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Wed 1 Apr 2009 04:00 AM

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The business of war

Kat Slowe looks at how the lucrative technology of warfare is adapting to terror threats of today.

Kat Slowe looks at how the lucrative technology of warfare, even in the UAE, is adapting to the threats terrorising humanity today - and tomorrow.

"We forget that it is only 60 years since a genocidal conflict that killed nearly 42 million people, and there is a very good case for saying that the twenty first century could be more bloody than the twentieth," says Rear Admiral Chris Parry, at Abu Dhabi's International Defence Exhibition (IDEX), which took place last month.

War, it appears, is a lucrative business in times of crisis, as nations falling under increasing threat scramble to arm themselves. An incredible AED18.4bn ($5bn) worth of deals were announced by the UAE at this year's IDEX. This was a fivefold increase from the AED3.3bn ($898m) the emirates spent last time the exhibition was held, in 2007.

Home security was a hot topic at the event. The risks from which nations seek to arm themselves this year include nuclear terrorism, electronic crime, drugs, human trafficking, piracy and even illegal immigration. Parry, who was in Abu Dhabi to speak at the IDEX conference, explains why these are the greatest threats to both regional and international communities:

"We have got a very unpredictable world unfolding at the moment, with many big global forces and states having to take precautions to protect their sovereignty. In the UAE that includes a lot of oil and gas, and financial assets, and they also have to protect their citizens at the same time."

Parry perceives the UAE's greatest need for defence does not to arise from the international arena, but rather from other countries in the Middle East:

"Unless we have global solutions, we are going to have regional punch ups. States, when they have a choice between altruism and self interest, always go for self interest.

"In the UAE you have got a country with a lot of wealth and a small population," he explains.

"It has got very powerful neighbours and they have got significant regional interests, which they may wish to assert in the near future."

It is the need to protect sovereign interests that Parry considers to be at the forefront of potential conflict in the upcoming years and the concentration is very much on natural resources. As the pressure increases and some of these global challenges come to the fore, Parry predicts states could start to manoeuvre to use armed force to assert their interests, particularly regionally.

After all, the failure to protect even basic assets, such as fishing stocks, can have drastic consequences.

"People will compete for wealth and they will compete for resources," Parry states sadly. "One of the reasons we've got piracy off Somalia is because Somalia was unable to protect its fishermen and its fish stocks. The Japanese and South Koreans came in, so the fisherman said: ‘Oh, sod this. Well, better go do some piracy.'"

Parry emphasises that many nations, particularly after the attack in Mumbai are only now fully realising the importance of sea defences. The UAE, which obtains the majority of its oil and gas offshore, is certainly no exception to this.

In fact, Parry predicts that the balance of power divide, formerly in the Atlantic Ocean during the Cold War, will move east toward the Indian Ocean. This is because it contains the stretch through which the majority of the world's oil and gas passes; the Strait of Hormuz, Bab el Mand and Malacca. With the additional competition that is occurring between India and China, Parry sees a large shift in future geopolitical emphasis. And this competition for dwindling resources is likely only to worsen.

Nations are using economic and geopolitical weapons to further their self interest, not always ethically. Parry uses the example of China vetoing war in Darfur as one such case in point: "At the moment the Chinese are vetoing any action in Darfur because they get eighteen percent of their oil from there at a good price. But what happens if China cannot sustain its economy at an oil price of, say, $60 a barrel? Does it let its whole society collapse or does it take measures?"

Parry describes the three things that govern nations' decisions to be fear, interest and their political culture. And those three things, if you apply them to any situation today, he argues, entail countries acting very selfishly. Even the UK, he admits, is in no way exempt from taking some morally questionable actions.

"It nearly happened in Europe," he states. "Everybody nearly broke ranks and started beggar my neighbouring in the recent dispute. We did something really nasty to Iceland. We actually invoked anti-terrorism legislation to clobber their banks. I would be really narked if I was Iceland - fellow NATO ally."

And fear feeds commerce. Arms manufacturers swarmed the IDEX premises, eagerly showing off their latest tanks, armour and missile systems - all striving to tempt national delegates with their indestructible, camouflaged goods.

"We are having a really good year," says Alan Garwood, group business development director of BAE Systems, the world's second largest weapons manufacturer, during the exhibition.

Garwood is, of course, discussing BAE Systems' profits, which as the world heads towards a global recession are looking frighteningly healthy. Sales are on the up. The company has already published a net profit increase of 93 percent in 2008 from the previous year, with 2009 predicted to be yet another year of booming trade.

The arms manufacturer was proudly displaying at IDEX its latest piece de resistance - a full automated spy plane called HERTI. (High Endurance Rapid Technology Insertion Vehicle). HERTI is a very small automated aircraft targeted purely at surveillance, which can stay up in the air for an estimated twenty hours.

The revolutionary unmanned aircraft, which operates without a pilot, could transform the way in which surveillance is approached in the future. The futuristic vehicle obeys the instructions given to it, but needs no human direction throughout the course of its flight.

"We don't have someone playing with a computer joystick back at base somewhere," Garwood says. "They are fully automatic, fully autonomous. You tell it what you would like it to do, and it goes off, and does it."Not only does the plane eliminate the risk attached to the pilot of a manned aircraft, but the lack of necessary safety features makes it a relatively cheap surveillance option.

Because there is no pilot, the aircraft is lighter and there is no need for heavy and expensive safety systems, such as ejector seats. The current low price of electronics also makes it a relatively cost-effective solution - though Garwood will not give a specific price tag.

"Oh, they are very cheap," says Garwood with a straight face. "They are almost green if I think about it."

The surveillance vehicle also minimises the degree of human error, and by ‘processing every millimetre at sea thousands of times an hour,' it is far more accurate than any human. Not only is it tireless, but it cannot become bored or get distracted, a key danger, Garwood emphasises, in many forms of surveillance.

"Every time you introduce a human being and you are reliant on a human being's vigilance, the focus is not going to be as good. You have poor security guards staring at the screen bored, rigid for hours on end, reading a girly magazine and losing the picture."

The aircraft, which can carry a radar, a video camera, or ‘some other things' Garwood mentions vaguely, follows a relatively simple principle. It will fly over an area repeatedly, observing it each time and marking any differences in the landscape, which will then be flagged up.

"So, if it sees something that was not there the last time it flew over it, it will remember it," Garwood explains. "It can see a car parked outside a house that wasn't there earlier - if it is the house of someone important. Or it will tell you if it sees something that might be a bomb."

Garwood has already briefed the Abu Dhabi Armed Forces on the aircraft, which has been successfully tested and trialled by the British armed forces in Afghanistan, though he will not mention whether they have displayed interest in purchasing a plane.

This is not the only autonomous system of its kind that BAE Systems is producing. The other, Mantis, is still in its testing stages. Mantis is a lot bigger and can stay up in the air even longer - for days. It carries bombs and missiles, which it will launch in enemy territory.

The greatest benefit to this new technology is that it will be possible to send both Mantis and HERTI to places where the risk to a pilot might be too great. They can also fly at a height at which no-one can observe them, and where they cannot be attacked.

Such intelligent, futuristic weapons are seemingly only the start of things to come. In the future, weapons being displayed at IDEX could be entirely different in nature, with the UAE buying the type of gear previously seen only in Star Trek movies.

Rear Admiral Parry describes the sorts of weapons that he considers might become available in 2050 and explains how he believes warcraft will change: "We are going to be in a totally different era then. You will see a lot of automation. You are going to see a lot of ways in which humans will be enhanced, both physically and mentally, for combat. I think you will see a lot of prosthetic devices. You know that South African runner (Oscar Pistorius) who runs along on the metal springs. I think you are going to see a lot of physical enhancements like that - people who live inside machines."

By 2050, Parry predicts humans will likely be using synthetic eyes - not necessarily replacement eyes, but advancements. And he believes drugs that can monitor a person's performance will become commonplace. These entail the use of little electromagnetic mechanisms that enter your bloodstream and monitor whether you are ill or not.

Parry also foresees the introduction of other science fiction technology; directive energy weapons (lasers) and electromagnetic pulses, which is where you put a high burst of radiation into something and it completely destroys every electrical component in a given area. And while he claims that ‘bullets and stuff' will still be made, as ‘they still kill people,' he argues the major battle could be over the airwaves to maintain control of the electromagnetic spectrum.

"And let's not forget space," he says. "Space is going to be a major determinate of what we do on earth in future, with much more sophisticated defences and possibly weapons in space by then - maybe even on the moon. You have got to bear in mind that by 2050 we will probably have people working on, and even extracting minerals off, the moon. And we will certainly be on Mars. You have got to think in terms of taking it beyond the earth, really, by 2050."

On earth, Parry predicts than in 2050, automated machines will have advanced to the point that nearly all war takes place at a distance. Urban warfare, he believes, will also become rampant, as 50 percent of the world is now urban and this is predicted to increase to 70 percent in the next 40 years.

"So there will be a lot more urban, underground warfare," he claims, "because people know that if you go underground you cannot be detected."

As the challenges humanity must face change, it seems the weapons used to combat them must also evolve. IDEX 2050 will almost certainly be a strange affair, by today's standards. But Parry is keen to point out that though everything else in society may shift, humanity in its basic form will remain the same. "It is the nature of mankind not to be at peace," says Parry. "Rome lasted for a thousand years and they thought: ‘There is no reason why it should disappear overnight. There are a few Goths and vandals beyond the border. We don't need to worry about them.'"