Warships are on sale at the Royal Victoria Dock in east London. Corvettes, frigates and mine-sweepers lie at anchor in the dark gray waters of the Thames, their holds filled with potential buyers. Men from faraway places, sweating in their suits and ties, stumble up and down stairways, through machine rooms and across bridges. They ask specialist questions about frequency and code agility, lateral drift and hydroacoustic noise levels.
At the head of the wharf, on the "Nyköping," a new Swedish stealth ship, Chinese delegates are photographing individual screws and every weld seam in sight, while heavyset men from Africa and Southeast Asia bump their shins against pipes and equipment.
"Don't be fooled by the 620 tons of dead weight," says the officer on duty, a jovial Swede, speaking as one expert to another. "As far as performance goes, you are dealing here with a classic 1,200-ton, steel-hulled corvette."
On the wharf, the cavernous ExCel London conference center is chock full of equipment. There are surface-to-surface missiles, cruise missiles, armored personnel carriers and artillery guns as tall as buildings, their barrels pointing to the ceiling. Smart bombs stand in display cases, looking like so many oversized perfume bottles, and British soldiers demonstrate lightweight devices used to fill sandbags. Heavy-set men in sports jackets play around with armor-piercing shoulder-mounted guns, drink white wine on the beds of military trucks and kick the tires of Humvees with their polished loafers.
Potential customers can examine scale models of combat helicopters and nuclear submarines, organizational charts of weapon guidance systems and samples of non-magnetic steel. They hold pistols, grenade launchers and intimidating machine guns in their hands as if they were party favors. At booth 533, Hesco, a maker of protective wall systems, has blondes in hot pants serving up cold beer.
It's Sept. 11, 2007, the sixth anniversary of 9/11, and the global war on terror is in full swing. Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely because of that fact, people from around the world have been converging on the ExCel exhibition center in hordes since the show opened in the morning. Against the bold backdrop of Canary Wharf, and the even bolder outline of the London skyline on the western horizon, a unique trade fair has opened its doors. It's called the Defence Systems & Equipment International Exhibition (DSEI), and it is the world's largest assemblage of products from the arms and defense industry -- the fifth edition of a biennial of war, complete with country pavilions, a "Night Vision Pavillion," and an "Innovation Showcase."
By noon the "Boulevard," the central mall of the ExCel center, is teeming with emissaries from around the world. Exactly 25,699 visitors will come and go over the course of the four-day event. Eighty-five official government delegations from 52 countries are registered, and the exhibitors include, for the first time, Bulgarians, Turks, Lithuanians and Russians. Inside the halls they join the 1,352 other exhibitors on 66,000 square meters (709,677 square feet) of exhibition space, and during their short breaks they wolf down pastrami bagels from paper bags and rinse them down with large cups of takeaway coffee. Projection screens on the walls display video clips of F-16 fighter jets in flight, interrupted by colorful ads and confident slogans like: "Proud to Serve" and "Your Partner in Action."
Bottles of Veuve Cliquot champagne sit on ice in the West Quay Bar and the VIP Café. There are plenty of reasons for weapons manufacturers to be celebrating. The industry is booming, not just because of the war on terror, but also because the world is feeling insecure because of the myriad dangers that mark the beginning of the 21st century. The arms industry is a billion-dollar market, and "the key parameters are right," writes Jane's Defence Weekly, the leading industry publication. The business is doing well, or at least it isn't doing badly, despite cost pressures, budget cuts and increased competition from Asia.
Can you buy weapons here? "It depends," says Robert Galvin, a slim, unassuming, bespectacled man in his mid-thirties who works for BAE Systems, formerly known as British Aerospace. Galvin runs the company's land-based systems unit, an important position. In 2006 BAE, the world's third-largest weapons manufacturer, earned €18 billion in revenues, selling all manner of equipment that flies, floats, rolls, shoots, explodes and kills.
An M777 howitzer, a huge, four-and-a-half-ton machine, its barrel as long as a semi truck, is set up in front of the BAE booth. The gun, loaded with 155-millimeter grenades, has a range of 24 kilometers (15 miles).
"A very useful weapon," says Galvin, "quite effective in subduing enemy movements." And the price? "It's negotiable," says Galvin, "but just to give you an idea: The United States has placed an order for 605 of them, which we will deliver in three batches, and it's a $900 million deal." So one of the howitzers costs about $1.5 million? "If you put it that way," says Galvin, beads of perspiration gathering around his nose. And what if someone, an ordinary private citizen, for example, had the necessary cash to buy one of these howitzers? "You mean for the front garden?" Galvin asks. "Well, let's put it this way: We don't deliver to front gardens and also not to back yards. No way."
A World Ordinary Citizens Never See
Rumors and hard news make the rounds in the aisles between the booths during the trade fair. They depict a world that ordinary citizens never see. The British are seeking partners for their €20 billion Future Rapid Effect System (FRES), which will translate into Her Majesty's Army ordering 3,000 new armor-plated vehicles in the near future.
Saudi Arabia wants 72 Eurofighters at a cost of €6.4 billion. India is talking to Saab about a new fighter jet, and there is talk of an option for 126 of the jets, for starters. Rumor has it that Artec, a consortium of the companies Stork, Krauss-Maffei Wegman and Rheinmetall, is overwhelmed by orders for its Boxer armored personnel carrier. The French Thales Group has reached an agreement with Raytheon for the delivery of 5,000 target detection systems for missiles. The US Army has ordered another 33 Stryker armored personnel carriers from General Dynamics. Big things are happening, and moving, at the DSEI. Every conversation here is practically an affair of state, every deal is a slice of global politics and every contract signed a new chapter in international "defense cooperation."
Can you buy weapons here? An attempt to do so at the stand of missile manufacturer MBDA, where two slender multilingual hostesses wearing identical outfits sit at the booth's reception desk gazing at computer monitors, fails miserably. The company played a leading role in developing a new smart missile, the Fire Shadow, which, after flying 150 kilometers (93 miles) in confusing circles and loops, is capable of striking its target with deadly precision. The drab gray missile looks harmless enough, almost like a failed model airplane. According to the brochure, it causes "minimal collateral damage."
"Hello, I'm interested in the Fire Shadow."
One of the hostesses, who is wearing glasses, flashes a bright smile and says, in English with a French accent: "Sure, let me take a look Do you have a business card?"
"Yes, here it is."
"Oh, you're a journalist?" She is no longer smiling. "Well, I could give you a press kit."
"I'd rather talk to someone."
"I understand," she says, suddenly busy with her mouse. "I'm very sorry, sir," she says, "but the gentlemen are all in meetings for the entire day."
The same thing happens at Lockheed Martin, the world's largest weapons manufacturer. The company's annual sales of €27 billion are almost equal to Germany's entire defense budget. The group's booth, the size of an entire country pavilion, is divided into "issues" and "solutions" for "critical tasks."
Lockheed Martin can procure anything, from binoculars to fighter jets. A dozen attractive women sit at the reception desk, ready, at all times, to "find you exactly the right contact person." But anyone who introduces himself as a journalist suddenly discovers that all the right contact people happen to be busy at the moment. "Perhaps you could try again in two hours?" one of the receptionists suggests.
The DSEI is an extremely discrete affair, not as noisy and colorful as computer trade fairs or as glitzy as auto shows. The defense industry and its customers comprise the world's biggest private club, and its events are playgrounds for experts. On the Thursday of the trade fair week, the true VIPs attend a gala dinner at the Dorchester Hotel opposite Hyde Park. It would be easier to get an audience with the pope than a seat at the DSEI bash.
These industry insiders are more than happy to isolate themselves, work behind the scenes and gather at a major event that remains largely unnoticed by the general public. Aside from the occasional two-column story in the financial sections of newspapers, arms deals remain largely a private affair. And as long as the deals themselves are not too controversial, like selling submarines to rogue states, tanks to dictators, or assault rifles to despots, no one is really interested in scrutinizing this world too closely. For example, how much airtime did the German army's order for 272 Boxers get on the evening news? How much media attention is given to the United Arab Emirates' efforts to boost their military capability and the fact that they are particularly fond of German products?
At the Pakistan stand, rows of glass cases contain brightly polished ammunition, shells of every caliber, rockets, grenades, 250-kilogram aircraft bombs, plastic explosives and sticks of dynamite -- in short, everything the defence company Pakistan Ordnance Factories has to offer. The press isn't welcome here, either. Photographers are quickly shooed away and conversations are terse. "Our best products?" the salesman says. "They are all best products. Here, the surface-to-air missiles, tested many times, and here, the 120-millimeter grenades, they have a 'kill radius' of close to 200 meters (656 feet), all best products. And now thank you and goodbye."
It is difficult to decide what stance one should adopt vis-à-vis the DSEI. Who would want to stage protests when the police forces of democratic countries come here to inquire about new service-issue guns? Who would seriously call the attendees "murderers" when the US Coast Guard is here to scout around for new radar systems? Even when it comes to the weapons of war, one has to wonder whether, in the world in which we live today, it is a scandal if the United States sells missiles to Italy, or Germany manufactures tanks in a joint venture with the Netherlands.
Those are the easy questions. Others are more difficult. What is Turkey doing with the Leopard tanks it bought from Germany last year? Is Pakistan, which ranks 160th out of 163 countries on the non-governmental organization Transparency International's list of countries ranked by level of corruption, truly a credible "partner?" Are new weapons systems in good hands when they end up in Russia -- or in Chechnya? Should Libya really be invited to an arms fair, like at this year's DSEI? Does Algeria handle its weapons responsibly?
There are many contradictions and many different "perspectives." Countries that are on the European Union's list of rogue state could be allies of the United States, or vice-versa. In 2004, Slovakia sold fighter jets to Armenia, which is under an EU arms embargo. Azerbaijan, another country on the EU's blacklist, buys tanks and other heavy equipment from Ukraine.
And no one knows the true extent of the illegal weapons trade, although experts all agree it is very large. The weapons trade is a cat-and-mouse game for international monitoring agencies, and the smaller the weapons, the more difficult it is to control their proliferation.
It's a subject that Glock probably knows a lot about, even if it prefers to ignore it. At booth 1873 in the Austrian pavilion, Richard Flür nods his head and says thoughtful things. Flür is the youthful marketing director at Glock, a pistol maker so legendary that the name even appears in the script of the action flick "Die Hard 2." Around 5 million Glock handguns are in circulation worldwide, all distributed according to the strictest criteria, according to Flür. "Our company's reputation is only as good as the reputation of our worst customers," he says.
But is it even possible to prevent proliferation? Flür nods his head again. Glock is now developing memory chips, he says, that will make every weapon traceable. Major customers who come to Austria are videotaped during negotiations and their voices are recorded. "You know, our criteria are very strict," says Flür. "In fact, Austria is a leader in this regard."
Despite the man's thoughtful demeanor, the Glock booth is easily the convention's most vulgar. Glossy posters juxtapose the ergonomic shapes of semi-automatic weapons with the erotic curves of nude female bodies. Anyone approaching the booth from a distance could be forgiven for thinking that Glock is in the condom business. But the customers like the image, says one of Flür's English coworkers: "They love it, you know -- girls and guns."
The DSEI is a nightmare for pacifists. They tried, unsuccessfully, to put an end to the London fair. On the first day, 150 peace activists manage to position themselves along the outermost fence, far from the western gate to the exhibition grounds. On subsequent days the only remaining protestors are small groups holding up banners in the cold wind, surrounded by very large groups of police. They call out "murderer, murderer" whenever taxis drive by, and in Hyde Park in downtown London, they dye the water in a few fountains blood red in protest. But out on the Royal Victoria Dock, the hordes of visitors go about their business, completely unfazed.
What are the main issues of the convention? Wolfgang Baumbach, an old hand in the German defense industry, should know. He was there at the first German group booth in Turkey in 1991, when the "idea" for the DSEI was born. Much has changed since then. Freedom is now being defended in Afghanistan, and Germans can feel comfortable flying their flag once again.
A framed portrait of German President Horst Köhler hangs above the bar in the guest lounge at the German pavilion, where Weiss beer, bratwurst and goulash are on the hospitality menu. Baumbach says: "GPS is an issue, undoubtedly." Innovations in small devices are also hot this year, apparently. "The big companies have moved away from in-house production, for reasons of shareholder value," says Baumbach. "Now they're outsourcing everything, which results in a real surge of innovations."
He takes me to a few booths to illustrate his point. Spelco is displaying a new type of gliding device that allows paratroopers to fly several kilometers before opening their parachutes. The German army is showcasing the Mikado, a propeller-driven surveillance drone manufactured by AirRobot. The soldiers manning the booth, Colonel Udo Kalbfleisch and First Lieutenant Ramon Grünbein, say the device will undoubtedly be a big seller. "And do you know what's also an issue?" Baumbach asks. "We have a shortage of engineers. EADS needs 3,000 people. That's an issue."
As the world's current leading exporter, Germany naturally plays an important role in the arms trade. Last year, the country sold 156 Leopard I and Leopard II tanks to Greece and 48 to Turkey. Ninety-nine M113 armored troop transporters were sold to Lithuania and two mine-sweeping ships to the United Arab Emirates. South Africa has taken delivery of the first of three German submarines, while Finland purchased two mobile anti-aircraft systems. And that's just the big-ticket items -- the trade in smaller products has been even more lucrative.
German companies shipped close to 42,000 small arms to countries around the world last year, including 10,411 grenade launchers to Great Britain and 1,400 assault rifles to Latvia, with a further 2,025 assault rifles going to Mexico. Saudi Arabia purchased 1,030 semi-automatic rifles; Malaysia bought 505.
Despite these impressive figures, the mood at the Heckler & Koch booth is not good. Hilmar Rein is clearly uninterested in talking to the press, and the question as to whether one could buy weapons from him falls on deaf ears. "Perhaps you should go to China if you'd like to buy 10,000 pistols," he advises. "Or to Afghanistan, where they make the things themselves. We here sell tools for police officers and soldiers, and everything is done in an orderly fashion."
"Armor-clad vehicles are big this year," says a very British gentleman at the booth operated by US vehicle manufacturer Oshkosh, "and, of course, unmanned vehicles." Oshkosh has conducted tests in which it sent 30 unmanned trucks on a 132-mile journey through the desert near Las Vegas. The trucks took eight hours to complete the course, and there were no incidents. A new test run is planned for October "in an urban environment" -- if it is similarly successful, ghost convoys could soon be rolling through enemy territory in future wars, machines under fire from other machines. It's an otherworldly concept, but one that the people at the DSEI are busy transforming into reality.
Old cranes from the mechanical age stand on the wharf near the ships, on the southern edge of the exhibition center, reminders of a bygone era in a new world of technological wonders. London, with Canary Wharf on the other side and the City off to the west, doesn't look like the capital of a country that conducts wars in the Middle East. And after four days at the DSEI, a visitor might ask himself whether wars were even what the whole trade fair was really about.
Men walk around in suits and ties -- exhibitors, middlemen, delegates -- smoking and making telephone calls in all of the world's languages, sending emails with their Blackberrys and discussing "solutions," "responses" and "systems." They're really talking about guns, radar equipment and stealth bombers.
This is what goes on for a full four days at this weapons fair. On Friday, the last day of the show, when the aisles empty early, the dealers at the booths fill large glasses with white wine and drink to a hard week. They've had to talk about many issues but, oddly enough, war and peace were not among them. It was all just about solutions, responses and systems.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan