Page last updated at 03:07 GMT, Wednesday, 9 September 2009 04:07 UK

Arms trade shows its defensive side

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC defence correspondent

WO2 John Montgomery with Vanguard counter-IED robot
This robot is already combating makeshift bombs in Afghanistan

There were few shifty men in dark wrap-around shades and dark suits muttering urgently into their mobile phones, and nobody sidling up to us to ask if we wanted a good deal on a tank when we arrived at the Defence Systems & Equipment international exhibition (DSEi) in London's Docklands.

These days, defence manufacturers, salesmen and buyers look much like any other businessman - and they are mainly men - even though the term "gunning for a sale" might be rather more dangerous here if taken literally.

Apart from a couple of rather chilly-looking models posing in the late summer sunshine outdoors in skimpy red bikinis, there seemed precious few sweeteners for those looking for a sturdy armoured vehicle or an improbably large gun for their Armed Forces.

Certainly, nobody was advertising a Bogof - "buy one, get one free" - offer on any of the wares - at least, not to the BBC.

Even the widely-rumoured Libyans failed to appear. A report in the Observer newspaper on Sunday had excited anti-arms trade campaigners with reports that a large Libyan delegation might appear on the look-out for fresh arms deals with London, after Britain resumed defence exports in 2007.

But at the DSEi media centre, the rumour was that just one lonely Libyan might have appeared, while the fair's organisers said that not even a single Libyan was expected - as far as they were aware.

We never found the alleged Libyan, despite the presence of many military delegates from around the world in uniforms of such splendour that they would have turned Colonel Gaddafi green with envy.

Tight security

That left little except a small but enthusiastic Chinese delegation to arouse controversy this year: Nine military representatives plus the Chinese Ambassador came to have a look at what was on offer, despite a European Union arms embargo imposed in 1989 after Tiananmen Square.

It was "shocking, but not surprising", according to the Campaign against the Arms Trade.

But even the Chinese group's attendance was a far cry from the world's biggest arms fair's ability to inflame protesters in previous years - not least in 2007, when a Chinese firm's lone stand was discovered to be advertising banned equipment such as leg shackles which could be used in torture.

Security was tight at the tube and Docklands Light Railway stations en route, with a noticeable police presence to deal with any protesters who might be thinking of going near the ExCel site.

Major (rtd) Jez Hermer with a Warthog armoured vehicle
These vehicles should be in service from next year

But not a single demonstrator was to be seen anywhere near Docklands, with the Campaign against the Arms Trade, choosing instead to use a Routemaster London bus to take its message to the headquarters of the UK Trade and Investment arm that deals with defence exports.

And there was no reprise of the umbrella group Disarm DSEi's imaginative protest in arriving at a previous fair in a tank.

This year, most of the defence manufacturers at the thousand or so stands seemed keener to highlight the non-lethal nature of many of the wares on display, from self-cooling body armour to life-saving medical equipment, as well as the many types of armoured vehicle for troop protection.

One firm, BCB International, was showing an ingenious cannon that can be used by merchant vessels under attack from pirates on the high seas.

It can disable the pirates' vessels by shooting nets at them, until they are so hopelessly entangled they cannot attack. Quite what happens to the netted pirates after that stage is unclear.

Other exhibits are already on order by the MoD, amongst them the Singaporean firm ST Kinetics's "Warthog" armoured vehicle, a variant of the Bronco all terrain tracked carrier.

As its name suggests, it is built for protection rather than beauty.

The heavily-armoured vehicles should be in service in Afghanistan with British troops from next year, after the MoD ordered a hundred or so as an urgent operational requirement.

Hi-tech equipment

Showing me around the vehicle, former Royal Marine Major (Rtd) Jez Hermer MBE, who has served in Helmand, said it offered good protection combined with mobility - both essential in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan, where Taliban improvised explosive devices are now one of the biggest threats to life and limb.

British soldiers will be glad to hear that the air-conditioning in the back vehicle works.

The lack of decent air-conditioning has been a cause for complaint in the current Viking vehicles, with temperatures soaring in the Helmand summer for infantry soldiers packed in the back, with little but copious water supplies to compensate.

Much of what is on display these days is high-tech: Integrated software systems for commanders and communication sets.

At the British Army demonstration area, WO2 John Montgomery, an expert in explosive ordnance disposal, put the Vanguard Remotely Operated Vehicle through its paces, showing me how the small but "rugged" (a key word at most of the stands) robot can be deployed against makeshift bombs.

It is already in use in Afghanistan.

"If something does go wrong, it's better to lose a robot than a soldier," he says.

But for those who like their weaponry more offensive than defensive, there were things to see.

A South African stand displayed fearsomely large guns, though one was advertised as firing slightly less lethal ammunition - clearly a vital attribute in these more defensive times for the arms trade.

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