Idex 2019: A show of military might and modern warfare

The defence show got underway with a bang, reports Daniel Sanderson

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War is very big business. Anyone in doubt as to how big should head to the International Defence and Exhibition Conference (IDEX), which got underway on Sunday in Abu Dhabi.

This is where the world’s militaries and defence companies get together to make deals and show off their hardware.

Organisers say this year’s event, already the largest of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa, is likely to be the biggest in its 25-year history, and it shows.

A truly startling array of killing machines are on display. Surface to air missiles systems? There are dozens. Sniper rifles? Take your pick. Outside, an area that is usually a car park has been transformed into an open-air showroom for tanks, armoured cars and even battlefield ambulances.

And all of it is marketed as openly as a flower display at a wedding fair.

Estonia, perhaps conscious that its array of military-grade footwear would not be a show-stopper, was even offering a ‘happy hour’. Free, traditional drinks and snacks, the organisers hoped, would tempt delegates in to look at its wares, which also included an imposing missile defence system.

Outside, twenty-something girls in short camouflage outfits that would be judged inappropriate attire for a UAE mall, never mind a combat zone, strutted around patrol boats and armoured vehicles.

More than 90 countries are participating at this year’s show, although much of the exhibition space has been devoted to just three of them.

Russia and China sat alongside each other. Perhaps wisely, the Americans are situated at the other end of the venue, but have put on an equally robust display.

The Chinese boasted of an integrated border defence system, comprising two types of satellite, drones, boats and ground troops. But the most imposing exhibit flown in from Beijing was the GR480 guided rocket. Standing at well over 20ft tall, it has a range of 290km, a staffer boasted proudly.

Not to be outdone, the Russians were displaying what is officially called the Pantsir-ME, but is often referred to as the ‘robocop of the seas’.

A series of missiles and cannons appear as mobile arms, sprouting out of its huge steel body. A small ‘head’ is equipped with sensors that look like two eyes and a mouth and a slick marketing video shows the technology taking out drones, missiles, planes and mines by unleashing an unrelenting hail of steel bullets. It was not as tall as the Chinese rocket, but it was far more creepy.

Earlier, an opening ceremony, at least for a while, paid homage to military traditions. The UAE military band got things underway, followed by the Abu Dhabi Police band. Children put on a cultural performance, while soldiers swung ceremonial swords.

No-one was quite sure why the Armenian Military Orchestra was taking part, until they started, that is. Armenia, it turns out, is a superpower in the world of military orchestras. A general fearlessly marched a gauntlet of swords slashing up and down in perfect symmetry, allowing him the pass through unharmed. An impressed Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, were pictured on big screens leading the applause.

Then, with a flurry of clashing symbols and drums, the tribute to military tradition ended and the audience was advised to make use of earplugs, left on every seat. The next part of the show was all about modern warfare.

The main event was a fictional battle against an armed militia who had supposedly taken control of an abandoned military base.

A ‘gasoline’ sign above a dilapidated petrol pump, used as a backdrop to the action, suggested the battle was set in America and a modern fighting force was tasked with defeating them.

But this blockbuster was not about the location or the plot – it was all special effects. Tanks and armoured patrol cars repeatedly roared onto the stage while helicopters and jets buzzed overhead.

A large swarm of drones also arrived on the scene while a mock press conference - showing reporters grilling their leaders about the supposed geo-political crisis - was displayed on huge screens

Eventually, using techniques such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence and robotics, alongside special forces with naval and air support, the militia were defeated in a flurry of fire and mock explosions.

Or at least that is what it said in the programme. It may not have always been clear who was fighting whom – but it didn’t really matter. Idex 2019 got underway with a bang.