A salesman displays a lethal microwave gun that can destroy an incoming drone at 900 meters at AUSA 2019. Photo: Dave Makichuk

I was on my fourth triple vodka and ice when I got the text from Mr Wolf. Thank God, just in time.

“I’m coming to pick you up, and take you to dinner,” the message said. One doesn’t say no to Mr Wolf. I responded yes.

Mr Wolf is a man who lives in a black world – black on black. His real name, I can’t reveal, for reasons I will explain in due time.

I was, in fact, at a tony Washington, DC, bar/nightclub, whatever you want to call it. A guest of Northrup Grumman, as part of the annual AUSA 2019 annual show. An Association of the United States Army extravaganza filling the massive two floors of the Washington convention center, with more than 700 military contractors, displaying the latest and greatest weaponry on the face of the Earth.

They were treating me nicely. I found the waiter, a nice Hispanic fellow, and told him to keep the vodkas coming – the trays of wonderful hors d’oeuvres never stopped. Clearly, Northrup Grumman had deep pockets.

Without anyone watching, I crumpled a US$20 bill into my hand, and shook hands with the waiter, looking him in the eye, and thanking him for looking after me. He smiled, and shook my hand vigorously. The least I could do.

I struck up a real convo with a real general, who was now working for Grumman. A tall, strapping fellow who was roughly my age, but looked 20 years younger. I said, “Geezus, man … you look like you could run the 100!”

“Ha,” he laughed, and said he’d just run a 10K days earlier. He said his troops regularly told him to slow down, but he refused.

We chatted nicely, before a Grumman PR person came up alongside – it’s clear they needed to get the general away from me, but I understood and took no offense. This is how things work in the world of major arms firms. On the military food chain, I was relatively low.

I learned he was stationed in South Korea, for several years … and then was moved to Washington, where he was front and center, after the attacks of September 11, 2001. He was actually in Egypt at the time, but rushed home to see America respond to this terrible attack. I told him, you probably have a book in you, and he agreed. Lesser books have been written.

One of the amazing displays at AUSA 2019 in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy Dave Makichuk.

I gave him my card and told him, if he ever changed his mind, to give me a call. I also asked him, after attending several roundtables with US Army generals at the show, and getting my fill of artificial intelligence, robot killers and the so-called “multi-domain” battlefield, “Who,” I said, “will be left to charge up the hill and take the pillbox?”

The general gave a hearty laugh. “Dave,” he said, “I totally agree. We have to have a human being in that circle.” In other words, it can’t all be robots. It begins and ends with the soldier.

While that may be true, nothing prepared me for the vastness of AUSA 2019 – hundreds of booths and displays, featuring simulators, helicopters, tanks, armored vehicles, drones and unmanned vehicles. A collection of weapons displays, likely unrivaled, but for a European show that apparently is its equivalent.

My job was to mine as many contacts as I could for Asia Times – our boss wants more tech stories, and so there I was, chasing it down. No prisoners!

For two days I faithfully marched and shook hands and spoke to more military PR folks than I ever thought existed. Everything from the guys who make the specialized gaskets for electronic equipment, to the Italian folks at CEIA who make the best mine detectors in the world, to a firm that sells spying equipment to the US Secret Service, and to a small California firm that builds a gun capable of shooting down a drone at 900 meters – the Japanese are looking at ordering these for the upcoming Olympic Games.

Tanks no longer need windows – so I learned, from the Israelis. New technology allows for video displays to see and locate targets, even better, and, they can go anywhere, with the mere touch of a joystick. I also flew an F-16, and fired missiles at a peaceful community – the Korean salesman thought this quite funny and laughed heartily.

In a word, it was overwhelming. Clearly, anyone thinking of attacking or messing with the US, should take a walk through this convention – talk about a humbling experience.

I also saw more brass there than has ever gathered in one place, members of the Washington diplomatic establishment as well. South Korea, France and Germany were also well represented, with weapons and technology of all manner. Along with the big guys – Lockheed-Martin, Northrup Grumman, BAE Industries, Boeing, Airbus, Sikorsky and Bell Helicopter. Companies like L3 Technologies as well, a huge US military contractor.

One of the amazing displays at AUSA 2019 in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy Dave Makichuk.

Perhaps one of the greatest things I saw – and I related this to the general – was the amazing camaraderie between services. So often I saw this – graying men in uniform, greeting other men for the first time in ages, and renewing old friendships. This was something really cool, and I totally relished seeing that. A part of me felt rather jealous, actually.

The roundtable discussions with US brass was also fascinating – the generals I met answered questions upfront, with no interference from their handlers. Let’s just say the US Army is facing revolutionary changes in how it operates and how it will fight future conflicts.

It is at a crossroads, with new technology coming at it, from all sides. How it resolves this issue is anyone’s guess. One general admitted they may not get it right the first time, but the modernization of the US Army will continue on all fronts.

I guess the discussion that shocked me the most was one on how much leeway robot killers would be given on the battlefield – not if, but how much … with deference to protecting the main body of troops. Another question was whether it was worthwhile to recover unmanned weapons, because of their expense. Or whether they were expendable.

“Some people say our troops are 10 feet tall,” boasted one general. “I wouldn’t say that …” (he said to laughter in the crowd) “… but some of our boys are pretty close to that.” It was a statement right out of Dr Strangelove, but the message was clear: The US Army is ready and willing to take on anyone or anything, anywhere.

Fast-forward now, to the tony Washington establishment where I was tossing back the triple vodkas … good vodka, too, Tito’s … not the Russian stuff.

Mr Wolf took me to Old Alexandria, a beautiful suburb of Washington that has replaced Georgetown as the in place to live. Think row on row of renovated classic brownstones, young people working in DC with no kids and dogs.

A beautiful riverside esplanade with cool shops and restaurants – including a former torpedo factory converted into an art community. Only in America!

We dined well, at one of Mr Wolf’s favorite restos. I was going to order a few more drinks, but Mr Wolf said, “No, you’ve had enough.” How could I disagree, he was right.

Why Mr Wolf was even there and what he was doing, where he came from, or where he was going next, I cannot tell you … believe it or not, that is classified. But thank God he rescued me. They probably would have had to wipe me off the floor at the Grumman get-together. A rather poor representative, to say the least.

Can’t wait for AUSA 2020!

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