WASHINGTON - Top Army brass have been cleared to attend a conference in Fort Lauderdale this month despite orders to curtail such events in light of the looming federal budget crisis unless they are "mission-critical," according to memos obtained by USA TODAY.
The conference held annually by the Association of the U.S. Army combines a defense-contractor trade show with seminars for soldiers. It will take place Feb. 20-22, a little more than a week before the military faces what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called cuts to the Pentagon budget that could render the U.S. armed forces a "second-rate power."
Those reductions are being triggered in part by "sequestration," which includes a $500 billion cut to military spending over a decade if Congress and the White House can't reach a deal on the federal deficit by March 1.
Army Secretary John McHugh approved the attendance of 76 Army personnel at the conference, according to a memo. The cost to the Army: $157,966, down 95% from last year's total of nearly $3 million. In 2012, 576 soldiers and civilian employees traveled to Florida for the conference.
The average cost for each Army attendee this year is $2,078. Last year it was $5,208.
The conference "is the Army's primary means to reach out to the defense industry," Gen. Robert Cone, who leads the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, wrote in a memo to McHugh. "Having our senior leaders and subject-matter experts present to engage with these key audiences is essential to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of our partnership with industry."
Cone is scheduled to be a featured speaker at the event. An additional 15 Army generals and a Marine Corps general appear on the list of presenters.
"We have made every effort to reduce the number of attendees to those critical to Army missions, including conducting interactive webcasting to allow widest Army participation from remote locations at minimal cost," Cone wrote.
On Jan. 16, a memo from McHugh and Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army's top officer, warned the Army staff that it "must take immediate steps to reduce expenditures." Budget uncertainty caused by sequestration and the failure of Congress to approve a 2013 budget forced the Army to reduce expenditures immediately, said the memo, titled "Risk Mitigation in the Face of Fiscal Uncertainty."
This week, Army briefing slides on the budget declared that the coming cuts would "mortgage" readiness to fight in 2013 and result in a "hollow" force by 2014. It listed immediate cost-cutting measures.
Among the cuts: a hiring freeze, laying off temporary employees and cutting back training for units not slated to deploy to Afghanistan or Korea. Two paragraphs relate to conferences and say exceptions may be made for "mission-critical activities, including those required to maintain professional licensure or equivalent certifications, and preparation for assumption of command."
Cone told McHugh in his memo that a major objective of the conference will be "discussing how the Army will balance near- and long-term readiness in the face of fiscal uncertainty, and that theme will be interwoven throughout each panel and presentation."
The association's site lists several hotels in Fort Lauderdale that offer special conference rates, ranging from the Bahia Mar Doubletree at $185 per night for one person to the Harbor Beach Marriott at $329. It notes that a limited number of rooms are available at government rates but does not list those. The average high temperature Feb. 20-22: 77 degrees.
McHugh wrote to Cone that he appreciated his effort to keep costs down.
"In light of the current state of fiscal uncertainty, your personal review and attention to this event have enabled a considerable cost savings from previous events," McHugh wrote. "This approval is contingent on your continued attention to this event to ensure the best use of government funds and adherence to all applicable policies."
Tom Vanden Brook