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What’s there to hide at Farnborough Airshow?

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The Red Arrows, Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, are joined by a Spitfire at the opening of the Farnborough Airshow, in Farnborough, Britain July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

BONN (DW) – From the outside looking in, the Farnborough International Airshow in the UK – and its sister in Paris – have always been about spectacular fly displays, families marveling at WWI flying machines, and, yes, unfortunately, the odd accident.

Then there are the big ticket items – political appearances, talk about trade and jobs, and the unveiling of “superjumbo”, long-haul aircraft, like the Airbus A380, which was first announced at Farnborough in 1990. This year Boeing’s 777 was a special attraction.

There’s even a STEM outreach programme to encourage young people into careers in science, technology, engineering or math. And star astronauts like Britain’s Tim Peake turn up for walkabouts with the prime minister.

But we hardly ever hear about the military muscle on display – the weapons on sale, the hoards of uniformed men (and it is usually men) with their stern faces, inspecting ugly carriers in an obligatory grey-green. Or the missiles and bombs.

And yet they are here, clear as day, boys with their toys.

You get invited to press briefings by Raytheon, a tech company of ancient proportions – it was founded in 1922 and remains an “innovation leader, specialising in defense, civil government and cybersecurity solutions”. In fact, I was chased by a PR company to join briefings on their “next generation jammer” and radar innovation in electronic warfare.

But when I asked for a statement on tape, the first response was, “Oooh, I’d rather not say anything unscripted.”

Why ever not, I wondered? Do you have something to hide?

In the end, Travis Slocumb, the vice president of Raytheon Electronic Warfare, and his press-handler deigned to give me two minutes, but they were very cautious.

“We want to tell the world what we’re doing, just a little. Not too much, just a little,” said Mr Slocumb.

Across the way, I bumbled into another of the exclusive “chalets” reserved for the really important companies. Actually, they are more like temporary mansions. This one in particular had a land-based missile launcher parked out the front, and replica missiles for all to ogle (yes, I’m pretty sure they were replicas).

It was home to MBDA Missile Systems.

I spoke at length to a young head of press, who reeked of a wine and canopy lunch. Nice enough chap, and knowledgable. He was quite happy to explain all their technology, the innovation that goes into making truly effective bombs, double warheads and the like, the physics of it, and was proud to tell me MBDA had received a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Innovation for developing an extra guidance mode for their Brimstone radar guided anti-armor missile. Wow. I was all a jitter. But things turned as he glowed with sheer excitement, telling me to watch videos online of MBDA’s Common Anti-Air Modular Missile (CAMM). To paraphrase, “Like, it’s really cool”.

So I said, “Look, I’ll be honest, I’m not the greatest fan of war, but I do see how there’s a transfer of technology across many areas of innovation, so can we talk on the record?”

I pinged him my cell number and with a smile he said he’d get back to me … which, of course, he never did.

And, again, I have to ask, why ever not? What’s there to hide? Why are you men, backed by all your missiles, so scared to talk about arms openly?

It’s not just me, either.

Emma Sangster of Forces Watch says there is a creeping militarisation of civil society. Speaking on a radio current affairs program on Wednesday, Sangster said her organization was concerned that “arms companies are being given the opportunity to promote themselves to schools and students”. On Friday at Farnborough, the Futures Day features activities for school kids, and Sangster called out MBDA in particular, which will, she said, give students the chance to handle a shoulder-mounted weapons system.

Paul Everitt, a Farnborough International chairman who was also interviewed, said he was quite comfortable with the mix of military and civilian activities at the airshow.

But like Ms Sangster, I don’t think shoulder-mounted weapons are the kind of excitement, or inspiration, we should be offering the young. Certainly not without a proper conversation around their development and use, and we’re never going to have that conversation when we let companies like Raytheon and MBDA, to name just two, to be so tight-lipped.

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