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Massive U.S. Army trade show opens in District

Drop by 9th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW today and you're likely to find the area looking a lot like a military command post.

A sea of soldiers in camouflage-colored uniforms. Hundreds of civilian military personnel armed with Blackberries. Defense contractors with pamphlets showing off their latest wares.

Welcome to the 56th annual trade show of the Association of the U.S. Army, being held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Organizers of the event, which began yesterday and runs through tomorrow, said they had registered 36,000 attendees, making it one of the association's largest shows ever, and one of the biggest conventions to come to the District.

Walk around the trade show floor and you'll find the usual big-name defense contractors at their booths. BAE had outfitted an MRAP (mine-resistance, ambush protected vehicle) into an ambulance. Not far away, SAIC showed off a software system that can use "avatars" to train soldiers on the customs of foreign cultures.

Passersby marveled at the heavy doors and wheels of three gigantic armored trucks and vehicles brought in by Oshkosh Defense of Wisconsin. Others tried on boots, made with nylon and Gore-Tex lining, that can withstand extreme heat and cold. W.L. Gore & Associates, the company that makes the boot, had brought in a simulation box for interested customers.

"It'll give you the feeling of going through the desert and then up into the snow all in two minutes," said Mary Hopkins, an associate with the Elkton, Md.-based firm, explained to a man as he tried on the boots and stood in the simulation box.

Unlike during past shows, when there was always a sense of excitement about the business opportunities made possible by the government, a feeling of anxiety prevails over this year's event. The Pentagon is pushing to in-source more of the work that has been typically done by contractors in recent years. There's worry about what will happen as the Pentagon's top brass pushes defense companies to produce weapons systems more efficiently, within budget and on time.

"There's a move to try to adopt commercial products and field them quickly with the military rather than take 10 years to develop a military-only product," said Bill Houtz, manager of military products at KVH of Middletown, R.I. His company makes a satellite communications system that it says is more affordable than other systems with older technology that are offered by some of its larger competitors.

"If your budget is tight then you might take a look at smaller guys like us and realize that you can get the same or better global communications for less" Houtz said.

Not everyone's worried about the military's cutbacks. Four men from El Paso, Tex., bragged about how their home town area was benefiting from the $5 billion construction expansion underway at the Army's nearby Fort Bliss facility as part of the Base Realignment and Closure restructuring.

"We've got 1.1 million square acres of open land that happens to look a lot like Iraq and Afghanistan," said Tom Thomas, a civilian aide to the secretary of the Army for west Texas.

The El Paso area lost about 3,500 manufacturing jobs as plants that made auto parts and home appliances laid off people over the last three years. But some of its more recent job growth has been offset by the expansion at Fort Bliss.

"Even with the negative trend of in-sourcing there is so much construction and new opportunities that it is creating new construction for us," said Bob Cook, president of the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corp. "We're so blessed this growth is happening at Fort Bliss, particularly in the economic times the nation is experiencing."

By Dana Hedgpeth  | October 26, 2010; 11:15 AM ET
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"Trade show" is a poor characterization of this event. That is like calling a Presidential Inauguration a "parade."

The official title of this event is the Association of the US Army Annual Meeting & Exposition. The event schedule and activities are on-line for anyone to view. The exhibition hall, while interesting, is quite literally a side-show. The real business is being conducted outside of the exhibit hall and includes forums, panel discussions, and keynote speeches by Army leaders at breakfast, luncheons, and dinners. It also includes several award ceremonies recognizing groups and individuals from all over the Army who have made significant contributions over the past year. The involvement in these programs includes soldiers and Army civilians of all ranks, family members, and retirees, just to name a few.

Dana's piece here reminds me of a reporter who goes to see a new shopping mall and writes a story only about the food court.

Posted by: hisroc | October 26, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Who says that war is not just a big business?

Posted by: dfdougherty | October 26, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

War profiteers are scum of the Earth.

Posted by: metroman76 | October 26, 2010 6:12 PM | Report abuse

How in the name of heaven did we come to this sorry state in which our chief export is war for private contractor profit.
God, protect us from ourselves.

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