I went to an international arms fair (and all I got was this lousy existential dread)

I’m an old hand at covering trade shows at this point. CES, MWC, IFA – I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe – Jean Michel Jarre climbing an 11ft, £350,000 bluetooth speaker; a fat toner for your neck; a voice controlled fridge; an AR mirror that would make Hulk Hogan look like a Pussycat Doll.

But there’s not much that would prepare you for a day spent at an international arms fair – not even a youth wasted with GI-Joe dolls and a ‘prestige’ rank on Call of Duty. There’s something for everyone – so long as by ‘everyone’ you mean leaders of banana republics and mercenary groups that would make Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables seem as deadly as, well, a bunch of 70 year olds running around playing soldier.

The DSEI is essentially a Toys ‘R’ Us for arms dealers.

The Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) is a bi-annual military trade show held in the shadow of London’s Docklands financial district, one of the few areas where residual corruption is present at a concentration fitting to make the wheeling-and-dealing of an arms fair palatable.

I’d been visiting to get a handle on how augmented reality use-cases vary from industry to industry. As you’d imagine, for the military, using AR is a world apart from plonking a digital IKEA sofa into the corner of your living room. With some downtime between meetings, I traipsed the halls of the eXcel Centre, getting a feel for the tech the military was developing. With so much money pumped into the defence sector (the global military expenditure for 2016 was close to $1.7 TRILLION, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) a substantial amount of what’s developed eventually finds a second (usually less deadly) home in consumer tech.

Say hello to Skynet

It’s not often you can walk 20 metres and see a jump jet, land-to-air defence system and a Brexit-eering tank decked out in the Union Jack colours all under one roof, but the DSEI is essentially a Toys ‘R’ Us for arms dealers. It’s courted controversy and protest for decades - though Britain had been at war with Iran for close to six years, a delegation from Iraq were invited to attend in 1986, for instance. This year’s conference saw more than 100 protesters arrested.

If there was any disruption outside on the day of my attendance, it was in stark contrast to the relative calm inside – absurd given the death-dealing machinery all around. Within minutes of entering, I’d had my own hunter-killer Terminator moment, with a remotely-operated machine gun tracing my movement down an aisle. 

Staring down the barrel of something like that is NOT FUN.

Staring down the barrel of something like that is NOT FUN.

I smiled emptily at the winking exhibitor, enjoying himself as heartily as if he had an Xbox controller in his hand instead. The Terminator analogy extended to all manner of autonomous weaponry, from an unmanned mounted weapon sat on what essentially was a roboticized mini tank to a fleet of dancing drones.

There were some cool-looking amphibious vehicles, one that appeared to be a modified Mazda Mk 2 MX5 roadster, the other closer to a quad-bike, that looked like they’d be a good laugh to drive.

Who needs an ark when you've got this?

Who needs an ark when you've got this?

And then I spotted the camo paint job running on the opposite side of the vehicle, and checked myself as to why they were on sale here.

The trauma trove

Genuinely impressive were a miniature Death Star offering a mobile satellite communications system:

Miniature Death Star, or giant Lindt Lindor?

Miniature Death Star, or giant Lindt Lindor?

...and an air-traffic control tower that could be put up like a Meccano set:

Flat-pack comms.

Flat-pack comms.

The medical zone offered perhaps the strangest sights, with mobile trauma centres set up to show field medics the latest in life-saving combat zone procedures. There was an eerily-realistic robot baby, used to train people for delivering babies in the high-pressure environments of a warzone, and a genuine amputee having his missing leg dressed in truly gory fashion for some later demonstration, under a grim banner that read “Bleed, Treat, Survive, Repeat”:

"Repeat"? No thanks.

"Repeat"? No thanks.

Even the media room had a vein of machismo running through it that’d be absent from the geek-filled events I’d usually feel at home in – an international journalist was walking around with an (unlit) cigar the size a Smarties tube dangling perpetually, precariously from the corner of his mouth. 

It wasn’t a day entirely devoid of laughs. One purveyor of body armour, in an attempt to show how discretely its wares could be worn, had dressed up the most conspicuous dummy this side of an M&S window:

"Don't mind me, I'm just a heavily armoured mannequin at an arms fair."

"Don't mind me, I'm just a heavily armoured mannequin at an arms fair."

Meet Nigel

And then there was my bizarre interaction with a clumsy Nigel Farage-a-like.

Turning the corner of a particularly busy (and unevenly floored) stand at speed, this man took a nasty tumble that saw him fly like a cruise missile into the throngs of people around him, the quaint shrapnel of his leaflets, promo USB sticks and business cards rocketing off in all directions. There were gasps. There were embarrassed eyes, turning away from the disaster zone. There were more than a few chuckles.

“Are you alright mate?” I asked, picking up a few pens.

“Oh yes, quite,” said the man as he dusted himself off, before adding, “Good to see you though. Amazing who you bump into in these places.”

Bet Nige has one of these in the drive.

Bet Nige has one of these in the drive.

“Erm, yep,” I replied. The man had now done an about turn, walking astride me in the opposite direction he’d been going before his fall. Despite his insistence, I’d no idea who he was. 

“Are you alright? If you’re hurt you’ve gone down in the right place – there’s a mobile trauma centre on aisle C,” I nervously joked, as we continued to walk together for some minutes. I couldn’t risk showing my unease at his dogged determination that he recognised me, given the stuff on show at DSEI. He may well have been an assassin sent from the future.

There may well be a bespectacled warlord out there somewhere who’s my conflict-zone doppleganger.

“Yes, very good. Who are you here for this year then?” he asked before taking a quick glance down at my name badge. And then it all changed.

“Yes, well. Yes good to see you then.” And with that he was back off the way he’d originally been headed in. Whether he’d been using me to swiftly escape the jeers of his hyper-masculine peers, or had genuinely mistook me for some other attendee, I’ll never know. But it did make me think there may well be a bespectacled warlord out there somewhere who’s my conflict-zone doppleganger.

Vultures, big cats and not-so-mighty mice

For all the easy smiles, sharp suits and cocksuredness that comes from an improbably clear conscience, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of desperation in the air all the same. 

Whether engineers, spin doctors or generals, all were digging deep to justify the merit of the ‘technological advancements’ they were buying or selling. “We protect and beautify the world” read the myopic banner slogan for one manufacturer dealing in coatings for military vehicles. 

Walking the halls surrounded by missiles, tanks and hawkers who’d be made redundant if people stopped killing each other, I felt a bit like a mouse darting around the savannah, vultures circling overhead, looking to profit from the easy meat left behind by the big cats. 

I’m an old hand at mastering the art of cognitive dissonance too, holding two contrary beliefs in mind at once – the world is full of extinction-dealing technology, and this is fine. But the DSEI scared me.

  • Gerald Lynch is TechRadar’s resident futurist. His Future Gazing column casts a critical eye over the technologies and trends that are set to shape our world, bringing back to today a glimpse of tomorrow in the boot of his Delorean.
Gerald Lynch

Gerald is Editor-in-Chief of iMore.com. Previously he was the Executive Editor for TechRadar, taking care of the site's home cinema, gaming, smart home, entertainment and audio output. He loves gaming, but don't expect him to play with you unless your console is hooked up to a 4K HDR screen and a 7.1 surround system. Before TechRadar, Gerald was Editor of Gizmodo UK. He is also the author of 'Get Technology: Upgrade Your Future', published by Aurum Press.