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At Washington arms bazaar, all that glitters isn't just the 'brass'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 24, 1983


Upstairs at the Sheraton Washington Hotel, Gen. Glenn K. Otis, commander in chief of the US Army in Europe, is talking about ''airland battle,'' the new Army doctrine for defeating a Warsaw Pact attack. This is an important new departure in military planning, and whether or not it works could determine the survival of the Atlantic alliance. But two-thirds of the seats in the dimly lit convention hall are empty.

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Ah, but downstairs, friends, the caissons are really rolling!

It's wall-to-wall uniforms and three-piece suits, handshakes and backslaps, all sparkle and flash in a din of happy commerce. There are money and careers to be made, yessir, in this burbling mix of Las Vegas, Marrakech, and the Pentagon, this energetic display of the military-industrial complex at its most obvious.

The Association of the United States Army, a private group of retired military personnel and defense contractors, held its annual meeting here a few days ago. And while the secretary of the Army, the Army chief of staff, and other senior officials appeared, the 200 exhibits set up by armsmakers and peddlers from around the world were where the action was.

There were tanks in the parking lot, helicopters on the roof, and a maze of booths hawking everything from the most advanced anti-tank missiles to your basic, garden-variety ''combined effects munitions'' (cluster bombs).

There were slot machines. There were raffles for a gold-plated golf putter and a fresh lobster. There were card tricks. ''Doesn't this make you think of Pratt & Whitney?'' one quick-shuffling dealer enthused.

There was Miss Maine, in tiara and white sash, helping publicize the guns built by a home-state company. ''They have a nice little pistol over there,'' she said. ''Just two pounds, loaded.''

There were attractive young women, some in white jump suits, others in olive drab short shorts or khaki miniskirts. ''You want your picture taken with the gals?'' the man from Rockwell International asked passers-by, offering instant snapshots with his company's light armored vehicle in the background.

A booster of the ''Hellfire'' missile explained that there were several targets for his promotional campaign here: other contractors, US Defense Department officials, and foreign representatives - not including the two gentleman from the Soviet embassy, carefully scrutinizing a Patriot anti-aircraft missile.

''And we talk to congressional types,'' he explained. ''As you know, budgets are a yearly thing.''

Military advancement - especially when there is no war to display one's ''right stuff'' - often must include success in developing, procuring, and deploying new weapons systems. This has never been more true for the Army - traditionally behind the Navy and Air Force in big weapons buys - which is now acquiring more new high-tech equipment than ever.

At this convention were battalions of mid-ranking officers perusing displays from around the world. A young lieutenant colonel exchanged cards with an armaments salesman from Spain. ''I'm definitely interested,'' he said, as he walked off with four bags full of brochures and trinkets. ''I will contact you.''