By Thomas Hedges, Center for Study of Responsive Law

More than 650 companies showcased their weapon systems at the 2012 Association of the United States Army (AUSA) annual meeting and exhibition last month at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. Representatives from industry, the Army and foreign ministries networked for three days in the presence of mammoth armored vehicles, attack helicopters, drone prototypes and trucks that carried spinning missile defense systems.

They were joined by weapons enthusiasts here for the latest 360 radar detection technologies, robotic squad support vehicles and low-velocity rifle grenades that explode in midair. Visitors watched television screens that simulated the operation of large air and land craft while seated in a chair that shook each time there was turbulence. There were also booths where it was possible to don video glasses and shoot at pixilated Iraqis.

The United States is the top exporter of weapons, providing the global market with 30 percent of its total supply. The world’s top 10 weapons contractors made $230 billion in profits in 2010, according to a report by 24/7 Wall Street. Eight of those companies were American. The United States itself will spend up to $4 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, alone, according to a Brown University study.

The exhibition is one of the biggest of its kind in the world. AUSA, which is a nonprofit lobby group whose sponsors include Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, spends tens of millions of dollars each year on it.

The purpose of the exhibition is unclear. Many, like the manager in charge of the Army booth, Col. Lee Reynolds, said that the showcase was a window through which taxpayers can see how their money is being used and “hopefully be reassured.” But there weren’t any unaffiliated civilians at the event, perhaps because registration cost $1,000 for nonmembers.

Others said the convention facilitated the discussion between armies, domestic and foreign, and weapons systems manufacturers. In other words: networking.

Weapons manufacturers rely on collaboration with other companies. The sensors and voice commands on a Lockheed Martin Squad Mission Support System vehicle, for example, come from other businesses. Many of the prototypes in the hall were not finished. This permitted representatives from a company that needs to outfit a product with software to approach a company, such as Raytheon, for collaboration.

A representative from the Turkish corporation Roketsan, who asked that he not be identified, said that his company came to mingle with potential co-producers for the new Turkish CIRIT rocket.

The conversation was interrupted by a salesman who asked if Roketsan would be interested in buying his company’s seeker coolant for its new missile design. But the salesman mistakenly approached a 26-year-old hostess, who knew nothing about missiles and had been hired to provide tea and Turkish delights to visitors to the booth.

“I’ve been here three times in two days. You gonna mark that down?” he asked her.

The two floors of the convention, larger than football fields, are focused solely on army weapons and tactical operations. At the Israeli pavilion, there was no direct mention of Palestine. The Israelis spoke only of national security and “protection from the enemy.” There was no pavilion for Afghan and Iraqi defense forces. The French were present, informing U.S. soldiers about their efforts to train rebel groups in Senegal, Niger and Uganda. All exchanges were devoid of politics.

In the press room, reporters gathered at a large table to upload stories on the new Tracer UHF Penetrating Radar, which is a low-frequency radar that can immediately pick up on anomalies of a given area by circling around that space several times. It can also penetrate foliage.

The trade representatives did not venture outside of their areas of expertise.

The words “death,” “violence,” “blood” and “body” were replaced by “lethality enhancement,” “area denial” and “kill mechanism.”

Some weapons companies had green initiatives.

“We’re trying to come up with things that are less hazardous and more environmentally friendly,” said Jack Robertson from DS Arms. “We have what are called ‘green rounds’ that have no detrimental content in them. … They’ll have already existing stuff in ’em like iron, steel or pieces of aluminum that would not pose any harm or danger to anybody that picks it up. They’re totally safe.”

Next to every massive military vehicle was its toy model. There were stations where attendees sat in chairs and played with an AH-64 helicopter flying simulation. At almost every booth there was a flat screen mounted playing clips of bombs exploding in slow motion, planes zipping across the sky, and digital renditions of soldiers wielding prototypes in virtual war zones.

“You can see why for a 7- or 8-year-old boy this would be heaven,” a woman said as I exited the building.

This article was made possible by the Center for Study of Responsive Law.

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