (R9.2m).

These estimates, based on a conservative analysis using Pentagon flight-cost estimates and other military data about the aircraft, highlight something the Trump administration has left murky as it plans its Independence Day celebration in Washington: How much it will cost.

The aerial review portion of President Donald Trump's expanded July 4 event could cost more than $2 million (R28m), as about two dozen aircraft soar by the National Mall in a show of military might.

But the air show is just one part of the expected multimillion-dollar effort to bring Trump's vision to life.

There's also the estimated $2.5 million (R35m) the National Park Service is diverting to cover activities associated with the celebration. 

By comparison, according to former Park Service Deputy Director Denis Galvin, the entire Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall typically costs the agency about $2 million (R28m).

And there's the yet-to-be-determined cost of military activities on the ground, including shipping two M1A2 Abrams tanks on rail cars from Fort Stewart in Georgia along with other armored vehicles that are expected to flank Trump as he speaks Thursday evening.

In 2018, when Trump last floated his idea for a military parade in Washington, it was scuttled after defense officials estimated it would cost $92 million (R1.2bn), including $50 million (R700m) in Defense Department money.

The Pentagon has not provided an estimate for how much the July Fourth celebration will cost the federal government, and an official accounting for it could be complicated.

Tom Crosson, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday that each branch of service will pay for its own aircraft to participate. The costs will be determined after the event is over, he said.

The Pentagon will use creative accounting to handle the assignment. A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the conversation, said that the services will use allotments of training hours from the units involved, muddying the waters on what costs can be counted against the celebration.

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense budget expert at the Brookings Institution, said there is some validity to that, but argued that the Pentagon couldn't reasonably say the air show is a replacement for training exercises.

"If they're trying to justify the money, it's a fool's errand to say this is just as good as any other training," O'Hanlon said. "To the extent that it can be separated from Trump himself and be turned into a celebration of the country itself, the military maybe boosts its image, but it's not a one-to-one replacement for other training activities."

Trump, in a tweet Wednesday, defended the cost of the celebration, saying it will be "very little compared to what it is worth."

"We own the planes, we have the pilots, the airport is right next door (Andrews), all we need is the fuel," Trump tweeted. "We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats. Nice!"

But that's only part of the story.

Some of the aircraft, such as the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, won't actually be landing at Joint Base Andrews. A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the plane will travel several hours from its home at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, appear over Washington and return without landing. It costs about $140,000 (R1.4m) per hour to fly.

The Blue Angels will travel from their base in Pensacola, Florida, to participate, and typically send eight F/A-18 Hornets to events in an effort to make sure six are ready to go. Each Hornet costs about $10,000 (R140 000) per hour to fly - a cost that adds up not only during the Salute to America but also in traveling to Washington. 

A C-130 with the nickname "Fat Albert" also travels with the Blue Angels in a support role, adding another cost.

The defense official said that the Pentagon wasn't inclined to push back on the requests from the White House. Although flying the planes is expensive, the services often perform flyovers for events such as the Super Bowl, and consider that doing so is healthy for community relations and helpful to recruiting.

"We do this sort of stuff all the time," the defense official said.

But rarely do flyovers include so many aircraft.

The cost of the event drew increasing scrutiny from Democrats on Wednesday, with some pointing out reports that the White House is distributing VIP tickets for Trump's speech at the Lincoln Memorial to Republican donors and political appointees.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who enlisted in the Navy Reserve after college, criticized the event while on the campaign trail.

"This business of diverting money and military assets to use them as some kind of prop, to prop up a presidential ego, is not reflecting well on our country," said Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., called the situation "shameful."

"But sure, let's throw a taxpayer-funded rally so Trump can brag about the President's military power while @SenateGOP continues to block funds to pay medical costs for 9/11 first responders," he said sarcastically on Twitter.

Menendez was referring to legislation to renew the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said the Republican-led chamber is working to pass the bill by August.

Steve Ellis, president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, suggested that the military is well loved and does not need the celebration.

"This is all an unnecessary and distracting expense from an event that already celebrates the nation's birth in the nation's capital with a parade, a concert and a fireworks show," he said. 

"People don't need a flyby to be impressed by our country's military men and women."

The Washington Post