The Association of the United States Army is well known as a professional development and advocacy organization, and its annual October convention draws a galaxy of senior generals, defense officials, and think-tank employees.
But it also draws one of the world’s largest conglomerations of defense contractors, with representatives from over a dozen nations touting the myriad products a modern military needs, or at least wants.
This year, the sheer scale of the exhibition inspired a feeling of awe. The three-day event featured over 500 exhibits sprawling across two levels of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. In conference halls as large as many big-box stores, hundreds of companies vied for a piece of the Department of Defense’s expansive budget.
In the decade following the Sept. 11 attacks, with wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the defense budget ballooned from $287 billion to over $530 billion. Counting wartime operational costs and foreign security assistance, the United States spent a staggering $718 billion on defense in 2011. Much of that money went toward contractors like those peddling their goods at the exhibition.
But the era of clockwork annual budget increases is over. The winding down of Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the steep cuts known as sequestration, are putting budgetary pressure on the Pentagon of a kind it has not known since the post Cold War drawdown of the early 1990s.
In quiet rooms off the main concourses, military and civilian leaders discussed how their profession is shifting as the days of big ground wars come to an end. The Army has its hands full keeping even a rapidly shrinking force at a basic level of readiness as hot spots pop up around the globe, and the endless flood of new equipment that characterized the last decade reduces to a stream.
But you wouldn’t know it from the throngs of people gawking at the endless rows of displays at AUSA. The military may be in the process of tightening its belt, but there are still billions of dollars to be made from the world’s largest employer, and everyone here was sure they have just what the modern warfighter needs.
Upon entering the top floor, I was met by a fully assembled scout helicopter, several varieties of armored vehicles, and legions of bored-looking vendors in suits. The crowds were brisk, overwhelmingly middle-aged white males, often stopping to admire and handle various models of light machine guns and rifles. Many held them like they had never shot a firearm in their lives.
But an ever-present commodity was the swag. Hats, pens, phone chargers, and above all, tote bags. KBR (formerly Kellogg Brown & Root), one of the biggest defense contract beneficiaries of the last 15 years, offered bright red tote bags with its logo emblazoned across the side. It seemed a popular item, perhaps out of cynicism toward a company with a less than stellar reputation.
There were also many uniformed military from all over the world, including those not generally associated with large defense purchases. A hard-looking Norwegian soldier looked on as several of his countrymen pitch a variety of rocket launchers, and a Chilean Navy officer looked out of place among a long row of stalls displaying a bewildering variety of helmets.
AUSA is not merely the province of the large corporations usually associated with Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex. Dozens of smaller companies pitched their spin on basic gear like chest racks, CamelBak-style packs, and even running shoes. Some were one-man tables pitching new and improved rifle cleaning systems and courses on gunsmithing.
But it’s the big systems that dominate attention. One exhibit featured a massive armored chassis topped with a small, unconventional looking gun. It was pitched as a concept vehicle for a future laser armed tank, though no laser system currently operational uses a barrel. It looked fearsome enough, which is undoubtedly the point.
One of the most talked about exhibits was by far the most surreal. A gleaming Volkswagen bus, the quintessential vehicle of a generation of hippies and counterculture types, was conspicuously displayed outside of the Magpul Industries booth. Attached to a ring mount on the roof was an M-134 minigun, an accessory that would have raised a few eyebrows at Woodstock.
A combat vehicle it is not. But it generated buzz, and a steady stream of attendees snapped photos of the heavily armed Mystery Machine. Many then stopped and checked out the dozens of customized AR-15s displayed by Magpul.
There were also many items displayed that are inherently impractical. A dune buggy style vehicle was touted as being small enough to be transported by helicopter. One look at the cramped interior, with seats and legroom barely sufficient for a child, made me shudder. A soldier in full gear in that buggy would barely be able to walk after a couple hours, and I weep for anyone over five-and-a-half feet.
A Lockheed Martin desk featured strange-looking footwear called the Kinetic Boot. It is designed to use the energy generated by soldiers walking to charge batteries.
An interesting concept to be sure, considering modern armies inexhaustible appetite for electricity, but I remember the beating my boots used to take scrambling over rocks and up streams, and how some men had to wrap them in duct tape to keep out the water. How would these complex devices hold up in the face of that? Perhaps constant replacement is a feature, not a bug.
It seemed to be a theme. An Mk-19 automatic grenade launcher, an old mainstay of Iraq and Afghanistan, featured an elaborate targeting system festooned with screens and cables. How would that hold up being constantly switched from vehicle to vehicle? Could an 18-year-old private use and maintain it, or would it require outside servicing? Most importantly, could it take a beating from moon dust and pouring rain and months of continuous operations?
If an infantry weapon can’t be kept running with lubricant, some small tools, and a few hours training, it is useless. Many of the vendors seemed to have forgotten that, if they ever knew it at all. Simplicity and reliability are not as sexy as high-tech and expensive, or as lucrative.
But what was most striking of all was the redundancy. Even the most profligate of armies are not going to buy 20 different types of basic infantry helmets, and there were more varieties on display than that. Who could possibly buy all of this stuff, especially in a country weary of the endless treasure expended on two wars whose outcomes are dubious at the very least? There was a fair amount of buzz over a Ukrainian delegation that had recently entered the building.
There is always a conflict somewhere, and with battles come buyers. It may not be as profitable here as it was a few years ago, but with every new war comes new opportunities, and the flood of people I saw at AUSA will be ready to take advantage of them.