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London Arms Fair showcases record exhibitors amid Ukraine invasion – UK company secured c. £1 million drone contract for Ukrainian Special Forces

London’s business was dominated this week by the world’s largest arms trade fair, boasting record visitors and exhibitors against the backdrop of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.  

The Defence Security Exhibition International (DSEI) saw numerous British armament factories exhibit their weapon systems, with one company found to having won a recent contract worth up to £1 million from the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) to arm Ukraine’s Special Forces with armed drones.

Overwatch, a UK company based in the South, is understood to have delivered between 250 and 500 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to the MOD in the last year, weapons that were then sent to Ukraine. The company, set up just over two years ago, has grown rapidly in recent years and was unveiling its developed product at the East London Excel-based event. 

The managing director, Gareth Vaughan, would not go into details about the contract, citing commercial sensitivities, but its weapon – Pholos – has the appearance of a torpedo with wings, and is designed for “precision strikes”.

­­“Our founder – Drew Michael – was in the British Army,” said Mr Vaughan, wearing a Ukraine-UK flag. “He saw limitations in the existing UAV weaponry and saw opportunities to develop the armaments, using the latest technology designed to minimise collateral damage and the risk to the soldier.” 

“They are drones,” Marek Olek, Overwatch’s Chief Weapons Engineer told this newspaper. “But as a system they are loitering munitions.”

They were for specific operations, Olek explained, mainly conducted by Ukrainian Special Forces. Initially, he said, the weapons were used largely as anti-tank munitions against Russian forces but later the drones, equipped with Polish-made fuel-air-explosive, were used to clear trenches. The company argues the drone, unlike mortars, is more precise and, by being controlled at every stage of the flight, limits civilian harm. 

It is understood that Admiral Sir Tony Radakin visited Overwatch at DSEI after giving a talk in which he said the war in Ukraine had exposed vulnerabilities of the UK to missile and drone attack.  Britain’s most senior military officer visited the stand after arguing for more discussion about how to improve the UK’s homeland security.

The UK Government has gifted significant arms to the Ukrainian military since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, including 10,000 anti-tank weapons, 2,000 UAVs, 3 million rounds of small arms ammunition and Storm Shadow Cruise Missiles.

The CEO of the UK military’s procurement arm – Defence, Equipment & Support (DE&S) – Andy Start said that “the world’s radically changed, as have the threats we face, so we’ve got to change too,” citing not just Ukraine, but China, climate change, food shortages, high inflation, skills and material shortages as “increasing threats”. 

£1.3 billion of military aid has been sent by the UK to Ukraine

The DE&S itself spends £13 billion a year on suppliers.

Much of that wealth was on display at the bi-annual arms fair, an event that draws significant criticism from human rights groups. Buyers and sellers from countries with poor military human rights records such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan line the enormous space.

This year, DSEI boasted more than 1,500 exhibitors, with many as 40,000 visitors attending over the four days.

The exhibition’s spokesperson, Maj Gen Roddy Porter (ret’d) said that “the invasion of Ukraine by Russia certainly has given DSEI a real focus. Wider global uncertainty – in the South China Sea, Taiwan, the hand of Iran in the Middle East – has all added to international concerns”.

“There’s a real growth here of AI, machine learning, data processing,” Porter said.

New weapons on display included Nammo’s programmable ammunition; AeroVironment’s loitering munition – effectively a bomb that can hover over its target for up to 40 minutes; and Leonardo Helicopters UK “representative” concept of the Proteus uncrewed helicopter that it is developing for the UK Royal Navy.

Any discussion of the impact of such weapons on civilians in war, however, was a notable absence in the framing of the event.

Some countries were repeatedly cited as the “real” danger by exhibitors – Russia, China, Iran and North Korea among them. But any mention of the threat of the on-sale missiles and bombs on civilian populations was absent. Over the last decade, when explosive weapons were used in populated areas, 90% of those killed or injured were reported to be civilians.

This exsanguination of the arms far was furthered by a strange management-speak used by the defence corporations. From keeping the “digital human in the loop”, to “protecting people and planet,” to “moving forward together” to “outpacing threats with decision dominance”, the true nature of this arms fair – that of being able to kill the enemy in greater numbers than they can kill you, was rarely mentioned.  

BAE systems claimed “Innovation beyond boundaries”; Helsing promised “Artificial intelligence to serve our democracies”; and the Advanced Manufacture Research Centre at the University of Sheffield promised the utopia of “Tomorrow. Done Better.”

Caterpillar Defense, a company that describes itself as “the world’s foremost supplier of earthmoving equipment, engines and power generators for … military forces”, even had a poster that boasted, among other countries, it supplied to Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Colombia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Mali, Saudi Arabia and Somalia.

These nine countries are all on the last UK Government’s list of Human Rights Priority Countries, places where the Conservatives “are particularly concerned about human rights issues”.

Militaries with concerning human rights abuses are all visitors at DSEI

Not only were human rights absent from the framing. Death itself was a silent witness, with perhaps the only spoken truth of the event’s true purpose seen in the UK military’s Strategic Command poster that admitted its aim was to be “more lethal”.

Profits, above all else, appeared to be the focus. Indeed, the UK government explicitly wants to make it easier for British manufacturers to export weapons around the world, including easing access to financing and contracts for smaller firms. 

As the UK’s minister of state for defence procurement, James Cartlidge, told defence executives here in London’s Docklands, “you only need to look around to appreciate that defence isn’t the enemy.”

Defenders of human rights in some of the countries where those weapons sold here will end up may disagree.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “The UK and partners will continue to ensure we equip Ukraine as best we can to expel Russia and defend its sovereign territory, and that the capabilities we provide meet the tactical demands of the conflict as it evolves. We are liaising with the Ukrainian Government and continue to respond to their requests to supply more weapons to help Ukraine defend itself.

“Our support for Ukraine is unwavering, and the Prime Minister has been clear that we’ll continue to back Ukraine to ensure they win this war and reclaim their sovereignty.”

This article was first published in Byline Times