Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEI), an international arms fair, began on Tuesday in East London and finishes today. It's kind of like the West's version of the opening sequence of Tomorrow Never Dies in which James Bond infiltrates a "terrorist arms bazaar" to steal a nuclear-armed Russian fighter jet moments before a cruise missile explodes, except instead of Pierce Brosnan and cannon fodder scoundrels, the crowd's median attendee is a grey-haired white man in a crumpled M&S suit carrying an iPad case to look professional.
I work at the heart of the corporate machine, right at the meeting point of power and business. Precisely what, I can't say because that would get me fired and I need money to eat and inhabit London. But upon receiving an invite to the DSEI, already degenerate conscience took another blow.
The DSEI is as controversial as an arms fair should be. Fresh from turning obvious political points into money, guerrilla artist Banksy has got involved, with the Special Patrol Group putting up protest posters around the TfL's tube and bus network. Anti-war activists are protesting outside to call on NATO ally Turkey to stop killing Kurds in the south-east instead of ISIS in Syria. The stop DSEI hashtag campaign has been led by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, and the Grim Reaper has been chased around Benny Hill style by security.
As we converge on the conference hall, two things become apparent for attendees like me. First: we're all men. Most of us are from the militaries of rich countries, so women make up something between two and 12 percent of the crowd, reminding me of the lower points of my adolescence. Second is the security. Police sniffer dogs and private security check our IDs and put us through airport-level inspections to get inside. I can only assume the dogs are kept away from the high-explosive shells the exhibitors are showing off. On the plus side, the queuing discipline of these military types is magnificent.
It is difficult to capture the scale of DSEI in words, so here's a list some things I saw today in no particular order: Sniper rifles. Armour plating. Oerlikon high energy laser gun. Battle-proven remote controlled weapons station. Wankel rotary engine. Corvette-class battleship. MBDA future attack helicopter weapon. RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile. It quickly starts to feel mundane.
What the exhibitors really lack is a joining up between the tools and their actual purpose: the evisceration of flesh and the righteous punishing of enemies. The marketing focuses far too much on the technical specs of the merchandise and hides away from any hint whatsoever of bloodshed or actual violence (except in some of the more gnarly medical exhibits). In fact, over the course of the day, I can only find one reference to death anywhere. The high-energy laser gun has "scaleable lethality", almost making it seem boring. Almost.
In all, 61 countries have been invited to DSEI. There is no Russia this year. Putin is still in the naughty corner for secretly invading Ukraine. But it is obvious who our real friends are: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain. In a happy inclusive touch, the signpost to the prayer room is translated into Arabic, below the way to the Unmanned Zone (drones) and above the path for the Media Centre, sponsored ominously by arms behemoth BAE Systems.
The event is run by the trade organisation ADS, which is a part of the government's export promotion body UKTI, which is part of the FCO. Entire sentences are constructed with acronyms. Jargon and doublespeak abound.
So, to speak cleary: Coinciding with this exhibition, our Saudi allies are precision guiding bombs flown by jets onto Yemeni homes in support of their invasion of the country that Chandler Bing had to flee to to escape Janice. The UK's Ministry of Defence, headed by senior Tory figure Michael Fallon, declines to tell us how many bombs exactly came from us because "to do so would prejudice commercial interests". Yemen's cities lie in ruins, its people scattered and ravaged by an arsenal that the UK manufacturing sector profits handsomely from.
Industry leader BAE Systems was forced to pay £300 million in fines connected to allegations it bribed Saudi officials. Today, it has by far the most impressive stall. Taking pictures was too terrifying because there was security on each corner, but imagine a Mini Deathstar, jutting with artillery and Beowulf All-Terrain Vehicles, decorated by plasma TVs showcasing cyber threat intelligence analytics and a fighter jet cockpit demonstration. It was really cool.
As a lifelong pacifist, the DSEI should repulse me. But my gut reaction is different. I can only describe being in close proximity to this as like that feeling that you get when you pick up the sniper rifle in Halo. In other words, it makes you feel like you're in charge.
On one level, this may only be my pathetic warrior survivalist fantasies entirely at odds with my flat white lifestyle. But all around, grown men and women are defying the photography ban to take selfies next to enormous machines of war to send to bored spouses. You don't need to have my mental age of a 12-year-old to be amazed by this stuff. There are crowd control vehicles the size of a small house. Sniper-rifle scopes that can combine heat vision and minimal light enhancement, like combining Planet Earth with Predator. Unmanned aerial vehicles, which should really be called robot assassin planes.
The only explanation is the thrill of power. Here, as we discuss scientific innovation and defence procurement in a humid conference hall, the protests outside seem very quiet and very far away.
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