WASHINGTON: It’s still DC’s largest conference of the year, but the 2012 annual meeting of the Association of the US Army is smaller than it was. Most obviously, all the Army branches, tribes, and fiefdoms that normally fly their own individual banners at AUSA have been consolidated into a single, relatively modest exhibit.
“You’ll notice as you navigate the displays this year that the Army footprint is somewhat smaller,” Army Secretary John McHugh told the audience at this morning’s opening ceremony. “But I firmly believe the impact… will be as great as ever.”
The Army slashed spending on its official presence at AUSA by almost 90 percent from last year, from $10.6 million in 2011 to $1.3 million, in reaction to recent conference scandals that burned the General Services Administration and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
But “it’s apples and oranges to compare this to GSA, [though] people are trying to lump them together,” AUSA communications director David Liddle told Breaking Defense this morning.
Most importantly, the AUSA conference is not a government function. It’s the independent, non-profit Association of the US Army that hosts, organizes, and raises the money for the entire event. The Army is just one guest among many, and it pays only for its own exhibits — this year, its singular exhibit — and for the personnel it sends. Most of the attendees are from the private sector, and most of the conference is paid for by defense contractors, both through charitable donations to AUSA and through the fees they pay for exhibit space.
Several of those companies told Breaking Defense that their presence is smaller this year, and AUSA’s own Liddle admitted he expected attendance would be slightly down from last year’s approximately 35,000. But so far registration figures are on track with 2011’s, he said, and in the halls and on the exhibition floor, “the vibe is still very much alive.”
“We are in fact the largest customer of this convention center,” AUSA president Gordon Sullivan said at this morning’s ceremony.
Indeed, it’s significant that Secretary McHugh even showed up: Having broken his pelvis in September, he had to be rolled onstage this morning in a wheelchair. “There’s no cool way to say I fell off my bike,” he chuckled after the standing ovation died down.
“AUSA provides a critically important forum for the Army,” McHugh reassured the audience. The Army has its own elaborate processes for internal debate, but AUSA is open to media, industry, and more. So, said the Secretary, “it gives us an important chance to spend some time listening, listening and learning not just from one another, not just from those within our ranks, but from those outside the Army who also know and care about us.”
Unlike the scandal-plagued GSA and VA events, the AUSA conference is a combination trade show and continuing education event, with sober forums on everything from the Army’s role in the Pacific to wartime stress on Army families. And unlike Las Vegas, where GSA convened, Washington is notoriously not a party town.
Nevertheless, the Army’s drawdown at AUSA is about more than the short-term post-scandal atmospherics. “Our reduced physical presence — mandated by an imperative to do more with less — is really a microcosm,” McHugh said. “It’s a microcosm of the larger challenge.”
McHugh particularly touted the consolidation of the Army’s system for service contracting from more than 200 separate offices to six “portfolio management centers” which now manage “nearly half” the contracts. That effort saved $330 million in fiscal 2012.
“The reality is after more than 11 years of war, leaving one theater and now preparing to drawn down in another, the Army is going to have to do its job with less,” McHugh said. “We’ve seen this day coming for some time, [and] we’ve been given time to plan and prioritize.”