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.