Monthly breakfast meetings convened well before the work day in hotels scattered near the Pentagon are part of the inside-the-Beltway military culture.
Often hosted by the services' respective associations, they're a chance for leaders to trot out an official to present a pressing topic. Industry officials, defense analysts and reporters slurp coffee and come to terms with paying sometimes $40 for buffet-style eggs as bigwig du jour runs through a Power Point brief most have already seen.
Most reporters don't even turn on their recorders during the briefings. Rarely is anything new said. It's the question-and-answer period that gets the crowds out of bed early or willing to push their PT sessions to the afternoon. These Q&A periods can offer a glimpse at the state of a service.
This budget season has been especially eye-opening when comparing the Air Force to the Army. At the outset, many speculated the Army took the brunt of the budget cuts, having to sustain a reduction of up to 80,000 soldiers. A severe cut, to be sure, but you couldn't tell at the breakfasts hosted by the Association of the U.S. Army.
The Army has moved on. Not in the sense it's happy it had to make those cuts, but the service is clearly unified. Questions at the breakfasts stay focused on the future. More time is spent talking about future missions then specific cuts doled out by budget planners.
Air Force presenters at the Air Force Association's breakfast face a stiffer line of questioning. Realizing this might be their only chance to receive an audience with Gen. du Jour, the questions are pointed and focus specifically on the 2013 budget. Or, maybe a recent controversy such as the F-22 and its difficulty keeping pilots from suffocating during flight.
The rooms seem tense as the generals try to walk the audience through their reasoning for cutting the C-27J, or why researchers continue to study oxygen generation system aboard the F-22. Tuesday morning, a nervous chuckle popped up when Lt. Gen. Christopher D. Miller, the deputy chief of staff for Strategic Plans and Programs, said the Air Force will need more money if the nation expects to continue fielding a competent Air Force.
Air Force leaders took on a fight they needed more time to win. A battle with the National Guard is difficult enough when a service has a full budget cycle to explain to Congress why it had no choice but to cut Guard units. The Budget Control Act didn't give the service that time. Now, its decision to cut deep into Guard coffers has the Air Force leadership taking fire every time they leave their Pentagon offices -- Beltway breakfasts included.
With Air Force officials starting their mornings on their heels, the Army has taken a different approach. Even those Army leaders in the acquisition world who have long taken flak for past failures have turned it around and gone on the offensive. Questions about FCS have died out. Instead, everyone wants to ask about the Network Integration Evaluation and how to get on board.
You hear the phrase "tough choices" a lot less when eating eggs next to soldiers wearing their Class A uniforms. Instead, "new missions" pop up throughout the questions. Or, "new training."
These breakfasts offer but a small window into these services, but sometimes the only time an officer can think clearly is while he's drinking his or her coffee before entering the five-sided building that sits alongside the Potomac River.