LAS VEGAS and WASHINGTON — In a mammoth convention hall at a Las Vegas resort and casino that could house nine American football fields, thousands of conference goers peruse exhibits featuring some of the latest advancements in robotic technology.
But of the more than 7,400 attendees at the Unmanned Systems North America 2012 conference of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, one demographic was notably absent: the U.S. military. Only a few dozen military officers gave presentations or took part in panel discussions and only a handful of generals attended.
So why such a small military presence? Stricter government travel restrictions, imposed in the wake of a General Services Administration (GSA) conference spending scandal, are mostly to blame, and the repercussions could shut down some of the most widely attended military events. The restrictions have also launched a debate as to how much value these conferences actually provide.
In June, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter instructed the services to review DoD or industry conferences that cost more than $100,000 to attend. That figure includes booth space and other logistical issues, such as airfare, lodging and per diem. The services have since sought waivers to attend some of the larger events.
In response to greater scrutiny on conference and travel spending, as well as White House and Pentagon spending guidance, the Air Force is scaling back its attendance at the Air Force Association’s main conference, which starts this week.
The service is expected to save more than $280,000 on attendance cost and exhibit booth space, according to a Pentagon memo. Active-duty military and DoD civilians are being allowed to attend free of charge.
Meanwhile, the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) notified its members and registered show attendees Sept. 7 that the Army would scale back its exhibits to a single space at the late October show. In prior years, the Army had numerous booths, which included multiple levels, intelligent lighting and multiple movie-screen-sized displays.
The Army confirmed the exhibit consolidation.
“Army participation from the field will be reduced significantly,” Michael Scanlan, AUSA’s director of industry affairs, wrote in a Sept. 7 email to association members.
A map of planned displays at the October conference released by AUSA in July showed 75 Army booths of varying sizes spread between the two major exhibit halls, meaning the service would have to eliminate 74 booths to meet its target.
As of Sept. 14, most of those booths had been marked as empty or rented to another exhibitor on AUSA’s website, which includes an updated version of the map, while several were still scattered throughout the map.
The same July exhibit map estimated 35,000 attendees for the 2012 conference. Past estimates were that roughly one-fourth of attendees of the annual conference were military personnel.
Still, Scanlan wrote that “high-level participation from the Army’s senior leadership” is expected.
But before the Pentagon can take steps to prevent overspending, it must first figure out how much it spends. While the Defense Department does not appear to pay a premium for conference contracts, the magnitude stands out due to legislation that would cap this type of spending.
A Defense News investigation has found that DoD uses a labyrinth of contracting techniques that make spending totals impossible to calculate. Each individual command conducts its own conference contracting, typically without overarching coordination. But all told, tens of millions of dollars are spent every year.
Spending on Conferences
Examples found in government contracting databases provide a glimpse of multimillion-dollar spending on items, such as designing tradeshow booths, transporting those items, floor rental space and communications contracts. These contracts cover spending on conferences not hosted by DoD, with an entirely different set of costs surrounding conferences hosted by the services themselves.
Trade shows held by AUSA, the Air Force Association and Navy League have grown exponentially, particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. AUSA is so popular that it was moved from a large hotel to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the U.S. capital’s biggest exhibit venue.
Between 2008 and 2011, the Air Force spent more than a half-million dollars at roughly $100,000 per event on display booth space alone at Air Force Association-sponsored conferences.
Design and construction of the booths costs even more. The Army spent $1.1 million to design a booth used at a 2008 AUSA conference.
Although many of these booths are reused at follow-on conferences, the services must spend more money to assemble, dismantle and transport the booths to each show. In 2012, the Army spent $429,231 for a small business to ship, set up and break down a booth for an AUSA conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The company, Janson Communications, performed the same service for Army Materiel Command at AUSA’s 2011 conference in Washington. In what a contracting officer described as a “typical deal,” Janson moved roughly 34,000 pounds from storage in Lawrenceville, Ga., to the U.S. capital.
On July 25, Army Contracting Command put out a request for proposals to perform the same duties in 2012 and even extended the deadline due to the number of questions, according to a contracting officer. The contract was canceled Aug. 28, shortly before the announcement the Army would shrink its presence at the show.
In another case, federal contracting data show the Army’s Tank Automotive Command (TACOM) spent $91,200 for 4,800 square feet for one booth. But it turns out, in a common practice that can make it difficult to track spending, TACOM spent the money for the Army’s acquisition division.
None of these contracts includes attendees’ travel costs.
It costs about $1,200 for a service member to attend a four-day event, according to a military official.
Using those figures, travel expenses alone for an event such as this week’s Air Force Association’s conference in Washington, which attracts about 4,000 military officers, would total nearly $5 million. The costs associated with a larger event, such as AUSA’s annual Washington conference, are exponentially higher.
What’s more, that number increases when top generals attend these conferences. Many four-stars travel on military jets, which cost $8,000 to $30,000 per hour to fly. Some of these generals are accompanied by security teams and are shuttled around in armored vehicles.
A Pentagon report shows that in January 2011, Gen. William “Kip” Ward allegedly took an 11-day trip to Washington and Atlanta with an entourage of 13 military and civilian personnel, which cost $129,000.
Ward is under investigation for excessive spending during his tenure as head of U.S. Africa Command.
Any accounting of total spending on conferences also must include the cost of events hosted by the services, another maze of numbers that cannot be fully counted. In response to a request from Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., following the GSA conference scandal, DoD provided his office with a database that includes the costs of various conferences and meetings held by the agency. The total costs listed did not include travel expenses, and it wasn’t immediately clear that all of the services had fully accounted for their individual costs.
Together the database accounts for $210 million in expenses over five years. Of the more than 3,700 events listed, more than 70 cost more than $500,000, and 12 cost more than $1 million. Without travel expenses included in the conference costs, the actual budget impact of agency-hosted conferences is significantly underestimated.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has been working on a new service travel policy that would create greater visibility into spending and cut costs.
“We look for every possible way to reduce cost,” said Carla Lucchino, assistant for administration to the secretary of the Navy.
The Navy is requiring its conference planners to seek cheaper venues, particularly military installations. It has restricted rental car use, and is encouraging the use of hotel shuttles to and from the airport.
“I won’t send a package to OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] unless I’m certain it’s the best possible deal we can get and meet the mission requirements,” Lucchino said.
The Navy is looking at ways to automate the process, making it faster and simpler. It is also looking to use video conference technology as an alternative to some events.
New Navy guidance, which in the works, will seek to track conference spending throughout the service.
Legislation introduced in the House and Senate seeks to limit government spending on conferences and associated travel after the GSA’s lavish conference in Las Vegas came to light.
A House bill, introduced by Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., would cap spending on a single conference at $500,000. It does provide an exemption for military travel, “expenses involving military combat, the training or deployment of uniformed military personnel, and such other travel expenses as determined by the Director of the Office of Management and Budget.”
The Senate bill introduced by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., would cap government-run conference spending at $200,000, which includes travel. Her legislation does allow the head of an agency to waive the cap.
Since Carter issued his DoD guidance in June, the Pentagon has approved an “extremely limited number of waivers,” said Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins, a DoD spokeswoman.
Among those approved are this week’s Air Force Association show in National Harbor, Md., and an Air National Guard requirements event, according to sources. Still, the Air Force is scaling back its presence at both events.
DoD is placing increased scrutiny on decisions to host or attend conferences and has canceled a “a number of conferences of various sizes when it was deemed prudent to do so,” said Robbins, who declined to name any of the conferences canceled.
“If the decision is made to proceed with a conference, planning factors such as the geographic location of the conference, the length of the conference, the choice of venue, any associated contracts, and the number of attendees are closely scrutinized,” she said. “For example, in the case of one recent conference that received a waiver from the deputy secretary, attendance was reduced by almost 50 percent from the last time the conference had been held and overall costs were reduced by approximately one third from original estimates.”
The pending legislation on Capitol Hill is separate from guidance provided by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in May that restricted federal conference spending.
The Pentagon has been working to clean up its accounting practices so it could pass a financial audit. However, tracking conference spending, particularly travel expenses, will still be difficult.
Personnel travel is managed at the major command level, not through the Pentagon.
None of the services was able to provide data on the amount of money spent on conferences and related travel.
“Unfortunately the information … isn’t kept centrally,” Matthew Bourke, an Army spokesman, said. “To get a clearer picture of how much the Army is saving you would have to question all Army agencies that participated in past AUSA conventions.”
Even if DoD is able to pass an audit, that would tell only where the money went. It will not tell exactly what the money was spent on, according to Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight.
“It doesn’t tell you what they did with the money when it got there and it doesn’t tell you what came out the other end,” Wheeler said.
The Value of Conventions
The service associations believe they can work within the OMB guidance, but fear the legislation being considered in Congress could put the kibosh on military attendance at their shows.
The trade shows are viewed as a forum for military and industry dialogue. If the military attendance is limited, then industry, which pays higher rates to attend and even more for exhibit hall space, would dwindle.
U.S. defense officials and service lobbying groups are expressing concerns that legislation placing limits on federal conference spending could affect the Pentagon’s ability to communicate with forces and industry.
“We do training, we do information exchange, we use them to advance scientific research, to associate with industry, things like that,” said Lucchino, assistant to the secretary of the Navy. “Those are all good reasons to get people together.”
Shows are sponsored by groups, such as AUSA, Air Force Association and Navy League. Each group holds an annual symposium in Washington and another event outside of the capital region. Some of the associations also hold additional, smaller shows.
The events are widely attended by the military, defense industry, congressmen, congressional staffers and lobbyists. The major defense companies collectively spend millions of dollars per year on exhibit hall space and elaborate display booths.
The shows are a cross between an international weapons exposition, awards show, pep rally and reunion.
Service chiefs typically use these conferences to send marching orders to troops and industry. For example, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates used a 2009 Air Force Association show to announce the service would be in charge of its multibillion-dollar aerial tanker acquisition program.
Service chiefs also use the shows to communicate with the force and announce personnel policy changes or communicate their acquisition priorities and direction to industry.
The shows outside of Washington, typically in Florida during the winter months, are smaller and always involve golfing.
For the non-Washington shows, the services typically dovetail attendance with other existing meetings.
The Air Force has traditionally held its four-star general meetings, called Corona, in Tampa, Fla., the same week the Air Force Association holds its major winter symposium in nearby Orlando. Holding the events the same week allows the travel funds to come from different accounts.
“The core deal of getting guys together is inherently valuable when the bureaucracy is so darn difficult and a lot of things can get solved over a five-minute conversation that would otherwise spiral over 50,000 emails and escalate to absurd proportions,” an association official said.
At the robotics show in Las Vegas, many defense exhibitors took note of the lack of military presence. After all, if you cannot get a product in front of a potential customer, they say, the chances of selling it go down the tubes.
Paul McLeary contributed to this report.