In the line of fire: A date with despots at Britain's arms fair

As London invites dictators to the world's biggest weapons expo, Tom Peck finds out how easy it is to assemble a hi-tech arsenal

As a Peruvian army captain in full uniform looks on, I am squinting down the viewfinder of the "Serpent", the first shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapon I have ever handled, its crosshair fixed on a tank 291 metres in the far distance, my thumb poised on the fire button.

"Just send that right down and give someone a bad day," says Brian Gaume, the man selling Serpents to those with a few millions to spare and an itchy trigger finger. I duly do, and on the simulator plasma screen in front of me a little green pixellated tank is duly obliterated.

At the Defence Security and Equipment International arms fair in London's Excel Centre, there is no shortage of options for dishing out bad days, weeks, months and whole lifetimes.

The Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, addressed the delegates yesterday morning, extending a warm welcome to the various invitees, among them military procurement officers from Angola, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

The 65 national delegations asked to buy weapons in London include 14 regimes defined as "authoritarian" by human rights groups, who have highlighted the use of British arms in suppressing opposition movements in the Middle East. Dr Fox said the fair had brought together more than 1,300 defence and security suppliers – "everything from traditional defence platforms to cyber-security and counter-terrorism to commercial security, fire protection and safety". But it doesn't feel that safe. And for the thousands of military and trade delegates who will visit the exhibition this week, this is clearly a fun day out.

The halls are packed, the lunch queues terrifyingly long. Only the ladies toilets are mysteriously deserted. Next year, the same hall will host the Olympic tae kwon do and boxing contests. But this week it is not the place to be for those interested in hand-to-hand combat.

Next to the Serpent, one of many developments from Raytheon UK, the British arm of the US defence giant, is the Paveway IV, a 500lb laser-guided bomb. "It can be programmed to explode underground, to explode over a particular car or tank, or to take out a particular floor of a building," says Nick West, the company's communications director. Over the past few months, the Paveway IV's lasers have been set to guide its missiles from allied jets into strategic targets all over Libya.

On the canals outside, huge battleships are moored, and lucky delegates race around in interceptor boats, complete with anti-tank guns and surface-to-air missile defence systems. A little like the Venice Biennale, arms companies are grouped nation by nation in their own "pavilions". The Israel Pavilion looms large, but the USA Pavilion is something to behold. Men in full SWAT uniforms stand between rack after rack of machine-guns.

"Securing Nations Around The World" is the slogan of AeroVironment Inc, a company which produces "unmanned aircraft systems". To the layman, they look a lot like drones, although, as more than one "unmanned aircraft system" manufacturer said, "we don't use that word". They can be used to target "ships, tanks, or terrorists", yet the promotional poster shows an unmanned aircraft flying above Wembley Stadium – perhaps an extreme solution to the England football team's recent difficulties.

It is not hard to spot the VIPs. They mostly wear military uniform, with big red badges saying "delegate", and wander in packs. Those from Ukraine seem particularly intimidating. The officials hold purse strings for some of the world's biggest budgets.

The UK defence industry's section is vast and sophisticated. BAe Systems is exhibiting Adaptiv, a kind of invisibility cloak that can make a giant tank look like a simple car on enemy detection systems. "There are economies of scale at work," said a spokesman for UK Defence. "If the Government can help a UK company to sell big numbers of its products abroad, that company can sell them to the Government for cheaper."

Yet it seems hard to strike a deal. Not one stand will countenance any discussion of price. "I'm forbidden to talk about that," is a familiar refrain.

It is not the only instance of caginess. The Israeli weapons industry's stand is lined with Tavor automatic and semi-automatic rifles. "They are used in Israel and 60 other countries," a spokesman says, but refuses to say which ones. "We cannot discuss clients but go on YouTube and you will see some interesting stuff."

The man from Glock sits behind a desk littered with revolvers. Nearby, two Portuguese delegates are aiming pistols at one another, yet my notepad seems to be the most terrifying thing the salesman has ever clapped eyes on. "I cannot say anything, I cannot say anything," he repeats.

Next door, the Swiss munitions firm RUAG is similarly elusive, but its display boasts that it makes "the UK MOD's preferred hand grenade".

The new Scout tank from General Dynamics is also here, one of four new models that will become standard British Army equipment by 2020. Even in these austere times, the 500 to 600-tank contract will cost up to £2bn. After a couple of hours here, that feels like a drop in the ocean.

A booming industry

* The UK has the world's second- largest defence and security sector; only the US sells more weapons and military hardware worldwide. The British share of the global market increased from 18 to 20 per cent in the past year, according to the government body UK Trade and Investments.

* The industry was worth £22bn to the British economy in 2010, the defence trade group ADS (Aerospace, Defence and Security) claims – £9.5bn of which was in exports.

* Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest buyer of British weapons and also the largest importer of arms globally. Saudi contracts earned the UK about £300m last year, according to arms trade analysts the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

* Behind the Saudis, the US has the most defence contracts with British firms. India, which imports 70 per cent of its military equipment, represents the UK's third-largest arms market.

* Bahrain, which was controversially invited to this week's DSEi exhibition after its regime crushed an uprising in February, signed contracts with British firms worth £2.4m this year, according to figures obtained by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

Charlie Cooper

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Creative Director / Head of Creative

£65K - £75K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Creative Director...

Recruitment Genius: IT Technical Support Engineer

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful IT reseller bas...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Engineer / Technical Sales Representative - OTE £35k

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the Country's leading di...

Recruitment Genius: Logistics Coordinator - Part-Time

£10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence