For sale: weapons of mass destruction

Arms traders are carrying on as if nothing had happened in the US
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The Independent Online

Last week, after the horrendous terrorist attacks on the US, the world contemplated the possibility of war. But while most people looked on helplessly, a select group of businessmen had a very different take on the potential for future conflict.

Last week, after the horrendous terrorist attacks on the US, the world contemplated the possibility of war. But while most people looked on helplessly, a select group of businessmen had a very different take on the potential for future conflict.

Those who develop, market and supply bombs gathered together at a biennial celebration of the arms industry. At what is now recognised as one of the most important arms fairs in the world – the Ministry of Defence-promoted Defence Systems and Equipment International exhibition and conference, or DSEi for short – it was very much business as usual.

Giants of the arms world – including the UK's BAE Systems, Thales of France, the pan-European EADS and America's Lockheed Martin – gathered at the ExCel centre in London's Docklands to show off their wares at grand, expensive stands. Military technology, missiles and guns were proudly on show during the event, which lasted four days.

Glossy brochures, huge video screens, product prototypes and free food and drink were aplenty. The sound of gunfire and explosions was occasionally heard overhead as product demonstrations were carried out, giving a macabre reminder of what the fair was all about. Shares in arms companies rose last week as market traders' initial, stunned reaction to the terrorist attacks was to buy defence stocks on the possibility of a military retaliation. The traders' response was knee-jerk. But the reaction of DSEi delegates to the horrific events in the US ranged from ambivalence right through to genuine shock.

Wednesday's visitors were just as busy, if not more so, than those on Tuesday. Men in pinstripes talked energetically, and laughed as business topics were discussed. Military officials, meanwhile, looked as if they were heading for a parade, strutting around in uniform with gold epaulettes and medals on display.

For some, it was as if nothing had happened across the Atlantic. "I didn't see any negative effect," said one delegate, who works in the Middle East. "All the delegations were here. It's a busy day, it's fine. I don't see any relationship between what happened [in America] and what I do."

But others reported that business was depressed. The only legitimate customers for the products on display are governments. Some delegations are said to have gone home early. An official government reception was cancelled on Tuesday, deemed inappropriate. Yet on Wednesday the exhibition hall was still packed with representatives of the military world, meeting and greeting each other and networking. In this respect the business of war was conducted like any other.

It is a little bit about what you know and a lot more about who you know. The salesmen must pitch to the correct official at each international defence ministry. The exhibition offers the industry a chance to find out who these shadowy government figures are, extending the networks through which the deals are done.

"This fair is key. In a small space of time you can see a lot of customers," says Jon Schreyach, manager of international business development programmes at Lockheed Martin.

Emphasis was on showing off the technology, and on the status and capability of products on show. Deals take months to negotiate, so arms fairs are only one part of the process.

"Generally, the preliminaries have been done," explains Mr Schreyach. "The contracts may be signed here but the groundwork is done well in advance. Much of it is networking and a fair amount is reinforcing networks that already exist."

But these activities fill some with disgust. The event is highly controversial. On Tuesday protesters filled the streets around the exhibition centre, full of abhorrence at the arms industry.

The involvement of the British Government is the most contentious issue – DSEi is promoted by the Ministry of Defence, which issues official invitations to the event to countries with appalling human rights records. The inclusion of nations such as China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey was impossible to justify for some campaigners.

When asked about these issues, executives of the arms companies shrugged their shoulders. Some said that effective, hi-tech weapons can be funded only if the UK's companies export abroad.

"The cost to the British taxpayer is reduced because if you sell to 10 armies instead of one, then the costs come down, to say nothing about creating 10 times as many jobs," says Norman Bamford, the managing director of the BDEC catalogue, which contains 700 pages of weapons, vehicles and medical equipment for armed forces.

But it is not just questionable nations that receive invitations to the arms fair. European states, Australia and Japan were included too, along with the British military. But as one exhibitor explained – before Tuesday's terrorist attacks on the US, it must be said – the fair can attract more dubious characters.

"The third group is arms salesmen," says Peter Parry, who manned a technology stall at the event and is an ex-RAF serviceman. "Some will happily sell anything to anyone. They are not tied to any particular country or weapons system. They are the type of people you would expect to sell to terrorists."

How to control the information made available to such people was one of the topics discussed at the fair. How governments can protect themselves against a terrorist threat and how technology can improve security were also up for debate.

"As of Tuesday, the world changed," says Robert Preedy, the head of product marketing at RO Defence, a division of BAE Systems. However, he believes that spending on weapons will not necessarily increase.

"There will be much greater investment in security systems ... not necessarily armaments," Mr Preedy continues. "It will set up tensions and awareness of threat, and factionalism. It will engender a feeling in most nations that they have to look to their security."

On first hearing of the attacks in New York and Washington the City's reaction was that it was a good move to buy defence companies. It was felt that these would benefit substantially from the terrible news.

Yet such companies could also be sidelined. It is by no means certain that they can provide the solutions to the world's pressing questions of security.