Outside is an angry woman with a message painted on a sheet: "Beware those who profit from war."

Inside is McDONNELL DOUGLAS: Partners in Defense.

And GENERAL DYNAMICS: A Strong Company for a Strong Country.

And HONEYWELL: Helping You Control Your World.

Inside is UNITED TECHNOLOGIES: A Force of Nature.

And BOEING: Committed to Defense.

And MARTIN MARIETTA: Meeting Today's Needs and Tomorrow's Requirements.

And NORTHROP: Making Advanced Technology Work for America's Defense.

The woman with the sign, standing in shorts and knee socks at the foot of the Sheraton Washington Hotel's sweeping drive and decrying the dark arts being advertised within, seems almost addled by her fury.

But on the available evidence it would be hard to choose, between her and the Air Force conventioneers who have thronged here to outnumber her something like 7,000 to 1, who has the better grip on reality.

You would not know, to see the assembled marketing might of America's defense industry, that contractors are in an era of famine, that the Air Force faces lacerating cutbacks, that the world of ever-rising defense budgets is gone with the wind. The Air Force Association's 44th annual national convention seems for all the world like a gigantic celebration of the nation's flying forces, circa 1985.

It is, officially, a trade show for the 200,000-member civilian association, a chance for 367 delegates from around the country, ranging from avid hobbyists to World War II combat vets, to come and cheer on the service they love. But it is preeminently a marketing event: an opportunity for defense contractors to see and be seen by the influential military trade press, whose reviews of new weapons systems can have a major impact on procurement decisions. And for the Air Force to tout its favorite weapons systems to that same press. And for the mid-level officers of the Air Force to come and wander the aisles, seeing firsthand the weapons systems that fall outside their highly compartmentalized specialties.

It is a chance to see a full-color, three-dimensional representation of how seamlessly the military, its suppliers and its supporters are knit together in mutual need.

It is a chance for this "community," as it tends to describe itself, to emphasize the continuing need for a strong defense in the post-Cold War world.

And it is, of course, a chance to promote the Air Force. In the blunt words of Robin L. Whittle, director of communications for the Air Force Association, "We are for a strong national defense. But most of all we're for a strong Air Force."

Just Like a Home Show This is the kind of place where men introduce themselves thus: "I'm one of the B-2 pems."

Lt. Col. Ted F. Bowlds has been interrupted in his close examination of the huge, dull-green cigar that is General Dynamics's AGM-129A advanced cruise missile, lying sideways at one edge of the contractor's exhibit space. What he means to say is that he is one of the Pentagon's five or six program element monitors for the B-2 stealth bomber program.

"It's like, have you ever been to one of those home shows," he says, "where they show stuff for your home? Like a window manufacturer will come and show why his windows are different from everyone else's? That's what this reminds me of."

He has put his finger on the unsettling element of these exhibits, which sprawl out of the Sheraton's huge convention space and into the hotel atrium. They are uncannily like any other trade show's:

Same serviceable carpeting and shiny, antiseptically colorful booths. Same obliging fleets of salesmen, posted casually around their exhibition spaces in that familiar stance -- stomach forward, hands clasped behind the back, rocking from heel to toe. Same convention giveaways -- posters, lapel pins, postcards, ballpoint pens and logo-bearing bags to haul away the booty in.

The difference is that many of the items in question carry eight- and nine-figure price tags, and either fly or explode, or both. The place is crawling with blue uniforms, lousy with lieutenant colonels, oak leaf clusters on their shoulders and bulging shopping bags in their hands.

In the mornings, all week, gaggles of officers bused in from the Pentagon and from Andrews and Bolling Air Force bases were led around from exhibit to exhibit for organized briefings. They sat in obedient groups, in molded plastic chairs, hearing talks and watching promotional films.

It's not as if anyone actually comes here and says, Gee, we could really use a few dozen rail-garrison MX missile systems; write me up an order. Several defense contractors, in fact, acknowledged that the flashy displays are pretty much a matter of mutual deterrence. "If your competition is here, you've got to be here," said Lockheed Corp.'s Dick Robinson.

But some companies do seize the opportunity to adjust public image difficulties (Thiokol, maker of the ill-fated solid-booster rocket that downed the space shuttle Challenger, titled its booth, "Building a Solid Foundation Through Demonstrated Reliability") or to make an outright pitch for a specific contract. Gulfstream Aerospace urged the Air Force to add more Gulfstream C-20s to its Special Air Missions (SAM) fleet with a display titled, "It's Time to Play It Again, SAM."

Outside these exhibit halls, of course, these companies have a steely grip on the realities of late-20th century defense funding. Their competition is especially crucial in one program that was on display everywhere at the convention: the Advance Tactical Fighter, slated as a 750-plane, $79 billion effort. It was everywhere, it seemed, because everyone has a piece of it. The Air Force commissioned two competing prototypes, one by a Northrop-McDonnell Douglas team, another by a Lockheed-Boeing-General Dynamics team. The first prototype, the YF-23, is already in test flights; the second team's YF-22 has just been rolled out.

The wasplike planes were on display in films, revolving models, sumptuous four-color posters. At Lockheed's exhibition, a film titled "The F-22, a Human Achievement," ended with a Lockheed executive saying, "I think the emotions are gonna just go crazy in a lot of us when we see it finally take off."

Some companies ingratiated themselves with swell toys.

At one end of General Dynamics's sprawling display, conventioneers were lined up to have their pictures taken. The gimmick depended on the same Chromakey technology used by TV weathercasters to flash maps behind them: You sit down behind a bright-green cutout that looks a bit like Santa's sleigh, if Santa were a leprechaun, and drape your left elbow over the cutout's edge. The GD computer then generates a picture of you sitting confidently in the cockpit of an F-16.

At the Evans and Sutherland booth yesterday, an executive armed with a pointer was demonstrating a training simulator. He showed the view from the cockpit of a jet flying low over a section of Bavaria. Based on Defense Mapping Agency data, it was extraordinarily realistic, down to the shadow of the plane rushing over the ground, except that the buildings looked like children's toys. It was real-time. It was photo-derived. It was region-specific.

It was being shown to these avatars of American technology on a giant Sony television screen.

Gearing Up to Slow Down The theme of the convention, reflected in programs and posters, was "Year of Decision: Risk Up in a Build Down?"

In the past year, the Air Force has suffered terrible political setbacks for some of its biggest weapons programs: It has seen Defense Secretary Richard Cheney slash planned B-2 stealth bomber development from 132 planes to 75 -- while the House Armed Services Committee has voted to kill the program outright. The House panel has also voted to kill the SRAM-T short-range nuclear missile, while the more conservative Senate Armed Services Committee has voted to eliminate production funds for the rail-garrison MX intercontinental ballistic missile, delay procurement of the C-17 transport plane and stretch out development of the Advanced Tactical Fighter. Even the influential Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has recommended reviewing the B-2, the C-17 and the ATF for delays or cutbacks.

In other words, the consensus that bolstered the huge military buildup of the Reagan years is a thing of the past. Officially, the Air Force accepts the inevitability of "drawing down." Air Force Secretary Donald B. Rice told a packed luncheon Tuesday that "the draw-down has begun. By 1995 overall force structure will shrink nearly 25 percent. ... We'll work with Congress to reshape the force on a glide path, not a sheer drop."

But the AFA itself determinedly explains away the realities. "Before the invasion and occupation of Kuwait by Iraq," runs a policy statement adopted on the convention's first day, "a twenty-five percent reduction to U.S. armed forces was practically assumed, and still deeper cuts were threatened. The Middle East crisis has had a sobering effect on our national exuberance, but it remains to be seen if the reminder is lasting."

Over at the Raytheon booth, exhibits for the AIM 9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile ("The Pilot's Choice"), for Tacit Rainbow, for Pave Paws and Cobra Dane, were supplemented by a womblike miniature theater of velvety blue. On the three-monitor screen set above a raised U.S. seal, the contractor enacted anew the morality play of preparedness: U.S. forces devastated at Pearl Harbor. U.S. forces wisely deployed through the Cold War ("... new applications of technology were required to meet these real and serious threats"). U.S. forces now in danger of sacrifice to complacency. "We are living in an unprecedented era of change," notes the narrative. There flashed on one screen a scant, near-subliminal shot of Germans chiseling down the Berlin Wall, followed by an extended montage, on all three screens, of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.

Joe Bill Dryden, senior experimental test pilot for General Dynamics, spoke vehemently about draw-down -- "and not from the point of view just of General Dynamics, as a contractor, trying to sell something," he emphasized. Like others at the show, he's hoping that Iraq will succeed where the company's lobbying might has failed. "I just hope it'll show some of these people who want to go out and spend the peace dividend -- I mean, you've got to have some way of saying, 'This is ours, we built it, we're going to hang on to it.' If we just unilaterally disarm, I guarantee you, within two weeks you'd have some modern-day Pancho Villa in downtown Dallas."

He is seconded by Thomas S. Thomas, charter member of the AFA, roistering down the aisles in his seersucker suit, string tie, and a panoply of badges, buttons and stick-ons. Thomas (Yale '49) comes every year to the convention, and came by his defense conservatism honestly: by bailing out of a B-24 Liberator bomber over Czechoslovakia in 1944. His escape kit was six months out of date -- the front had moved miles to the east -- and as the sole escapee from 12 bombers downed on that run, he managed to hide out for six months before the country was liberated by the Soviet army.

"As soon as there's peace," he said, "they forget Pearl Harbor, they forget the Alamo, they forget everything."