ABU DHABI – The Pentagon is stepping up its official participation at massive worldwide tradeshows like this week’s International Defence Exposition and Conference in the United Arab Emirates, its top weapons buyer said on Saturday. The pronouncement effectively ends a two-year downturn following a 2012 lavish spending scandal that froze out many government workers from traveling to conferences in attractive destinations from Abu Dhabi to Las Vegas.
“I came to the conclusion that we were not doing enough in support of these international shows and we ratcheted up our involvement,” Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition executive said Sunday morning during his first visit to the United Arab Emirates.
“We’re going to continue this participation,” he said.
Kendall, the senior U.S. official at the exposition, or IDEX, is accompanied by Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey, director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, or DSCA, which oversees the sales of U.S. weapons to allies. The two spent considerable time walking the tradeshow floor, conducting bilateral meetings and chatting up defense company representatives.
More than 115 U.S. companies are displaying American armored trucks, tanks, helicopters, missiles and drones. While their primary goal is to sell these items overseas, company executives want to show off their products and get face time with the Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership.
“[Companies] are just looking for interaction with leadership,” one industry official said.
Kendall’s walk around the IDEX show exposition hall Sunday afternoon and bilateral meetings with allies were noticed by U.S. attendees, although he did not get the cameras following him around like a high-ranking Chinese general.
“U.S. industry appreciated the fact that we’re here participating. I think we now kind of set a precedent for that,” Kendall said.
Attending more tradeshows has also allowed Kendall and other Defense Department officials to observe technology advancements by non-U.S. firms. Kendall and Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work have placed an emphasis on developing new technology that could give American troops an edge on the battlefield of the future.
“It … gives me the chance at a show like this to see a lot of technologies from around the world and to familiarize myself with what others are doing both as possible sources of technology for the United States and just general awareness,” Kendall said.
The IDEX show is considered so important that in 2011, then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen stopped by while on a tour of the region, just to meet with UAE’s crown prince.
But things changed one year later after a 2012 scandal exposed extravagant spending by the Government Services Administration. The fallout rippled through the Pentagon, leading to strict guidelines for federal employees attending tradeshows and other types of events.
A little more than two years ago, more than 7,000 people showed up at a drone conference held in a massive exhibition hall of a casino on the Las Vegas Strip. All of the big, and many small, defense firms were there, showcasing the latest in robotics. But the U.S. military was not. Despite the Pentagon’s desire to buy drones, an event in Sin City just sent the wrong message.
Government and military attendance at events plummeted at these types of conferences, leading companies to also cut back on tradeshow spending. At airshows and other international events that Defense Department officials did attend, they were often caught in awkward positions, as lower-level military or political appointees found themselves to be the highest-ranking member of the U.S. delegation.
At the 2013 Dubai Air Show, the highest-ranking Pentagon officials was an assistant defense secretary, while other governments like the United Kingdom sent their defense secretary.
Overseas tradeshows were not the only ones that took a hit in U.S. attendance. In 2012, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter ordered a review of all conferences, and a waiver was needed in order to attend. Early on, very few waivers were granted. The stateside events felt the pressure as organizers scrambled to lock-in speakers.
Defense companies cut back their participation, too, with some large firms pulling out of events and top executives staying behind from European airshows that were once considered can’t-miss social and business events.
Now as U.S. defense spending declines, there has been an extra push to sell American arms overseas, particularly in the Middle East where Islamic State militants have been carrying out attacks in Iraq, Syria and now Libya.
“The uncertainties about budgets in the U.S. and what’s going to happen to industry as a result of that, we need to do what we can to support U.S. industry,” Kendall said. “I’m happy to do it.”