FORT LAUDERDALE: A scratchy, glitchy recording of the national anthem that repeatedly paused and skipped opened the Association of the US Army’s much-downsized annual winter symposium, the latest conference to feel the budget axe. It’s the 14th and last AUSA Winter to be held here in Florida before the association moves to locations more conveniently – and cheaply – reached from major army bases, starting next year.

It’s all about the money – or the lack thereof. “We reduced the cost of this event by over 95 percent from previous years,” said Gen. Robert Cone, chief of the powerful Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) and the conference’s principal Army backer. A source familiar with the event’s logistics confirmed that the Army reduced its participation from about $3 million and 500 attendees last year to about $150,000 and 57 this year. The Secretary of the Army officially endorsed attendance only weeks ago and authorized 76 attendees, but apparently the service didn’t use all its slots. Many speakers and panelists will participate by video teleconference to save travel costs.

Every single soldier physically present is specifically here to interact with other attendees, Cone told the audience at the conference’s opening session: “If you see them eating or standing around, go slap ’em and say, ‘you’re here to talk to me.'”

The unhappy irony is that it’s precisely when budgets are tight and future conflicts are uncertain that the military most needs the kind of collective brainstorming that’s only possible at conferences. They are, said Cone, “probably more essential now than at any other time.”

Too bad almost no one can afford to go. But given that sequestration and the Continuing Resolution mean the military doesn’t know what kind of budget it will have in March, it’s awfully hard to plan for the future.