Cash-Poor Army Pays Big to Pimp Pricey 'Future'

The Army is quickly going broke, its leaders insist. Worn-out gear can't be replaced; units can't properly prep for combat; some bases can't even afford to mow the lawn.Homepage2.jpgBut there's one Army account that the generals are still managing to keep packed to the brim: marketing. The annual Association of the United States Army convention is going down this week, in Washington. And the Army is pulling out all the stops, to show just how groovy its $300 billion high-tech upgrade, Future Combat Systems, is going to be.High above conferees' heads, a movie theater-sized screen shows Hollywood-grade videos of how awesomely FCS will work in action. Beneath the display, an Army major and a Boeing executive -- each equipped with wireless mics -- lecture a crowd, seated in stadium seats, about FCS' virtues. Beside them, to the right, is a mock operations center, manned by a trio of soldiers, pantomiming battle commands.To the left, an defense contractor is demonstrating the new Future Combat video game. "Kaboom!" he shouts, as he directs some simulated next-gen cannon to waste a pixilated foe. Ostensibly, the game is supposed to start getting officers familiar with "the FCS wireless network-centric operating system that seamlessly links advanced communications and networking systems with soldiers, platforms, weapons, and sensors." But when I ask the contractor whether the game is really just a marketing tool for the mega-expensive project, he sighs, "Yeah."Now, the FCS folks are hardly the only Army team with a booth at the conference. Everyone from Airborne to Special Forces to ROTC has a little set-up -- to market themselves within the Department, to show off to the higher-ups, and to prove their worth to Congress. And that makes some sense, in an organization as big and complex as the Army. But still, you've got to wonder whether it's the right thing to do -- with multiple wars raging and with budgets apparently so tight. "A real 'fleecing of America' story," says one conference-goer. "It's like 'we're going broke, and here's a super-slick presentation to show you why.'"

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