The modern age has seen the development of new technologies that make combat more terrifying than ever. From drones to self-steering bullets, robots to invisibility suits, the arms race shows no signs of stopping, as whoever develops and monopolises the technology first will have an enormous advantage in any present or future conflicts.

For the majority of exhibitions, the most dangerous weapon you’re likely to find on the trade floor is a well-sharpened pencil. At Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), it would not be uncommon to see armoured vehicles, tanks, robots, stealth bombers and next-gen assault rifles showcased (without live demonstrations, mind you) at the exhibiting stands.

In fact, DSEI is such a well-equipped, cutting-edge defence exhibition that it is frequently met with angry protesters decrying the promotion and sale of technologies of war. So, what exactly goes down at this controversial event?

War going digital

In the new world of digital interconnectivity we inhabit, war is increasingly waged online. Everyone is familiar with reports of social media tampering, as clashing governments like Russia and the USA take to the internet to conduct behind-the-scenes guerrilla warfare. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Cyber-warfare isn’t just about defending against foreign intrusion by hacking and maintaining a well-oiled communication network, it’s also a valuable offensive tool. In the modern age, it’s easier and less hazardous to penetrate enemy systems digitally — sending in troops or special forces is reserved for specific, exceptional circumstances. But where does it stop? What areas of western systems are safe, and what aren’t? When Sony was hacked by a cybercrime group, Republicans tried to convince President Obama to label the attack as ‘terrorism’. It wasn’t, and he didn’t, but the event left a series of unanswered questions in its wake about who the targets of cyber-warfare would really be. DSEI recognises that digital technology now forms the backbone of defence innovation, and is launching an all-new ‘Future Tech Hub’ focusing on this new, complex area.

The Zone system

Land, sea, air, medical, cyber. There are so many aspects of war that much of the difficulty in managing an army is integrating the various subbranches. During World War 2, one of the main problems the British had against the Nazis was the disconnect between land and air forces. While the Nazis would Blitzkrieg with the Luftwaffe and swiftly follow up with tanks in carefully-coordinated strikes, the British air and land forces often operated independently of one another. A land battalion in trouble that called in air support may only have received backup days later due to the lack of integrated communications. As modern warfare becomes increasingly diverse and complex, exhibitions like DSEI must demonstrate the necessity of integration. As such, while the exhibition divides its exhibitors loosely into so-called ‘Zones’ – Land, Aerospace, Naval, Security and Cyber – it also introduces a new Zone called ‘Joint’. Arguably one of the most important elements of the exhibition, this Zone deals with the ever-important issue of how to develop systems that simplify and facilitate communications across the various branches of the military.

The new frontier — war in space. DSEI program.

Among the newly launched features of the DSEI program is what organisers call the ‘Space Hub’. Since we first ventured to the moon under President Kennedy in the 60s, space travel technology has always been a hotbed of political and military tension, and now these tensions are higher than ever. No military power can ignore the arms race to colonise the solar system, and all have to prepare for the eventuality that the race becomes violent. Anyone who is moderately familiar with relations between USA, Russia and China (three countries with the most developed space programs) will know that the future of space travel is a murky one, and is as motivated by military aims than scientific ones.

DSEI is certainly not your average exhibition. A quick look at the trade floor will suffice to understand why so many protesters gather to stop the event from going ahead — many Britons are uncomfortable with such weapons manufacturers gathering and promoting their wares in the nation’s capital. But, like it or not, war has not disappeared, and it is impossible to disarm the military and ignore international threats altogether. Defense manufacturers must meet with the military in some capacity to liaise and negotiate — and what better place than a dedicated, historic exhibition.

With that said, this event is clearly not for the faint of heart. One can only imagine what kind of swag bags might be on offer at this mighty display of defence tech — perhaps a keyring, a nice little stuffed animal and an exploding 50mm ammunition shell?