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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 September 2007, 23:08 GMT 00:08 UK
Weapons without barrels or bullets
By Tim Weber
Business editor, BBC News website

Make no mistake: Defence Systems & Equipment International (DSEI), held in the huge Excel Centre in London's docklands, is an arms fair.

Nexter Armoured Fighting Vehicle
Competition is intense to supply next generation armoured fighting vehicles

Armoured fighting vehicles tower over visitors; most gleaming, some proudly muddy as if straight from the training range.

Stands are bristling with weapons - from lightweight submachine guns to long-barrelled sniper rifles.

And there are plenty of uniformed men (and a few women), some in combat gear, most in their parade-ground best with plenty of gold decorating their shoulders.

High-ranking Chinese officers crowd around the finest that UK arms firm BAE system has to offer, Sony camera at the ready.

signs for Kabul, Baghdad and other towns at DSEI 2007
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are shaping the arms fair

Fewer weapons

But there are much fewer weapons on display than on previous shows - fewer guns and bombs, less military hardware.

It's not that DSEI - held every two years - has become smaller; indeed, the organisers say that it has grown by 20% and is the biggest show yet.

Rather, the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that most armies are not equipped to fight clever and ruthless insurgents that have little regard for civilian casualties.

The 'e-soldier'

There still is some old-style posturing. Italian gun make Beretta shows off a new assault rifle to the tune of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries - in best Apocalypse Now-style.

However, were it not for the camouflage decorations, many exhibition booths at DSEI would not look out of place at an electronics fair.

Beretta assault rifle
Guns are on prominent display

Communications equipment, sensors, microprocessors, software packages and rugged laptops are arrayed to help modern armies compensate for what they are least likely to get more of: manpower.

Visiting DSEI allows to catch glimpses of a new warrior in the making, the "e-soldier", as Matt Howchin of UK microtechnology firm C-Mac calls it.

E-soldiers still carry a gun, but their uniforms and helmets are laced with electronics, monitoring both their own vital signs and their environment, relaying the information up the chain of command.

Helmet cam

Some of this technology is battle-ready, but still looks a bit cumbersome.

French defence firm Thales shows a soldier's battle gear that is supposed to block some of the remote control signals that are used to set off insurgents' bombs.

ITT spearnet system on a soldier
Will future soldiers be all wired up?

And at the ITT stand, a soldier - thick wires protruding behind his neck - sports a helmet cam and headphone set wired up to a Spearnet data radio.

The set-up - effectively a high-resolution webcam - allows the commander back at headquarters to get a real-time look at the battlefield.

Software packages could integrate all this information from the battlefield with systems like General Dynamics' Urban Istar programme.

This combines a powerful scanning system with a database that would allow troops engaged in urban warfare not only to detect hidden insurgents, but to understand the structure and weak points of a building without entering it.

Ultimately, this is about smarter fighting, "not with the bullet, but with better command and control systems," says Peter Felstead, editor of Jane's Defence Weekly.

The suicide bomber belt

The new wars have brought new threats.

One stand at DSEI shows a mannequin kitted out with a suicide bomber's explosives belt.

The pyrotechnic belt is a training device for armies and police forces, developed by Isle of Man-based Milpolice Equipment.

EADS eurocopter representative talking to a Malaysian general
It's all about selling the benefits of weapons systems to military customers

The belt allows the wearer to mimic the triggers used by real suicide bombers - and helps soldiers prepare for the threat.

The firm also makes IED simulators - the notorious Improvised Explosive Devices, or roadside bombs, that have caused so many casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So how does the company keep up with the constantly changing techniques used by the insurgents?

"We have good contacts in the intelligence services," says managing director Stephen Blakely with a wry smile.

The race for better armour

While training is useful, protection is better.

"Force protection is where the big bucks are at the moment," says Jane's Peter Felstead.

International's Maxxpro MRAP vehicle
Trucks now come with heavy armour as standard

John Rutledge at American Defense Systems Inc, a maker of heavy armour, speaks of full order books - and an arms race against the increasingly powerful devices used by Iraqi insurgents.

"We are using ever more exotic materials to protect the troops", he says; "getting real-time intelligence" helps the firm to stay ahead of the latest insurgent tactics.

At previous arms fairs, armies were looking to "up-armour" their existing vehicles, like light Land Rovers and Humvee trucks. Now the focus has shifted to new vehicles that are heavily armoured by design.

US firm International Truck and Engine is rushing out more than 1,900 Maxxpro trucks to the US Marine Corps, troop carriers that are designed to withstand mine blasts and roadside bombs on the Iraq battlefield.

Look, no driver

Oshkosh - which provides all the US army's heavy trucks - has put mirrors below a truck that show the heavy armour plating protecting the driver's cabin.

shoulder badge and medals on uniform of Chinese Major General
High-ranking Chinese officers take a close interest in Western weapons

Everywhere there are stands displaying the latest in blast-proof glass or ceramics, so that vehicle makers can achieve the protection level armies are calling for.

After all, says German army Colonel Udo Kalbfleisch, "without giving soldiers proper protection you can't motivate them" and points to a video showing the heavily armoured Dingo that protects German soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan.

The more radical solution, however, is to take the driver out of the truck.

Oshkosh is working on control systems for unmanned vehicles.

Long supply convoys could have just a few real drivers. The other trucks would be steered by sophisticated electronics that work both in all-terrain and urban environments.

"I can easily foresee a future where we can achieve a 75% reduction of troops at risk," says Joaquin Salas at Oshkosh. "We are in discussions with the military to see when they might want to test this capability."

All this comes at a hefty cost. There is a trade-off between better armour and tight budgets, says John Rutledge, and it just "doesn't add up".

Already the cost of troop protection has started to cut into other procurement programmes, say industry insiders.

Lifesaver bottles

Battlefield innovation comes in many guises.

Pour dirty polluted water into the Lifesaver Systems bottle, pump a couple of times, and out comes perfectly drinkable water - without the use of chlorine or iodine. It's a solution that works not just for soldiers but disaster areas as well.

Cmac chip assembly
It's a weapon - of some sort

UK firm Chemviron Carbon tries to find customers for its ultra-lightweight chemical weapons protection fabric. Buyers so far have been the Swedish army and some special forces, and the company is now talking to police forces.

"When you think about it, the most likely [chemical] attack won't be on troops, but in a metropolitan environment," says Chemviron's Paul Graham.

C-Mac's stand doesn't sport any guns or camouflage at all.

The UK firm makes ceramic-based chip modules that work under extreme conditions - in fighter jets, tanks and rockets.

The tiny electronics components don't look much. But they can help win wars.

How Urban Istar scans and maps a building
A building scanned and mapped by General Dynamics Urban Istar

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