So, the big AUSA show (that's the Annual Meeting and Exposition of the Association of the United States Army, and for those not in the know it is -- among other things -- one of the most prestigious arms bazaars in the world) in Washington, DC ended this week and after having followed the coverage, the first thought that occurred to me was this:
Threat displays are much less damaging than actual fighting.
...researchers showed that when an adult male lizard gapes his jaws at a rival male during an intense territorial interaction, information is made available to his opponent about how hard he can bite indeed, the lizard's jaw muscles become clearly visible.
This is true in nature, at least. But perhaps actual (costly!) conflicts can be avoided by using the vehicle of the international arms expo as a kind of unstatesmanlike threat display: "piss off, evildoers; just look at the bright and shiny weaponry coming your way if you screw with me or my mates".
That is, after all, what the modern arms show seems to be. A threat display.
Sure, it's a great opportunity for major defense players like Boeing and Lockheed to roll out their new developments and hopefully garner some sales, but there's a major benefit derived from these events beyond sales and marketing.
After all, today's arms trade is a truly expensive game. Nobody -- but nobody -- is going to develop a new weapon system, at the cost of many many many millions of dollars and keep it secret until it's ready to be unveiled. This isn't the Detroit Auto Show (even though it might look like it at times), and there is no Chrysler Tomahawk or Pontiac Solstice being sprung on an unsuspecting public for the first time.
Sure, there are smaller ticket items -- the bread and butter of international arms sales like small arms, man-portable missiles and transport vehicles -- that are undoubtedly sold. And naturally, the arms expo makes a wonderful stage to announce major sales. But it's hard to argue that these deals wouldn't take place without all the hardware on display (what's really necessary is for the contracting folks to be in the same room as the folks with the budgets).
In reality, not much was unveiled at AUSA that wasn't basically jointly developed and funded in stages from conception to prototype. The customer base has been in on it all along. Sure, there is useful marketing and demand creation going on, with particular pitches being aimed at the customers just after the launch customer (aka, the poor sucker who paid the developmental costs for the shiny new system; most often also known as Uncle Sam). But, for the big ticket items, kicking the tires at an expo just won't cut it, sales-wise.
So, if the show isn't intended for solely, or even primarily, for potential customers, then who?
The answer is really quite evident. There's this guy. There's his crazy buddy from up the street who also has a cozy relationship with another kooky character. And to kind of wrap up, there's this attractive fellow, ol' moderation, here...well, the list goes on and on. Even this
happy guy, it is to be hoped, as well as this coy piece of beefcake.
So clearly, there are lots of other great apes in the forest towards which the U.S. leadership might want to direct some well-enunciated chest thumping, not to mention the odd subvocalization and guttural grunt. And if a friendly arms fair, featuring hot chicks, cold drinks and cool swag can get that point across with a minimum of dead troops and exploded mosques, so much the better.
And of course, AUSA is one of the big ones, particularly since it's focused on the Army of a country currently in occupation mode -- a task the Navy and Air Force really can't help much with. The event received its fair share of media this year, with the best coverage coming from the blogosphere, in my judgement (if you can still call Wired's Danger Room a blog).
Of course, the arms trade is an international business -- the second oldest, in fact. And there are non-U.S. alpha critters in that jungle as well, keen to rattle their own sabers. Particularly if it can be done without the messy business of actually invading anyone. (That kind of weapons demo cum marketing plan is reserved for either the truly, ideologically dedicated, or the just plain crazy).
Every two years, the U.K. hosts the Defence Systems and Equipment International Exposition (DSEi) at the London Docklands, with the '07 version having just wrapped up last month. Among the fangs bared at possible competitors at this year's DSEi ranged from the highly expensive Fire Shadow indirect fire precision attack system (a loitering munitions system that can be launched from a truck, fly up to 150 km, loiter overhead for up to 10 hours, and then attack with a 1 metre probability of error) to the affordable Upstart rapid rope climbing device.
With the Middle East being the focal point of the earth's peacebuilding efforts that it is, it might surprise you, dear reader, to find that there are major arms expositions even there. The IDEX show held this spring in Abu Dhabi caused some commentators to murmur about the beginnings of a Sunni-Shia arms race. (Editor's Note: Newsvine's Primary Sources column
would argue that this arms race has been in full swing for over a year now) Russia was one of the big presences at IDEX this year, showing off a broad range of high tech yet affordable (at least compared to U.S. systems) weapons:
According to Rosoboronexport, Russian defense companies will show off a diversity of air defense complexes and radar reconnaissance systems, including the S-300PMU2, Favorite, and Antei-2500 long-range surface-to-air missile systems. They will also display modern helicopter gun-ships and their entire line of non-nuclear powered submarines, as well as surface warships - destroyers, frigates, escort vessels and patrol boats.
Unfortunately for weapon systems watchers like the The Threat Centre, the Danger Room and Defense Tech, the grandaddy of all arms shows, France's Eurosatory, featuring such bells and whistles as its own daily newspaper produced by Jane's, as well as a 50,000 square metre demonstration area for tanks and armoured fighting vehicles, which can hold more than 4,000 spectators, will not take place until 2008.
Nation-states have other mechanisms for displaying their military might -- short of invading a neighbour -- beyond the arms show of course. The air show has long been a means of garnering public support for defense expenditures by providing a thrilling spectacle in exchange for tax dollars, while at the same time demonstrating both your combat hardware and the skill of your personnel. Another method, favoured by the Nazis in WWII and then perfected as a propaganda tool during the Cold War by the Soviets is the military parade. The Republic of China (Taiwan) recently reinstituted their military National Day Parade after a 16-year hiatus, giving analysts a tantalizing glimpse into their capabilities.
The wheels of this trade are oiled by the constant round of arms fairs, which are not just a showcase to help companies to sell finished products; they also provide networking opportunities for the industry and a chance to negotiate future partnerships. In other words, they are a key mechanism for the diffusion of arms across the globe.
The ArmsFair.com website does agitate against the arms trade, but its primary purpose would seem to be to provide a calendar of upcoming events for protesters to plan their activism schedule around.
At the end of the day, it would seem that international arms expositions provide a number of roles, combining the function of weapons bazaar with networking, political lobbying, advertising, sales and marketing...and not least, the chance to rattle your sabre. In fact, as I looked into this topic, I was struck by the similarity on multiple levels with another well-worn American institution, that of the gun show. There are literally hundreds upon hundreds of gun shows held every year in the U.S., with squadrons of exhibitors and groupies flocking from one to the next like survivalist Grateful Dead fans. The biggest of these, often called 'The Super Bowl of Gun Shows' is the Wanenmacher Tulsa Gun Show:
With approximatey 4,000 tables covering 11 acres, this massive show offers something for every firearm appetite- from the collector feedin-frenzy to amateur gun-grazing - all under one enormous roof. National and international exhibitors attract thousands of patrons from across the country and around the world by offering everything from antique matchlocks and original pepperboxes to modern semi-autos and custom .45s.
-American Rifleman magazine, August 2006
It's not long before this line of inquiry begins to raise uncomfortable questions. In her newly released book Gun Show Nation, author
Joan Burbick explores the central role of the gun in American society, along with what she sees as cultural manipulation that misrepresents history in order to maintain that position through the exploitation of social and economic problems.
If we follow this line of reasoning to its conclusion, the bleakest question of all begins to emerge. Through the phenomenon of international arms expositions, far from encouraging the spread of democracy, what if we are in the process of extending the U.S. gun culture around the world?
What do we do then?