Forty-six countries arrive to show off latest weapons as Bahrain attends ExCel despite protesters’ deaths
Protesters outside the Excel Centre, London, where the Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair is being held. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
Sharp-suited men and women from more than 1,000 weapons manufacturers are showing off their weapons in London’s docklands this week. Their displays range from guns that can fire shells more than 30 miles within an accuracy, it is said, of three metres, to small, innocent-looking switches designed to make the life of a fighter easier and safer.
Lethal objects were laid out in glass cases, polished and shining under the lights of the ExCel Centre as though they were delicate ornaments, never to be soiled by blood let alone kill anyone. The 46 countries advertising their wares alongside the US giants Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and General Dynamics included Israel, which had a big stand this year.
It advertised an anti-tank weapon described as good for “wall-breaching” but also “highly accurate” and therefore involving “low collateral damage”. Tucked in behind the Israeli pavilion were the Russians, with the latest Kalashnikov assault rifle. The AK104 is several models up from, and much more expensive than, the ubiquitous AK47, the favoured weapon of insurgents and guerrillas around the world.
Pakistan advertised an “arms for peace” exhibition in Karachi next year and showed “gold-plated” submachine guns – “for collectors”, inquirers were told.
Yet, making the point that life in Pakistan is less than safe at the moment, an enterprising salesman was offering “fashion body armour”: leather jackets and waistcoats with reinforced linings.
Some small exhibitors were there to help save lives. Weatherhaven was launching an “expanding container capability” or “hospitals in a box”: units that fit inside a Chinook to deal with medical emergencies. The Medical Warehouse produces bespoke emergency medical bags and pouches. And it is clear that supplying clean water for troops is a fast-developing growth industry. A German company is supplying British and US troops in Afghanistan with bottled water purified by a small filter system, a less burdensome, and much cheaper, alternative to bringing bottled water by convoy hundreds of miles across the desert.
But Defence and Security Equipment International, as the two-yearly fair is called, is dominated by companies designing weapons that can defeat an enemy as quickly and as efficiently as possible while protecting its own troops. They included MBDA, makers of the Brimstone “precision” missile and Storm Shadow air-to-ground cruise missile, dropped by RAF Tornados throughout the Libyan conflict. Executives on the company stand said they were not allowed to say how many had landed on Libyan targets, but it is likely that more than 100 were dropped, at a cost yet to be revealed. According to some reports, some Nato countries nearly ran out of bombs.
Liam Fox, the defence secretary, praised the role of UK arms firms in Libya. In a speech promoting the cause of weapons exports, he said: “For too long, export potential has been ignored when initiating projects for the UK’s own use. That needs to change … Defence and security exports play a key role in promoting our foreign policy objectives: building relationships and trust, sharing information and spreading values.”
Stung perhaps by criticism, not least by MPs of all parties, that Britain has sold arms to countries with poor human rights records that have used them against their own citizens, Fox said: “Margin, profit, market share – these are not dirty words. But the language of multinational business can sometimes appear values-free.”
He went on: “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are mandatory considerations for all export licence applications, which we consider on a case-by-case basis.”
In April, MPs accused ministers of misjudging the risk that British arms exports would be used for repression. The government had approved licences to sell equipment – from small arms to armoured personnel carriers – to states such as Bahrain, which was invited to the fair despite its security forces having killed unarmed protesters during recent demonstrations.
Fox noted that Britain was the second largest exporter of arms-related equipment. But his speech contained a stick as well as a carrot: “Industry does not need handouts – nor will it get them.” The government would be a “tougher, more intelligent customer” in future, he said.