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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 September, 2003, 18:00 GMT 19:00 UK
Shopping around for weapons

By Tim Weber
BBC News Online business editor

Europe's largest arms fair, Defence Systems and Equipment International is being held in London, and for the first time the media have been allowed full access. BBC News Online went along to see what was on offer.

Challenger 2 battle tank in desert camouflage
The Challenger 2 battle tank has pride of place at the Alvis Vickers stand
So that's what "merchants of death" look like. They wear sober suits - dark blues and black dominate. They are mostly men, and on average they are not very young.

But protesters would probably be disappointed should they manage to get past the three-layer security cordon surrounding East London's ExCel exhibition hall.

On the face of it the whole event has the look and feel of any old trade fair for the manufacturing industry.

Spotlighted products sit on little revolving tables in shiny glass cases. Extra-large plasma screens show promotional videos to upbeat music. Visitors hoard brochures and scrounge promotional gifts as they amble past stands.

Where are the weapons?

For sale are heavy lifting gear, sleeping bags and air conditioning units. Down the corridor the stands are bristling with computer technology.

Or is this a B-rate car show? A poster shows a curvaceous blonde, the inscription reads "The perfect shape". However, she is not draped over the bonnet of a car, but a Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol with a 15 bullet magazine.

But is this really an arms fair?

Sergeant Adam Chaytor with the Marconi Personal Role Radio
A happy customer sports Marconi's Personal Role Radio
There are barely enough rifles here to equip more than three or four platoons, never mind to start a war.

Yes, there is a desert-camouflaged Challenger battle tank.

Eight-wheeled Piranha armoured fighting vehicles are everywhere, sporting an array of turrets (would the gentleman prefer a mortar or the 120mm gun with his tank, sir?).

The pilot's seat in the Typhoon Eurofighter is reasonably comfortable, but the plane and especially its interior disappointingly are a very obvious mock-up.

Overall, it's a very civil and civilian affair. There are 960 exhibitors, about half of them from the UK, but just 10% of them sell actual weapons, the organisers claim.

Hiding the 'inappropriate' products

And the leg-irons, manacles and cattle prods of defence shows past have disappeared.

Glock 19 pistol : $400
Steyr AVG-A1 assault rifle: $2,245
Hawkmoor Patrol ration pack (3 meals): $14
Arsenal Shipka submachine gun: $300
RUAG splinter hand grenade: from $43-$72
Point Blank body armour: $1,300-$2,600
Marconi personal battlefield radio: $950
Javelin anti-tank missile: $85,000
Javelin launcher: $135,000
Alvis Vickers Warrior fighting vehicle: $1.6m
The UK government, which helps to organise the event, has been so kind to provide exhibitors with a list of products which to display would be "improper".

Cluster bombs are legal, and were used to great military success - and some say even greater civilian damage - in the Iraq war.

But they are an "emotive issue in the UK", say the organisers, so arms makers have been advised that it might be "inappropriate" to display them (they still show up in brochures, though, for example the D632/642 bomblet artillery shell from Rheinmetall of Germany).

However, what is definitely not visible is war itself. There are no casualties anywhere, no real-life battle footage, no film of the displayed hardware doing its best in action.

The parade ground

Mingling with the visitors and exhibitors in their corporate drab are small groups of officers of various armies, parading their best uniforms.

US - $9.7bn
UK - $4bn
Russia - $3.6bn
France - $1bn
China - $500m
Israel - $300m

Source: Congressional Research Service

The smaller the country they hail from, the more sparkling their regimental insignia and general's stars.

Gold stars, medals and golden braids for the four officers from Botswana.

The silver cluster on the shoulders of the South Korean navy commander was almost blinding (even though the rest of his uniform has the distinct look of discount windcheater).

And finally the thick wool of UK officers, most with understated woven or gun metal black insignia.

Joy-stick battles

"Come on Justin, you must see the gunner's position in this one", says a ruddy-faced Australian brigadier, ordering one of his officers into a brand new Piranha III armoured fighting vehicle featuring a BAE Systems AMS II turret with a 120mm mortar.

Does it have a new tank smell?

It does, though not quite like a new car, more of oil and metal.

The commander's seat holds little that would faze an experienced video gamer. A dust proof keyboard, a flat screen monitor and a joystick - now where is the target?

Lockheed Javelin anti-tank weapon
Training to use the Javelin anti-tank weapon - or a sophisticated video game?
Over at Lockheed Martin, the prospective target trains to fire back. A visitor shoulders the Javelin anti-tank missile, zeros in on the computer-generated target, a press of the thumb - fire and forget ... and kill in 1.34 minutes.

The video screen shows a faraway tank burst into flames.

"The US army has a 95% reliability rate with this system", boasts Lockheed's Doug Terrell, and points to the anti-tank weapon's use in Afghanistan and the Iraq war.

Shopping around

"Could you wrap up one for me to take home now?"

"We are not allowed to sell the Javelin, you can buy it only through the US army foreign sales office," Mr Terrell tells me.

Plus there is the little issue of the price tag. Killing a tank (and its crew) with a Javelin missile will set you back $85,000, plus $135,000 for the portable and reusable launch unit.

And anyway, this is not a sales show.

"We are just here to raise awareness, exchange business cards" and meet industrial partners, says Mr Terrell.

Botswana's defence attache Lt.Col. S Lebodi at Imperial Sword Company
Botswana's army is shopping for ceremonial swords
This mantra is repeated everywhere.

"We are not here to sell things, we are meeting friends and get a feel for trends in the sector," says Norbert Frank of German defence giant Rheinmetall.

"Customers just get a better feel for what we have on offer, after all you can't bring a tank to a sales meeting," he adds.

And so the customers take a closer look at what's on offer.

At the stand of Sabre Ballistics, a salesman explains to a Ukrainian defence attache the "element of surprise" gained by using silencers on army rifles. The officer, who does not want to be named, says he is shopping around for his country's special forces.

At the Swiss stand, they have more than army knives on display.

A single bullet is highlighted, it is "the sniper's choice" says RUAG of Switzerland. And the firm's splinter hand grenades will cost you about 60 to 100 Swiss Francs a throw.

Fancy an assault rifle? An Austrian Steyr AVG-A1 is yours for about 2,000 euros, depending on the specifications.

How about the Shipka submachine gun from Arsenal of Bulgaria? A snip at $300.

The Glock 19, standard pistol of many armies and most UK police forces, will sell for around 250. Body armour from Point Blank will cost you between $1,300 and $2,600 - depending on the "threat level" you have to prepare for.

At the higher end, a Warrior fighting vehicle from BAE Systems will cost you about 1m, but running costs over 10 years will be a multiple of that.

Final destination

And where do the weapons go to?

Ah - now it is getting delicate. "Our customers are in the Far East and we hope to find new markets in the UK and NATO as well," says one maker of small arms and a history for selling to trouble spots, and then hastily explains Bulgaria's new strict export controls.

Only one firm is not afraid at all to name its customers. The Imperial Sword Company makes ceremonial swords for officers. Greece has just ordered 1,300 swords "probably to gear up for the Olympics", says sales director Richard Giddings.

The soldiers from Botswana are talking about 3,000 swords for their officer corps.

And there are no export controls to worry about.

Ceremonial swords have a blunt edge.

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