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
Show Hide image

There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR