Defend Truth


African arms expo: Fun for the whole family


John Stupart is Daily Maverick's newsletter editor and author of First Thing, its award-winning daily newsletter hitting your inboxes every morning at 6am. By night, John also happens to be a defence expert, weighing in on all matters military. John holds a masters in War Studies from King's College and a masters in International Relations (Wits). His unfettered love for dogs has probably influenced a lot of the pictures of the day featured in First Thing.

The African Aerospace and Defence exhibition is a serious forum for marketing the world’s most sophisticated machines of war. At least, for three of the five days it is. On the weekend, it becomes a showcase of why a defence industry is even necessary in the first place. By JOHN STUPART.

The five-day long Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) exhibition and air show is held biannually in Centurion, South Africa (its most recent iteration between 19-23 September). This show is unique among the annual circuit of global defence shows in that it opens its doors to the public on the weekend, with large airshows going on the whole day, creating something of a festive atmosphere. It is the jolliest of military and defence exhibitions, where battle tanks and assault rifles can be viewed with an ice cream or beer in hand.

This is an interesting concept to consider. Compared to global defence exhibitions, AAD is actually quite small. Eurosatory for example, held in Paris every two years, can swallow up the displays at AAD and have space for twice as many exhibitors and visitors. The Special Operations Forces Exhibition and Conference (Sofex) in the Middle East has more explosions and whiz-bang gadgetry. But AAD does something none of these shows do: It allows the public a tiny glimpse into the global defence industry, with all the trappings of a family-friendly air show.

Not all exhibitors hang around for the public portion of the show, packing up after the far more commercially relevant trade days. For obvious reasons, exhibitors cannot sell an advanced battle tank to the public, nor can civilians try to purchase high powered sniper rifles off the shelf. This isn’t Sexpo after all. For exhibitors, the emphasis remains squarely on showcasing new technology to visiting delegations from various defence ministries across the world as well as to larger defence companies. The nature of the defence industry beast is such that small niche technology providers generally must partner with larger companies in order to hope to have a whiff of a tender.

What this means is that after three days of industry-specific, closed-door business, the display stands are conspicuously empty on the public days. It’s a shame, since explaining through the exhibition what the purpose of a giant armoured vehicle is for would go a long way towards justifying the defence expenditure in South Africa. Closing the civil-military gap among arms manufacturers, ministries and the public would also help sensitise civilians to the reality that our defence force is in dire financial straits. The industry needs a significant budget increase, or the SANDF will simply cease to operate effectively. For those wondering what these operations might be, they include the deployment of peacekeepers in the DRC and Sudan, counter-piracy operations in the Mozambique Channel, fighting rhino poachers, securing borders and assisting hospitals and schools during strike season. In sum, security and societal crises that affect all of us. All of these things require money and equipment, and AAD is a great platform for explaining this.

The SANDF learned this during the Rand Show this year, and has brought these lessons across to AAD, showcasing everything from nurses to Special Forces. This is far more than simply glorifying the military, however. Instead, AAD was a great platform for highlighting the value SANDF provides to South Africans on a ridiculously-tight budget. It also showcased the high standards of defence technology we produce.

For the many international exhibitors, this of course has no importance whatsoever. From their perspective, African defence projects are a maze of administratively-complex tasks that result in a timescale of decades to sell even the most basic of systems. Chatting with many of the exhibitors, this is a common gripe (locally and abroad). Put simply, stringing along defence companies for decades on procurement projects results in a distinct step back in terms of marketing. Stands that were multi-story megaplexes of lights and plush carpeting in Paris, for example, become modest 6×6 metre booths in South Africa, with a single vehicle or radar system on show.

Judging from the systems on display at AAD, the themes seemed to run along the lines of courting interest for Project Vistula, which focuses on procuring new military trucks to replace our fleet of all-wheel drive SAMIL truck – a top priority for our defence force; Project Sepula (armoured infantry carriers, sometimes with large gun turrets on top); Saucepan, a maritime surveillance aircraft to replace our WW2-era planes currently in use; and Biro, which will see us eventually procuring some new offshore patrol vessels desperately needed by the Navy for counter-poaching and combating piracy. 

The number of systems matching these requirements was hard to miss, along with every other manufacturer of nuts and bolts, paint, computer systems and even tenting systems which could be used in conjunction with these new efforts. These projects are years away from completion, however, and require a lot more funding than the government has allocated for defence. It will always be difficult to justify guns and ships to a public that has no jobs, poor education and generally horrendous service delivery. But the reality is that a functioning defence force is a vital, if ignored, part of what ensures our country’s sovereignty. 

Make no mistake, behind the air shows and weekend festivities there was a strong undercurrent of doing business in African defence. Although tender delays and complicated processes discourage manufacturers, there is a lot of money to be made in the industry, despite a global slump. During the show little actual business is concluded, with the exception of some pre-arranged signings of memoranda with our state arms producer, Denel, and various international partners. Meetings which promise future engagements between state delegations and defence manufacturers are held behind closed doors, however. Forget what you’ve seen in Lord of War, the modern defence industry conducts its business over many painstakingly drawn-out meetings across several continents, is subjected to a mountain of paperwork detailing arms control permissions and state certifications. 

In reality, arms deals are about as sexy as importing tractors from Mongolia, although significantly more lucrative. DM


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