Inside the world’s largest arms fair

By James Cook on September 11th, 2013

My escort rushes me out of the way of the Omani delegation as he informs me that no, I absolutely cannot take a photograph of Chilean military commanders sipping wine with a British general. I pretend to take a photograph of the ceiling and slip my phone downwards, grabbing a blurry shot as I bring the phone down to my chest.

Right now, the DSEI weapons conference at the ExCeL centre in London is one of the most secure places in the world. Armed police appear as you near Greenwich and reaching the red carpet that leads to the ExCeL centre’s main entrance involves five different security checks and an escorted march past four vehicles full of police officers.

Vanishingly few journalists are granted accreditation for DSEI, which is why reporting from the inside is so rare, but somehow my application was approved this year. (Two colleagues at The Kernel were not so fortunate.)

Police

Red carpet

As my personal security escort hands me over to my personal PR escort, I realise I am not going to be able to peruse the drones, guns, boats, planes and tanks at will. If I’m going to be able to take some photos of the more controversial parts of the conference, I will have to be clever about it.

Boat

My ex-army companion immediately leads me outside, where an international flotilla of cruisers and destroyers is stationed. “These people here, they’re top brass,” he says, waving his arm in the direction of the grand stand, where portly men stand, dressed in military uniforms.

A series of speed-boats is being shown off on the canal while an announcer tells us over the tannoy that they can deal with “any bad guys”. The assembled military high-ups chortle. The serious business takes place nearer the canal, where suited arms dealers are thrashing out bulk purchases of boats bristling with machine guns.

Away from the armed speed-boat demonstration, a solitary Korean naval officer strolls along the quay to his boat. Displayed on the side of the Dae Jo Yeong is a banner thanking the United Kingdom for the Korean war.

Korean navy

Korean banner

The entrance to the Korean ship was lined with missiles.

The entrance to the Korean ship was lined with missiles.

I ask my PR handlers if I can go inside to view some actual weapons. They say yes.

The conference floor is split into areas for each country, with the US occupying the largest amount of floor space.

Show floor

Everything you could possibly need to kill someone is here. As I try to take photographs of the heavier weapons, my handler encourages me to move away, and walk with him to “check out some nice life-saving defence technology”.

I take a few photographs as I am hurried out.

Shoulders

Bullets

DSEI is home to a mind-boggling array of weaponry. Missiles, assault rifles and drones are all on show.

I ask my handlers what kind of people attend a weapons conference and they look mildly uncomfortable, before eventually telling me that as well as representatives of foreign governments, there are also private defence contractors shopping for weapons.

Joint strike missile

Turret

As the battalion of PR representatives and former military servicemen steer me towards another product unveiling, I spot a gathering of fancily-dressed men in the distance. But it is made clear to me that I am not part of the impromptu midday wine and nibbles session hosted by a Chilean delegate.

The sternest look of all comes as I attempt to photograph a cluster of top brass chatting cordially over wine. I surreptitiously snapped this photo anyway.

Chilean generals

Deeper in the conference jungle, I reach the armour section. A spinning silver door riddled with bullet holes rotates next to some kind of armoured truck. American men in suits are keen to view inside the truck, and they scribble notes furiously.

Door

Armored truck

One burly man excitedly tells me his helmet will save lives in Iraq because it protects against shrapnel from explosions. The former military PR man accompanying me nods happily. “Those roadside bombs are a real problem nowadays,” he says.

Helmets

Land Rover has a large display here, but these are not vehicles to drop the kids off at school with. British army soldiers peer inside the door of a shiny new Range Rover that I’m told can survive multiple rounds from an assault rifle.

Bullets in window

Do you ever half-bury your laptop in sand? Unlikely, but this can be a problem for some visitors to DSEI. There is an entire row of stalls devoted to rugged laptops that run what looks suspiciously like Windows 98.

Laptop in sand

Wandering around the conference floor, I begin to notice something slightly odd happening at every large stall. Groups of suited weapons dealers would peruse the goods on offer, huddle together, nod earnestly, and then be ushered into a small meeting room. Over and over again, I saw groups of men disappear into little rooms.

They usually closed off the entrance with a curtain, which is when I presume the real negotiation began.

The United Arab Emirates created a two-story building complete with an upstairs negotiation area.

The United Arab Emirates created a two-story building complete with an upstairs negotiation area.

Another negotiation meeting goes on at DSEI.

Another negotiation meeting goes on at DSEI.

Hearing applause, I walk towards a large group of men in suits clapping as a new armoured troop carrier is unveiled. Two sales representatives emerge next to the vehicle and are immediately inundated with questions.

Armoured troop carrier reveal

Only once does my security escort take their eyes off the ball. (The ball being me.) Looking around, I can’t see them in my immediate vicinity. Free at last of minders, I have visions of sneaking into a diplomatic cocktail party and souring international relations.

Eventually, though, I spy the PR handler talking rapidly into a walkie talkie that I hadn’t noticed before. He is striding around with purpose. Not wishing to get hunted down by military-trained security guards in a giant room filled with assault rifles, I smile and waved at him and he immediately collects me and hustles me toward the next stall.

We reach the heart of the conference. Rack after rack of guns gleam between semiconductor displays. Weapons dealers and exotically dressed army officers examine rifles in detail, pulling triggers, staring down barrels and occasionally making “pow” noises before they place them back on the perspex rack.

Guns

I inform my handler that I am hungry. He checks his watch, and leads me to some more stalls. Eventually I have to stride in the direction of the central lunch area before he gets the message. What I don’t realise is that lunch at a weapons conference is one of the most surreal experiences in the world.

Having gained the necessary permission required to eat lunch, I select a small sandwich stall and stand in line behind a Navy officer and the Swedish Minister of Defence. A man dressed as a British Army officer cuts the line in front of me, turning his head as means of apology. I choose not to make a thing of it.

Lunch

After the Swedish Minister of Defence eventually selects his sandwich (he doesn’t like cheese), I grab a snack and hope to find a table to eat in solace and check my emails away from the constantly prying eyes of my handler. Who immediately sits down in front of me.

Directly behind me is a group of American military personnel. Silently munching on my lunch, I eavesdrop on their conversation.

I tell you man, the collateral was so bad, I literally cried.

Guffaws are heard from the American table as they describe a botched helicopter attack somewhere in the Middle East. I am in Julian Assange’s wet dream.

Not wanting to pry too much, I ask my handler what kind of weapons aren’t allowed to be exhibited at DSEI. He told me that some “Asian” nations often try and sell illegal weapons here in London, including cluster bombs and chemical missiles. If they are caught, they are not invited back again.

Perhaps realising that he has said enough, he stands up and asks if there is anything else that I would like to see. Otherwise, it is hinted, it would be a good time for me to leave.

With one last look at the racks of guns, fake missiles, dealers and braying American officers, I decide that it is indeed time for me to surrender my pass and I trudge back through the five security checks on my way out of the fortified gates.