DSEI 2017: Inside the world's biggest arms fair in London

The Independent joins thousands of military personnel, government delegates and weapons dealers at Defence and Security Equipment International

Lizzie Dearden
Thursday 14 September 2017 10:52 BST
Trigger-happy: visitors to east London’s ExCeL centre are encouraged to ‘play’ with the merchandise
Trigger-happy: visitors to east London’s ExCeL centre are encouraged to ‘play’ with the merchandise

Suited men and women are chatting over glasses of free wine and nibbles around a glossy bar, as soft music plays and a glitterball twinkles in the background.

The scene may feel familiar but the setting is anything but. The drinkers are leaning on glass cabinets full of bullets, as the top of a tank can be seen peeking over a nearby screen.

This is the inside of the world’s largest arms fair, and military personnel, politicians, private defence contractors and consultants have come to shop.

The organisers of Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) hail its “unrivalled scale”, hosting more than 1,600 exhibitors from 54 countries.

All 36,000 visitors are vetted and go through security checks before being allowed inside the cavernous ExCeL centre to mingle with state ministers and heads of the world’s largest militaries.

A helicopter weapon on display at the DSEI arms fair in London on 13 September

Governments and private companies alike have set out their wares, with the Royal Navy even mooring warships outside for the occasion.

The fair is punctuated by speeches and seminars featuring the glitterati of British politics and defence, including the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, ministers and the chiefs of the Royal Navy, British Army, Royal Air Force and Joint Forces Command.

Uniformed soldiers and suited delegates alike crowd into pop-up theatres for the talks as others gather at stands offering unlimited wine and beer or roam countless displays.

Some of the world’s biggest arms manufacturers are selling their wares at glitzy stands, including BAE Systems, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.

One firearms dealer is urging visitors to “play” with an array of disarmed pistols, machine guns and rifles. Prices are not on display and potential buyers are whisked away for private consultations.

Nearby, a firm manufacturing tanks and armoured personnel carriers is inviting potential clients inside prototype vehicles for meetings that could result in multimillion-dollar deals.

At a huge stand operated by Leonardo, the parent company of Westland, a British Army Wildcat helicopter is on display.

A representative tells The Independent the firm is seeking new clients round the world, striking deals to supply forces in South Korea and the Philippines.

A man chats on his phone as he leans on a CV90 Battle Station in the BAE Systems display area

President Rodrigo Duterte stands accused of inciting war crimes against insurgents, while presiding over a bloody campaign seeing thousands of alleged drug dealers and users killed by police and vigilantes.

But Leonardo said its sales to the Philippines government have been cleared through the UK’s arms control and licencing regime, which requires the Government to guard against the risk of weapons being used to commit violations.

Other buyers at DSEI include delegations from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, whose militaries have all faced accusations of abuses.

Suited officials from around the world can be seen mingling with military officials and politicians, perusing displays including robots, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, drones, jets, underwater vehicles, ballistic missiles, hand grenades, rocket launchers and mortars.

“Advanced precision kill weapon system,” reads the label on one missile. A tank has “British By Birth” emblazoned on the side.

Other stands are less blunt, opting to lure in potential buyers with balloons, sweets and mascot teddies.

The wares on offer range from the lethal to the mundane, including berets, tents, embroidery and even socks.

Many of the exhibitors at DSEI sell protective and medical equipment for troops, or non-lethal devices that “disrupt” attacks by enemies.

A former military serviceman is marketing devices to allow armies to hijack and divert enemy drones, of the type being used by Isis to bomb troops in Iraq and Syria.

He believes opponents of DSEI have an oversimplistic view of the controversial event.

“There is a lot of stuff that kills people, but there is equipment like what we do which is protecting people as well,” he adds. “It’s not black and white.”

Governments and private companies alike have set out their wares

Activists are unconvinced, launching days of protests attempting to disrupt the arms fair that resulted in more than 100 arrests.

Andrew Smith, from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, said: “If DSEI was dedicated to providing medical and protective equipment it wouldn’t be seeing these huge protests, but the fact is all the world’s biggest arms companies are there.

“There are some deadly weapons on display and the regimes that have been invited include known human rights abusers.”

He warned that the UK was facing a “crossroads” with the approach of Brexit, following a speech where the Defence Secretary called for Britain to use defence exports as a means of “spreading its wings across the world”.

DSEI has coincided with international arms control talks in Geneva, sparking allegations of hypocrisy levelled at the British Government.

“The timing would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic,” says. Robert Perkins, a researcher for Control Arms.

“They are sitting in Geneva shuffling papers around while selling arms hand over fist to countries who commit human rights abuses.”

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