A Day at the Arms Fair

Tom Hart spends a surreal day at DSEI, a London convention for international arms dealers

A Day at the Arms Fair A Day at the Arms Fair

Uncategorized September 18, 2013 0

 A broad smile from an Iveco armoured vehicle / Tom Hart photo A Day at the Arms Fair Tom Hart spends a surreal day... A Day at the Arms Fair
 A broad smile from an Iveco armoured vehicle / Tom Hart photo

A Day at the Arms Fair

Tom Hart spends a surreal day at DSEI, a London convention for international arms dealers

Miniature robots and landmine detectors share the room with bulletproof vests, precision-engineered widgets and all kinds of missiles. Exotic military uniforms from over 50 different countries mix with reserved business suits and glamorous girls in skin-tight leopard print outfits.

This is as close to a supermarket for advanced military weapons as it gets.

Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEI) draws some 1,500 exhibitors promoting the latest in military hardware to London’s ExCel center. The biennial — and controversial — event is also held in London Docklands, which is handy if you want to park an offshore patrol vessel outside.

With about a third of the 30,000 delegates being the decision makers for arms procurements around the world, DSEI offers an opportunity for important deals to be struck.

Think retro. Think Kigre Lasers. / Tom Hart photo

Bombs and bullets

DSEI is not popular with everyone, however. Protests are a firm ritual at DSEI, and five people were arrested for trying to blockade the event as it opened. Partly, the protests are due to the presence of several authoritarian regimes with atrocious human rights records.

Apart from that opening salvo, the exhibition remained cocooned. Ordinary citizens are excluded from the Customs House station, while those seeking registration must drift down the line to Prince Regent. Three more security checks wait for those going inside, and a stern warning to remove badges for those delegates going out.

For three days, the exhibition center became a fortified town. To look out from the smokers’ balcony was to see police crash barriers in the mist and then nothing, except a Royal Navy helicopter in a car park below.

Commerce is largely indifferent to the protests. Libya was invited in 2009, not invited during the 2011 civil war, and was back again this year. And 2015? Time shall tell…

While organizations like Rostec — which handles Russia’s arms exports — remained unmolested, the same could not be said for French company Magforce International and the Chinese firm Tianjin Myway. Both were ejected from the event for displaying literature that advertised items said to be leg restraints and electric-charged batons, which are prohibited from sale in the United Kingdom.

EXPAL Shepherd-MIL UAV disguised as a hawk / Tom Hart photo

Dealing in war robots

Meanwhile the show rolled on, as trade shows tend to roll, with free lollipops and peppermints as sweet bribes from firms selling sniper rifles.

A casual kick turned a robot over onto the showroom floor. The machine rested on its aggressor’s foot for a moment. Then with a dull whirr, the machine picked itself up and sniffed the air with its mechanical probe. Over in a robotic playpen, the machine’s larger, distant cousin opened a car door to remove a suspicious bag. The arm lunged at casual observers, whether this is an automatic movement or an operator’s playfulness is unknown.

Across the concourse, there was a mechanical hawk with that never blinks. This is the EXPAL Shepherd-Mil, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) shaped to appear as a hawk. Up close the bird appears as fake as amateur taxidermy, but from a distance and from the sky, the realism is apparent.

There are many national pavilions at DSEI, but little to distinguish the United Arab Emirates from the United States, or Russia from Israel. Sure, Canada has a bland suite for private meetings that features staid photos of the Canadian Rockies, but this is an extravagant gesture.

Pearson Engineering’s PEROCC / Tom Hart photo

‘Turn back or you will be fired upon’

Above all, the U.S. dominated the show. The U.S. pavilion featured an exhaustive scroll, company after company right down one wall. It’s large enough, but then there were the separate stands for Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and other American defense firms.

Hybrid vehicles were common. Pearson Engineering’s PEROCC struck a prehistoric note — a tractor-like beast with great hydraulic extensions to better rake the ground for improvised bombs. It almost seems to have arrived too late, as the wars it was designed to fight are rolled up, a common fate for so much military technology. A rubber tire crushed a plastic plant in a weak simulation of the outside world.

On the dock, ships from Germany and Sweden towered over Korean sailors preparing their instruments for a performance. A tiny UAV hovered over the water to record the speedboat demonstrators. Without the red navigation lights, which blink every few seconds, it would be invisible.

The boats crisscrossed the water. An announcer detailed the specifications from 370-horsepower diesel engines to .50-caliber weapons, courtesy Saab.

“You are approaching a coalition forces area. Turn back or you will be fired upon,” barked an ultra long-distance loudhailer:

Moments later the message is repeated in another language, perhaps Somali.

“This device helps to reduce casualties on all sides,” said the announcer before he moved on to the next detail.

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