President Donald Trump has long pined for tanks and fighter jets as part of a major holiday celebration, and this 4th of July the President is finally, at long last getting his wish. The United States is preparing for its most militaristic 4th of July in years, as Trump turns the annual non-political DC celebration on the national mall into a campaign rally for himself. And like every other event planned by this administration the parade has already sought to overshadow the actual event—and America’s birthday celebration—itself. And the tanks won’t even move.
Trump first expressed interest in U.S. military event in the summer of 2017, when he attended France’s Bastille Day celebration. France’s Bastille Day is an unusually militarized display for a European country complete with military helicopters, rows of LeClerc main battle tanks, French Foreign Legionnaires, field artillery pieces, and fly-bys of Mirage and Rafale fighters. The parade of military hardware is admittedly weird by American standards, but it is a longstanding tradition for France.
The President returned from France impressed, as people sometimes do. In February 2018 Trump directed the Pentagon to start planning a military parade, complete with tanks. The idea was met with complaints about the cost (eventually estimated at $92 million—about the price of the Air Force’s version of an F-35 Lightning II) and practical considerations, such as the treads of heavy armored vehicles like the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank and M2 Bradley fighting vehicles inevitably tearing up the road asphalt underneath the parade route. Which would then have to be repaired out of the municipal budget of the city of Washington, D.C. Which does not have infinite funds.
The parade was floated for the 4th of July 2018, then Memorial Day 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, then pushed back to 2019, and then nobody heard of it again.
That is until this week, when it was reported that Trump again wanted tanks and armored vehicles for the 4th of July, according to the Associated Press:
“We’re going to have some tanks stationed outside,” Trump said Monday from the Oval Office, appearing to acknowledge local officials’ earlier concerns. He offered no specifics on where the vehicles would be located.
“You’ve got to be pretty careful with the tanks because the roads have a tendency not to like to carry heavy tanks,” he said. “So we have to put them in certain areas, but we have the brand new Sherman tanks and we have the brand new Abrams tanks.”
The Sherman tank was the main U.S. tank during World War II but has been out of production for approximately 74 years. The last Sherman likely left U.S. military service in the mid-1950s. This sort of gaffe would be memorable gaffe during any other presidency, but in America 2019 it’s a day that ends with a “y.”
Trump is hosting his “Salute to America” event at the Lincoln Memorial, which the Interior Secretary has said will “honor each of the nation’s five service branches with music, military demonstrations, flyovers and much more.” According to the Washington Post the army vehicles will be stationed at the Memorial—just what Lincoln would have wanted!—but the National Park Service warned the weight of the vehicles could damage the site.
On Monday afternoon, two M1A2 Abrams tanks and two M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles were sighted on railroad flatcars in southeast Washington, where an AP source confirmed they would be stored until the holiday. The tanks were reportedly from Fort Stewart, Georgia, home of the 3rd Infantry Division.
One photo taken by the Associated Press shows two M1A2 Abrams SEP main battle tanks in 3 color NATO camouflage. The first tank has hull markings from the 1st Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment (“Desert Rogues”). The Abrams has a “Friday the 13th”-style hockey mask painted on the main gun bore evacuator and the tank’s name (“WRECKING something-something”) is stenciled on the main gun barrel. The second tank in the photograph is only partly visible. Both tanks appear, dirty, slightly rusty, with dings and marks on their paint jobs—exactly what tanks are supposed to look like. That having been said, Fort Stewart might not have sent its sharpest looking tanks.
Another set of photos, posted on Twitter Monday evening, showed a Humvee with roll-up panels that make it look like an ice cream truck and a M88A2 Hercules Armored Recovery Vehicle. Both sport Desert Rogues identification markings. The vehicles are being guarded by military police driving a Ford F-150.
And of course, they need a bit of a cleaning before they can go on display:
Another problem with hauling armored vehicles in for the celebration: actually getting them to the “Salute to America” location. The Abrams is a 60-ton tank. In wartime, the Abrams is stopped cold by bridges in developing countries. As it turns out, we have that problem here too. The New York Times reports that,“Arlington Memorial Bridge, which spans the Potomac River and connects Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial, might not be able to hold the weight.” Engineers are looking at the problem.
Trump has also mentioned there will be fly-overs of military aircraft over D.C. on the 4th. The fly-overs will include Air Force One, The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels, the F-35 fighter, and Marine Helicopter Squadron One, the unit that flies the helicopters that ferry the President and his staff around. The flyovers and fireworks will impact flight operations at nearby Reagan International Airport over a total of 2 hours and 15 minutes:
How much will all of this cost? The Pentagon has not released cost figures. As the Post notes however, Air Force One costs $140,000 an hour to fly, while the six-plane Blue Angels team costs at least $10,000 each to fly. The F-35 costs $44,000 an hour to fly. Three hundred military personnel are expected to participate on the ground. Sending the tanks and armored vehicles by rail will also cost money. The event will cost substantially less than a full-on military parade, but that nobody really knows what it will cost two days before it happens is typical of this chaotic presidential administration.
Is all of this necessary to celebrate America’s day of independence? Historically, the answer is clearly “no.” It’s also clear that this isn’t really about the 4th of July—Trump has been looking for an excuse to show off military hardware in D.C. for years. What—or who—is this all really about?
If this were really about “honoring America’s service branches,” maybe we wouldn’t be making them work the start of a four day weekend. And maybe we’d get some Daft Punk.