‘War is Back. People Want to Stock Up’: Inside Europe’s Biggest Arms Fair


Military spending is at an all-time high – and from laser-guided drones to dog armour, there is no shortage of hardware. Our writer visits the vast ‘supermarket of death’ that is London’s DSEI shop floor

A body convulses on a table, with broken bones poking from a stump of torn flesh below the knee, one arm gruesomely peppered with gunshot wounds, as men in military uniforms look on approvingly.

“He bleeds, he moves, he breathes, he has a pulse,” says the smiling sales rep. “His eyes even react to light. We have a canine version too, which barks and whines – and it comes with interchangeable injured limbs.”

I am perusing the medical zone of Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), Europe’s biggest arms fair, which takes place every two years in the Excel convention centre in east London. It is a sprawling supermarket of modern warfare, where the world’s armies come to buy the latest AI-guided missiles and tanks, inspect giant warships moored in the Royal Docks, and queue to take a turn sitting in the cockpits of fighter jets.

Every possible military requirement is covered here, from the writhing “high-fidelity trauma simulators”, to camouflage dealers showcasing their prints, to stands selling medals and commemorative coins – and even one specialising in epaulette tassels. Joystick manufacturers jostle with makers of invisibility cloaks, while purveyors of VR simulators compete with those of radar jammers, next to endless ranks of machine guns. Sleek submarines sparkle on spotlit plinths while flocks of missile-carrying drones dangle from the ceiling like menacing mobiles.

“This year feels much busier than usual,” one bomb salesman tells me, standing by a gleaming rack of cone-shaped warheads, polished like trophies in a glass cabinet. “It seems war is back in a big way. People are looking to stock up.” Whereas attendees of this great murderous bazaar may once have felt sheepish, they now proudly march through the entrance gates with their heads held high. War, long something that happened far away, is now on our doorstep.

In an auditorium nearby, Britain’s most senior military officer, Adm Sir Tony Radakin, informs a rapt audience about the recently increased threat levels, noting that Russia’s war on Ukraine has highlighted the vulnerability of our cities to deadly missile and drone attacks. It’s now easy to “get close to a country and fly drones in”, he says. “We need to have a conversation about integrated missile defence.”

Recent events in Ukraine have sharpened minds and opened wallets in relation to governmentspending on defence. Total global military expenditure reached an all-time high of $2.2tn (£1.8tn) in 2022, with Europe seeing the steepest annual increase in 30 years – the total surpassing, in real terms, that of the last year of the cold war. The UK has the highest military budget in central and western Europe, at $68.5bn, and the government has committed to increase it. As the hi-tech wares on show in this marketplace of munitions reveal, there are plenty of expensive toys for it to splurge on.

Covering the mind-boggling area of 14 football pitches, the exhibition is organised into zones for land, naval, aerospace, and even space warfare. In between, there are sections dedicated to medical innovations, security, manufacturing and future tech, along with a host of national pavilions, each showcasing its country’s arms-dealing specialities, like a bloodthirsty Eurovision song contest.

At the Israel pavilion, one company is promoting its “high-penetration wireless communication for indoor robotics and drones”, showing videos of drones swooping through bombed-out buildings, looking for prey like a swarm of deadly mosquitoes. Brazil features a stall offering “ammunition, bombs, rockets and fuses”, with a bowl of complimentary sweets, while a rifle company in the US section tries to lure punters with a free calendar of busty models draped across its anti-aircraft guns. (“It’s been approved by all our female staff,” the man at the desk assures me.)

Norway touts its outdoorsy all-weather reputation, exhibiting a sledge equipped with a machine gun, while, among the long ranks of firearms in the Turkish pavilion, I am offered a gleaming golden handgun. “It’s for people who want the traditional style,” says a beaming lady behind the counter.

Night-vision goggles and AI-assisted firing sights abound, but Switzerland opts for an old-school vibe, showing off its Victorinox Swiss Army knives – including models especially customised for different security forces, from the German navy to the Malaysian police. “The Malaysians are always the funniest and fanciest when it comes to special features,” says the sales manager, showing me a knife with every tool coated in a sleek matte black finish, designed to match their uniforms.

Nearby, I encounter a mannequin covered in a thick furry shroud of white fabric petals, giving it the look of the abominable snowman. It turns out to be a real-life invisibility cloak. “It protects soldiers from UV cameras, thermal cameras and infra-red cameras,” says Kiran Joshi of Indian firm Entremonde Polyecoaters. “It has a special coating on the fabric, so it merges with the surrounding terrain and makes the soldier invisible.” A few stands away I bump into a robotic, drone-carrying dog – whose applications range from perimeter security to bomb disposal – displayed near snout-shaped helmets with electronic ear defenders, designed to be worn by dogs on the battlefield.

As the host nation, the British armed forces get top billing, showing off the products of the latest projects. At the army stand, staffed by a crowd of young soldiers in neatly pressed khaki uniforms, I am introduced to the new armoured vehicles of the troubled £5.5bn Ajax programme – an “advanced, fully digitised land vehicle system delivering transformational change”, manufactured by General Dynamics in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. It is the biggest single order in more than two decades, for 589 vehicles at a cost of almost £10m each. Running more than six years late, Ajax has been repeatedly criticised by the National Audit Office, the defence select committee and the public accounts committee, branded “a complete and utter disaster” by the former head of the Royal Navy.

“Nothing like this has ever been seen before,” says a jovial Maj David Hughes, slapping the armoured flank of one of the new reconnaissance vehicles as if it were a prized thoroughbred. “It gives us enhanced lethality, survivability, reliability, mobility and all-weather intelligence.”

He shows me its 40mm cannon, which has a range of more than 1.5 miles (2.5km), as well as long-range thermal sights and acoustic sensors that can pick up gun noises and plot the target directly on the commander’s screen. “With a click of two buttons,” he says, “they can pass that information to an unmanned drone or an Apache helicopter. Another press of a button, and the Apache pilot comes in and destroys the target on one pass. This digitally networked system vastly increases our operational lethality.”

Nearby hangs a massive jet-powered drone, of the kind that might soon be part of this digitally networked battlefield, carrying a hefty payload of three laser-guided Brimstone missiles. This is the Hydra 400, which uses hybrid propulsion technology (rotors and jet engines) to carry a whopping 400kg of bombs, developed in response to the increasing challenges of urban warfare. Compact and portable, it only takes six minutes to assemble, giving troops “an Apache gunship in the boot of their car”, as one source put it. Next to it, a gaggle of smaller drones hang alongside their mothership, designed to carry its young for longer distances and then release them for precision strikes, like warhead-equipped carrier pigeons.

“They all have onboard AI cameras,” says Maj Matthew McGarvey-Miles, lead of the army warfighting experiment, a flagship programme where the latest technology is developed. “They can identify targets and track them automatically, without the requirement of an operator to constantly monitor them.” These devices are still at testing stage, and need to be approved, but the army appears to be heading rapidly in an automated, connected, lethally digital direction.

“We are responding to the operating environment that we see in Ukraine,” says the army’s chief of the general staff, Patrick Sanders, keen to stress that these unmanned killing machines need skilled humans, too. “When the electromagnetic spectrum is so heavily contested, automation fails and the skill of the pilot predominates. We need ‘war fighters’ – whether they are cyber specialists, drone pilots, or infantry soldiers – to be stronger, faster, more intelligent and more resilient.”

The nature of these unmanned weapons – and the kind of remote fighters the army is looking for – is having a knock-on effect on how the physical controls are designed. While crowds of decorated generals compare the lengths of their missiles at the big-budget displays of major munitions manufacturers, my eye is caught by a small stand that glimmers with hundreds of tiny switches, buttons and joysticks, giving it the look of a fiendishly complex submarine control room.

“We make push-button switches, toggle switches, slam switches, switches with locking levers, and fully sealed safety critical switches,” says Steve Blackwell of Apem components. “We are Europe’s largest manufacturer of switches. But the big thing now is thumb-stick controllers. So many people in the military now come from the Xbox generation, so they’re used to thumb-sticks. Gone are the days when you’d have big pneumatic or hydraulic controls.”

He hands me a controller that looks just like a gaming joypad – a deceptively playful device for something that could unleash hellfire on a pixellated target, hundreds of miles away. Nimble thumbs, it seems, will define the future of warfare. Tomorrow’s battles will be waged from the safety of a gaming chair (also on display), with the assistance of algorithms.

The world of autonomous, unmanned war has already moved beyond drones. I find acoustic minesweepers, smart submarines, self-guided skidoos, tanks and other remote-controlled weaponised contraptions that defy classification. At BAE Systems’ vast, moodily lit stand (which has its own aerial walkway so you can see its armoured hulks from all angles) I find something that looks like a furious praying mantis. This is Strix, billed as a “hybrid, tandem wing, multi-domain and multi-role uncrewed air system”, capable of vertical take-off and seamless transition to horizontal flight, styled like something from the Batcave.

German arms giant Rheinmetall, meanwhile, takes unmanned vehicles into heavier-duty realms, with a fleet of giant-wheeled, all-terrain monsters that look as if they are auditioning for a part in the next Mad Max movie. With tyres bigger than its body, the chubby Mission Master XT is fully amphibious and capable of carrying 1,000kg payloads for 460 miles without refuelling, even up 35-degree slopes over ice and snow in -30C, using AI-powered navigation. It can spin on the spot, too. A promotional video shows it making snow angels as it trundles into battle.

Outside the exhibition halls, reality hits. “Please be aware,” a polite protester tells visitors, “that many of the countries you are doing business with are on the UK government’s human rights priority list.” Emily Apple of Campaign Against Arms Trade is more direct. “DSEI is a marketplace in death,” she says. “Deals done here will cause misery across the world, causing global instability and devastating people’s lives. Arms dealers only care about perpetuating conflict, because conflict increases profits for their shareholders. It’s time we shut this arms fair down for good.”

Back inside, bottles of champagne have appeared. The face of a young black female mannequin stares out from a body bag, while delegates toast their billion-dollar deals of destruction.

Source : The Guardian