Inside the world's largest arms fair

Lavish food and drink sits awkwardly with the sale of gleaming weapons that are ultimately used to k

There is a sense of nervous tension outside the ExCeL centre in London's east end. It is the first day of the Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition -- otherwise known as the world's largest arms fair -- and a huge line of predominantly middle-aged men in suits are queuing to get inside. Some of them are arms dealers, others government representatives and intelligence agents. Scarcely a word is spoken as we shuffle slowly forwards. Police radios puncture the silence, beeping on and off as burly-looking security guards patrol intently.

Through a set of glass doors and beyond airport-like security scanners are two massive, 145,000 square-feet halls split by a long corridor, dominated on either side by shops and cafes. Delegates from some of the 65 countries in attendance sit enjoying breakfast next to a giant tank, its rooftop gun revolving in circles -- much to the approval of passers-by, who point and take photographs.

The two main exhibition halls have previously hosted concerts by Roxy Music, Alice Cooper and UB40. But today they are crammed with around 1300 exhibits, selling guns, bombs and the latest in security technology. A handful of stalls are devoted to life-saving equipment. Most of the space, however, is reserved for displays featuring 100lb hellfire missiles, AK47 rifles, stealth tanks and even gold-plated handguns.

The quiet dissipates and is replaced by the sound of chatter. Business cards change hands, and multi-million pound contracts are being negotiated. At a large stand run by the defence arm of SAAB, a Swedish company more renowned for its cars, Håkan Kappelin is showing off a laser-guided missile system to delegates from India. It has a range of 8km and can travel at speeds of up to 680 metres per second.

"It could be deployed inside a city like London. And you can engage any type of target," he says. "Not like when you use an infra-red system, where you have problems with houses in the background. Just reload in five seconds and engage the next target."

The delegates nod approvingly. "680 metres per second," one repeats to another.

Upstairs, in a briefing room, Defence Secretary Liam Fox delivers a speech. Anti-arms campaigners have levelled criticism against the government for doing deals with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of crackdowns on protesters across the Arab world. Fox is dismissive. "I am proud that the UK is the second biggest defence exporter in the world," he says. "This is fundamental part of the coalition government's agenda for economic growth, but it is also part of our strategy of enlightened international engagement."

Back on the exhibition floor, the atmosphere is carefree. A tall Arab man dressed in a pristine white Thawb, and protected by a circle of six bodyguards, is treated like a celebrity at a stand offering intelligence and surveillance systems, made by German company Cassidian. Gold buckles on his brown leather sandals sparkle in the light; people walking by stop and stare. "I think he's a Saudi prince," one says.

Nearby, two glamour models, Rosie Jones and Charlotte McKenna, joke and flirt as they sign copies of a "Hotshots" calendar in which they are pictured, scantily clad, wielding various pistols and rifles. Next to stalls selling vicious-looking machine guns, gas masks and chemical suits for use in the event of a biological weapons attack, free massages are on offer and delegates eat canapés washed down with glasses of sparkling wine.

The prevailing opinion among the delegates and exhibitors is that they are in the business to bring security to the world -- they deny claims made by campaign groups that they are peddlers of death. A representative from Pakistan's exhibit, Major Ali Asghar Mushtaq, says his country is here selling weapons to help bring about a more peaceful world.

"The aim of Pakistan's army is that everything manufactured and sold should not be for killing and terror activities," he says. "It should bring peace on the whole world, not wars." Does he really believe manufacturing arms en masse will help bring about peace? "It's obvious," he says. "Once one country and the other country both have weapons, no one is going to use the weapons against each other. So there will be more stability."

Later, Major Mushtaq and his colleagues are removed from the exhibition after it is discovered they are advertising cluster bombs banned under UK law. But his viewpoint lingers. The South African exhibit on the other side of the hall boasts that it is "securing a peaceful future through high technology defence equipment," and Condor, a Brazilian company that supplied teargas and rubber bullets used against protesters in Bahrain, says it is committed to the "reduction of violence through gradual use of force."

These apparent paradoxes litter the hall. The lavish consumption of food and drink sits awkwardly with the sale of gleaming weapons that are ultimately used to kill and maim. And the talk of security attained through the mass production of arms is reminiscent of George Orwell's dystopian nightmare in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where peace is itself a state of perpetual war.

Walking around the exhibition, it is difficult not to recall US president Dwight Eisenhower's famous 1961 farewell address, during which he warned against the perils of an "immense military establishment and a large arms industry." Although there is an imperative need for the industry to develop, Eisenhower said, it has "grave implications" for the "very structure of our society." Government officials today are keen to point out that last year defence exports generated revenues of more than £22 billion for UK industry. A question Eisenhower might have urged us to ask is: at what cost?

Leaving the ExCeL centre, police officers advise anyone wearing a DSEI pass to conceal it from view. "There are protesters about and they might not like where you've been," one warns. We take a specially ordered train from the stop outside ExCeL to nearby Canning Town, where the arms traders, weapons makers and other defence industry insiders join a crowd of rush hour commuters. Just another bunch of men in suits, they disappear into the night.

Ryan Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in London. His website is here.

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.