Soviets' defence secrets 'go West': Military technology once hidden from Western eyes is now openly on sale, converted ingeniously to peaceful use. Will Bennett reports

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The Independent Online
THE ONLY threat that some of the scientists at Russia's General Office of Munitions and Specific Chemistry now pose to the West is the promotion of tooth decay. Experts who once designed ammunition have made a fondant sweets production line.

The massive Russian defence industry emerged yesterday from behind the veil of Soviet secrecy that surrounded it throughout the Cold War years at the first major exhibition of converted military technology to be held in the West.

A few years ago Western spies might have risked their lives to get some of the material that is openly on display in Birmingham. For example, the video showing the development of the low-flying Ekranoplan, an astonishing cross between a hydrofoil and plane, would have had the intelligence services quivering with excitement.

Almost 250 Russians are at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham to sell equipment converted to non-military use, attract investment from Britain and build business links.

The end of the East-West confrontation left the crumbling Russian economy with a huge over-emphasis on military production. In the past two years, the Yeltsin government has tried hard to convert swords into plough shares.

So, in Birmingham yesterday, at the exhibition which has cost the Russian government pounds 650,000, the Russian Defence Industry General Department was promoting what had been armoured engineering vehicles for the Red Army as tracked equipment for fighting fires, coping with natural disasters and carrying heavy loads.

The Ekranoplan, which can cruise a few feet above wave-top level at speeds of up to 350mph, was designed as a rocket launcher and troop-carrier but is now being sold for air-sea rescue use. Almaz, which used to produce missile ships, is stressing the virtues of its catamarans and ocean-going yachts.

Night-vision equipment used by snipers is being marketed as ideal for hunters and naturalists, body armour and helmets are sold for personal security, while the space industry has produced a mass of technological side products.

Andrei Kroutov, a salesmen at the exhibition, said: 'These are real examples of how we are using our military skills for peaceful purposes. We hope that the West will have a positive attitude towards what we are doing.'

But, despite the opportunity for investment and business in Russia, the British Government has remained largely indifferent to the exhibition. Pleas for a Cabinet minister to open it fell on deaf ears and yesterday the task was performed by Helen Sharman, the first Briton to go into space.

(Photographs omitted)