Idex shows us a fast-changing defence sector

UAE leads the way as cyber capabilities and safety, AI and automation take centre stage

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 2/19/19, International Defence Exhibition & Conference 2019 (IDEX) day 3. -- Calidus Wahash APC.
Victor Besa / The National.
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Every two years, within Idex’s 35,000 square metres of exhibition space, leading figures in the global defence community witness the ways their sector is changing to match new security threats.

This year’s main takeaway will be the speed with which the industry is hurtling towards a future where AI technologies, cyber capabilities and autonomous systems increasingly complement conventional, human-focused, "boots on the ground" warfare.

The Gulf will be a major region in which these technological advances develop. Saudi Arabia has announced that it will invest $20 billion in its domestic defence sector over the next 10 years. In the GCC region as a whole, spending grew by over five per cent to $100bn last year.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 21, 2021.  Idex 2021.  Social distancing is a must on day 1 of IDEX.
Victor Besa / The National
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Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 21, 2021. Idex 2021. Social distancing is a must on day 1 of IDEX. Victor Besa / The National Section: NA/Stock Images
Last time Idex was held the UAE signed over $5.5bn worth of contracts

Changing warfare brings changing threats. As modern militaries increasingly digitalise their operations, so do adversaries, often through relatively anonymous and more cost-effective cyber attacks. As computers become more integrated into defence sectors, so do the opportunities for hostile actors to exploit these systems. The "attack surface area", as cyber-defence experts say, increases. Now, even civilian infrastructure, such as water plants and electricity grids, are in malevolent actors’ sights. Attacking these targets can have a much more gruelling impact for a country’s civilians than hitting a trench or airfield. Investment in cyber capability, therefore, means little without matching investment in cyber security.

Recently, some of the sector's leading figures have addressed these issues in The National. Abri du Plessis, the chief executive of NIMR, an armoured vehicle company that is part of the major UAE-based defence manufacturer Edge, wrote that tanks and other military vehicles are "undergoing one of the most significant technological evolutions in their history" to adjust to the increasing use of cyber tactics in warfare.

Beyond new combat trends, conversations at Idex also reveal much about the domestic defence sector’s thinking. Sixteen per cent of companies present at the event are based in the Emirates, and their exposure to international buyers is part of a broader, more gradual effort to build economic relationships and industry sub-clusters. In 2019 – the last time Idex was held – the country signed over $5.5bn worth of contracts. Organisers at this year’s event expect similar revenues. On day one of Idex this year, the UAE Armed Forces signed $1.37bn of military deals.

Idex is an opportunity to be reminded of the economic linkages of a growing defence sector, such as specialist employment opportunities and contributions to an increasingly diversified, knowledge-based economy.

Whether in terms of new military technology or the coronavirus pandemic, the global threat landscape has changed a lot since 2019. It has also risked, on numerous occasions, pushing people and their countries further apart from one another. But this year’s Idex, with its pandemic-safe protocols, serves as a demonstration that no matter how complex that landscape becomes, collaboration is the cornerstone of a good defence strategy.