WASHINGTON — As Santa streaks through the sky this Christmas Eve, Rudolph merrily guiding the way, he will be flanked by some new and unusual companions: a jet-fighter escort, bristling with missiles.
That is the twist that — to the dismay of at least some child advocates — the US military has chosen to put on this year’s version of its traditional animated tracking of the yuletide journey.
The popular program, without the jet escort, reached 22 million people last year and generated tens of thousands of phone calls from kids and their parents around the country. The mock mission allows families, either by calling or logging on, to get “real-time” updates on Old St. Nick’s global trip to bring holiday cheer to girls and boys.
This year’s updated segment, now previewing on the military’s website, depicts Santa soaring over snow-capped peaks with military aircraft keeping pace on either side.
Adding the jets is “part of our effort to give the program more of an operational feel,” said Navy Captain Jeff A. Davis, a spokesman for the command that sponsors the event, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, also known as NORAD.
But as the word gets out, the plan is taking flak. Some say the Pentagon appears to have lost its way by introducing destructive weaponry to the otherwise jolly image of Santa setting out from the North Pole. Up to now, the most threatening aspect of Santa’s flight had been lumps of coal.
“Children associate Santa with gifts and fun and everything else that is positive about Christmas,” said Allen Kanner, a California child and family psychologist and cofounder of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. “They are associating this with the military in children’s minds. It is completely out of line.”
To add some multicultural balance, in addition to the pair of jets, the cartoon video shows Santa and the reindeer swooshing past the Eiffel Tower and the Great Wall of China.
NORAD’s headquarters is deep inside a mountain in Colorado, one of the highest-profile vestiges of the Cold War, with a mission of tracking and intercepting such potential nuclear threats as enemy bombers or ballistic missiles headed for US airspace. It has been sponsoring a Track Santa program since the mid-1950s to draw attention to its radar-tracking, jet-scrambling capabilities.
Another video on the NORAD website shows military personnel ostensibly preparing for Santa’s flight, and in a lighthearted way, attempts to showcase NORAD’s defensive operations.
An intelligence officer asserts that “intel can confirm that Jack Frost and the Abominable Snowman will not be a threat.” Ground forces then report that all rooftops have been checked to make sure Santa, whose call sign is “Big Red One,” and his reindeer can land safely. Could Santa’s navigation system be attacked by a a computer virus? Another officer in charge of cyber space chimes in that the “anti-Grinch-viral is up and will continue to monitor threats.”
Lastly, the video trains on the cockpit of a fighter jet flying escort to prevent Santa from straying into restricted air space and “to protect from threats.” What threats the old man and his sleigh may actually face are not disclosed.
“It’s still cutesy since it’s for kids, but we don’t want people to lose sight of our true mission,” Davis said in explaining the approach.
In addition to 22.3 million unique website visitors last year, the Track Santa program had 1.2 million mobile downloads; fielded 114,000 phone calls; and was staffed by 1,200 volunteers. This year the website will be available in eight languages, said Davis.
Some worry that American youth are already sufficiently indoctrinated by the military — and wonder why the Department of Defense would deem it necessary to target little kids who still believe in Santa Claus.
“I think people are quite aware of the military’s true mission,” said Amy Hagopian, a professor of public health at the University of Washington, who has written extensively about military recruiting of youngsters. “If the military wants to keep its ranks stocked, it needs to appeal to children. The military knows it can’t appeal to adults to volunteer. It is like the ad industry.’’
Some of the military’s recent recruiting advertisements on television have made war seem like a video game, such as a recent Marine Corps pitch that depicts a deadly invasion with the question, “Which way would you run?”
“What we have to remember is that the military has been hiring marketing companies for many years to best reach youngsters under 18 for the sole purpose of recruitment. They also know you can develop something called brand loyalty — from birth to death,” said Kanner.
The firm that NORAD hired to sharpen the “Track Santa” experience, Analytical Graphics, Inc. in Exton, Pa., highlights how the new website is geared towards the very young. Another new feature, according to a press release, is Starkey the Space Elf, who “is a very special elf that travels through space to ensure children around the world are on their best behavior.”Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.