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London’s Defence Systems & Equipment International (DSEi) exhibition is the largest arms fair in Europe, as befits the UK’s post as one of the biggest defence exporters in the world.

In a sense, the exhibition can be seen as a general, if unscientific, barometer of the general state of the defence industry and this year’s gathering was oddly muted. Modesty was the watchword of virtually every exhibitor, despite the figures – 1,350 companies attended from more than 40 countries – closely resembling those of previous years.

There is traditionally fierce competition between the manufacturers to have the most lavish stand, with two-storey constructions the norm for the big players, complete with cocktail decks, monster video walls and quiet rooms where deals can be made and journalists briefed. But this year, there was a degree of austerity to the halls of Excel in the docklands of east London and though the stands were still heaving with the wares of the western world’s defence industry, the majority of companies present had made an obvious attempt to at least appear to be spending responsibly and toning down the more brash displays of their success.

This could be a sign of a traditionally “recession proof” industry feeling the bite, or a new prudence hedging against future budget cuts, or perhaps it is simply the fact that at a time when the industry’s governmental customers are facing straitened budgets it doesn’t do any good to appear to be making a killing.

Notwithstanding all of this, the exhibitors showed off a bewildering array of innovative technologies and capabilities ranging from ­Atlantic Inertial Systems’ sugar cube-sized ­inertial navigation system through to new, lightweight armoured vehicles from various suppliers to Aesir’s Embler “flying saucer” ­unmanned aerial vehicles, Apache attack helicopters and warships. At the more offensive (the current defence buzzword is “kinetic”) end of the market there are missiles for every occasion from MBDA, new air-bursting grenades from ST Kinetics, heavy weapons of every calibre and even simulated or real targets for you to practise laying waste to.

But mirroring operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the real flavour of DSEi 2009 focused on equipment and systems designed to protect friendly forces, rather than destroy the opposition. As one defence industry source put it, “If you’re into protected mobility at the moment, you’re laughing.”

Protection ranged from the first public ­display of Raytheon’s Centurion radar-guided 20mm Gatling gun dispatched to protect Basra airbase by shooting down incoming rockets, artillery and mortars, through to improved, lightweight mine-protected vehicles – such as Force Protection’s Ocelot and Supacat’s new SPV400 unveiled at the show – and a profusion of blast-attenuating seating, all the way down to ballistic armour textiles from DSM Dyneema and sturdy boots from Magnum. The protected vehicle field in particular has simply, well, exploded over the last few years, driven by operational experience of roadside bombs and mines, to the extent where there are now more vehicle options for the discerning defence acquisition specialist than any other form of armour.

Other defences include a profusion of new night vision systems from Thales UK, swimmer detection sonars – the smallest and cheapest of which, Sonardyne’s circa-$300,000 (€200,000) Intruder Detection Sonar, was on display – and foliage-penetrating radars designed to spot enemies in nearby bushes.

All of which goes to show that if you have the money, the arms trade is still doing very nicely and will probably have more products than the most imaginative generals ever knew they needed. Despite the obvious nod to public austerity on the stands at DSEi, scratch the surface and it’s not hard to find behind-the- scenes private receptions where the champagne still flows. Whatever its public display, the private face of the defence industry is very much business as usual.

New products at DSEi:

  1. Exoskeleton: Straight out of a comic book, Lockheed Martin’s HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier) is a robotic exoskeleton that helps soldiers carry weight of up to 90kg and assists their running up to 16km/h.

  2. Boomerang: BBN Technologies’ Boomerang sniper detection system is wearable and not much bigger than a chunky diver’s watch. It features a screen capable of pointing out the bearing and range of a sniper.

  3. Stealth Poncho: Fans of The Mighty Boosh’s Vince Noir will know it’s “impossible to be unhappy in a poncho” – especially true if you’re a sniper wearing Aero Sekur’s new poncho. Its fabric hides you from night-vision goggles and thermal cameras.

  4. Diesel-fuel-cell: It’s not just weapons at DSEi. Nordic Power Systems showed off the world’s first silent diesel- fuel-cell power generator.

  5. Rock Phone: Ultra Electronics’ Rock Phone has found favour with US special forces, using its innovative magneto inductive technology to talk through up to 100m of solid rock or pass data down to 200m, keeping in touch with troops in cave systems.

Ship shaping up

Russia [NAVAL DEFENCE]

The Russian Federation Navy is looking to recapitalise its amphibious forces and in late August approached Dutch and French shipyards for up to four new ships.

This starkly highlights how the Navy has finally grown tired of Russia’s underperforming domestic shipyards and come to realise that after decades of neglect, the Russian warship industry no longer has the skills to design and build complex amphibious vessels. Russia’s amphibious forces have atrophied to a shadow of their Cold War glory and though Kaliningrad’s Yantar shipyard has been building a “new” amphibious assault ship – a version of the mid-1960s Alligator-class design – since 2004, progress has been glacial.

There are some green shoots for Russian ship- building, such as the new Stereguschiy-class frigates, but the amphibious fleet is made up of Cold War relics and even the most potent, the 8,260-ton Mitrofan Moskalenko, is of questionable operational readiness. Russia’s current amphibious doctrine rests on an all-out, hyper-aggressive fleet designed to slam into beaches as fast as possible, open up the hinged bows and disgorge tanks.

By contrast, DCNS’s 21,600-ton Mistral class (below) and the 16,800-ton Damen Schelde’s Johan de Witt class exemplify a multi-role, conservative style of operation, able to flood stern compartments to harbour landing craft and safely stooge around over the horizon. Both are inherently expeditionary and Russia’s interest underpins the resurgence of a more internationalist foreign policy.

Vitally, they are designed to be heavily used and when not on war-fighting deployments, they act as floating harbours for disaster relief and humanitarian assistance operations, complete with hospital decks and control rooms. Mistral also has a flat top like an aircraft carrier and would give Russia its second biggest aviation platform after the Navy’s sole – and rarely deployed – Kuznetsov-class carrier, heralding a return for Russia’s moribund naval aviation.

Providing the means

France & Brazil

France’s DCNS shipyard has signed a deal to help Brazil develop a nuclear submarine by providing expertise in technology transfers and hydrodynamic and acoustic design of the vessel. But it’s not helping with the nuclear reactor itself.

On loan

Afghanistan

Australia is to lease Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (made by Israel Aerospace Industries) from Canada’s MacDonald, Dettwiler Associates to fly out of Kandahar in Afghanistan.

×The Atlantic Shift

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