WASHINGTON — The rattle of assault weapons. Soldiers barking urgent commands. A massive array of firepower, from 70-ton Abrams tanks to missiles that nudge the edge of space.
Downtown Baghdad? No. This montage of modern-day warfare is crammed into a sprawling exhibit hall more than 6,000 miles and nine time zones from the Iraqi theater, about a mile from the White House and the U.S. Capitol.
The three-day exposition at the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army is the easily the largest military land-power show in the United States and often the largest in the world, alternating with the Eurostory Exposition in Paris.
More than 500 exhibitors from across the globe — including U.S.-based giants such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman, as well as emerging niche companies — consider this event a must to display their latest offerings in the tools of war.
The thousands of spectators who troop through the exhibit hall of the Washington Convention Center include Pentagon brass, rank-and-file soldiers, congressional aides, military representatives from 35 countries and industry leaders scouting out the competition.
This year's event, which ends Wednesday, serves as a reminder that the United States remains at war on two fronts — in Iraq and Afghanistan — with sights and sounds of combat running continuously on video screens, giving the exhibit hall the flavor of a giant video arcade. Some exhibits were designed to resemble Middle East villages.
At the Warriors Corner, uniformed men and women stood on a small stage amid the exhibits to take turns recounting their experiences in battle. Several dozen spectators gathered around the stage Tuesday as 1st Sgt. Todd Jerger of Alpha Troop 3-71 Cavalry, part of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, from Fort Drum, N.Y., recalled engagements with the Taliban and al Qaida in the Nuristan province of Afghanistan.
"I'd deploy to any theater the world with these guys," Jerger said.
For the most part, the expo displayed a robust defense industry that's long since rebounded from its decline after the Cold War, buoyed by record defense spending, which has increased by 40 percent since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defense contractor, displayed a lineup of weaponry and vehicles that it's selling — or hopes to sell — to the Defense Department, including 17-foot-long PAC-3 defensive missiles and the MULE, an unmanned six-wheeled vehicle that can be used for transporting cargo, mine-clearing and light assault missions.
Executives for North Carolina-based Blackwater Worldwide operated out of Exhibit Space 249, espousing an implicit message that there's more to the company than the controversy over allegations that poorly regulated Blackwater USA guards have killed innocent Iraqis.
"We are a very diversified company," said Blackwater President Gary Jackson of Moyock, N.C. "Everybody just wants to label us with one little label."
Worldwide training programs are at the "heart" of the company's portfolio, Jackson said. The company also is touting a refurbished ship that can be used for training, search-and-rescue operations and security, as well as an airship, the Polar 400, that could be deployed for border security, Jackson said.
The exhibit hall is a paradise for acronyms such as FCS (Boeing's Future Combat Systems), LAV H (General Dynamics Light Armored Vehicle) and DVIDS (Digital Video & Imagery Distribution System). Literature and patriotic-themed slogans at display booths repeat a common goal: to help the American "warfighter" better perform his or her mission.
Some of the most eye-catching displays were giants of the battlefield such as General Dynamics' M-1 Abrams tank and BAE's Paladin, a 155 mm self-propelled howitzer with a 20-foot-long barrel that jutted toward the ceiling.
"The worst part was trying not to mess up the carpet," BAE official Adam B. Zarfoss joked as he explained how the Paladin was driven into the exhibit hall.
As with most expositions, the Association of the U.S. Army displays were aimed at showing off emerging technology, not all of it centered on blowing things up. Medical Educational Technologies Inc. stopped spectators with a "human simulator," a lifelike 6-foot-tall patient that can squirt a bloodlike substance and has removable parts to resemble severed limbs. Company officials say the simulator gives medics more realistic training, which contributes to fewer deaths on the battlefield.
Foreign companies also exhibit, in the hopes of expanding into the U.S. defense market. But they complain that it sometimes takes years to get space at the exhibit hall. John Grady, the Association of the U.S. Army's spokesman, said that more than 90 exhibitors were on a waiting list to gain access to the internationally known expo.
The exhibit moved from a smaller venue in two Washington hotels four years ago and immediately doubled its revenue from fees charged on the basis of square footage, to $12 million. Revenue, which last year was $14 million, goes to soldier support programs and Army education, Grady said.