'Merchants of Death': Arms Dealers Go to Work in Paris

For those looking to buy a squadron of fighter jets or a one-of-a-kind sniper rifle, life isn't just traveling through war zones wearing camouflage and kicking the tires of high-tech contraptions.

A peek inside the world of the so-called merchants of death — otherwise known as arms dealers and defense experts — shows it can be downright glamorous.

At least that was the scene during one of the world’s largest arms fairs in June.

Schmoozing and champagne are just as fundamental to the defense business as weapons, and the week-long Eurosatory arms show kicked off in Paris with an extravagant party in the Louvre. Proving Americans know how to throw down stylishly as well, Boeing hosted a party on a deck of the Eiffel Tower.

• Click here to see photos of some of the newest weaponry on offer at the arms show.

The arms fair’s strict door policy would put the most exclusive nightclubs in L.A. and New York to shame. Entry isn't determined on how fabulous you look, but instead by security checks made in advance on each attendee and buttressed by layers of security on site — a tall order for a show featuring reps from 75 countries and some 1,200 companies.

In part, the intense security is intended to keep peace activists from getting inside. The crowds of protesters tend to become raucous — they often try bombarding visitors with paintballs — and that requires an extensive police presence.

This year, the protest dwindled. Two elderly women in bird masks walked about carrying small, politely worded anti-war signs — quite a departure from an event last year, when activists bought a tank and attempted to drive it into the fair.

But if protesters were actually able to penetrate security to gain a glimpse inside the world of the “merchants of death,” they’d be severely disappointed. Military personnel walk the floor in full regalia, but the scene is dominated by men in Savile Row suits with BlackBerries in hand; it looks like Wall Streeters weaving their way around tanks and RPGs.

The show was organized into country “villages,” with 145 nations represented. The invitations extended to Libya, Algeria and Serbia raised an eyebrow or two, but failed to stir up the media controversy of years past, when China and Iran presented.

So what exactly is on offer at an arms fair?


At Eurosatory you can play with everything from standard-issue Glocks to the latest and greatest guns on the market. Truvelo, a South African arms manufacturer, introduced a single-shot 20x110 sniper rifle reputed to be a world first in this caliber — and some say it will set the benchmark for counter-sniping.

Belgian arms manufacturer FN Herstal officially launched their Special Forces Combat Assault Rifle with NATO standard rifle calibers.

If bigger is better in your book, then Lockheed Martin’s THAAD ballistic missile defense system may be more your cup of tea.

And yes, there were other enormous boys’ toys to play with, including tanks. The Supacat HMT 4x4 Extenda cross country vehicle, with 50 already in service in Afghanistan, was unveiled for the first time outside of theater. The Swiss company MOWAG showed off its Piranha V, which the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense has selected for a series of upcoming contracts. Thales launched its Copperhead armored logistic support vehicle, and the largest manufacturer of armored vehicles in Turkey, Oktokar, brought two of the latest versions of its Cobra light vehicle.

But it wasn’t all tanks and machine guns: Attendees were also window shopping for advances in stretchers, earmuffs, night-vision goggles — even rapidly deploying camo toilets.

And while tools to recycle ammo and decontaminate equipment were on display, cutting-edge AI robots stole the spotlight from other battlefield machines.

For those in the market for an off-the-shelf air squadron, Eurosatory was the right place to go. Armscor was keen to offload South Africa’s 21 surplus Cheetah C fighters, which have a maximum speed of Mach 2.2.

Even bridges were on offer at Eurosatory. Military requirements in Afghanistan have led to advances in tactical bridging capacity, which can be used to bridge wet and dry gaps and may be ideal for disaster-relief operations.

Since buckling up is taken to a whole other level on the battle field, competition was fierce to win over customers in the car seat arena. Improvements to overcome specific threats from armor-piercing sniper fire to IED blasts are critical to drivers, commanders and turret gunners.

Selling points included reducing the initial blast and slam-down as well as ways to vent and deflect blast effects away from a vehicle’s body.


Last year at London’s biennial arms fair, China’s reps were kicked out for displaying instruments of torture. Their defense? The rules allowed the display of “clothing,” and they argued that leg irons fell comfortably within the garment category.

This year there was no such excitement — word on the street was everyone was playing cricket.

At the show, the latest generation of super-thin Kevlar proved very popular, though the “automated garment selection machine” wasn’t quite the belle of the ball. The Italians showed their sartorial flair, displaying the Arsenik sunglasses they developed in consultation with the Marine Corps.

Avon Protection, which produces breathing apparatuses, generated a lot of interest among military and police personnel with its newest respiratory mask. The mask would allow Special Forces to handle rapidly changing chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats without having to switch equipment.

So how does a purveyor of arms gain that market advantage in a sea of cutting-edge weaponry? Nearly nude women wearing little more than paint always draw huge crowds to booths, but this year, potential buyers had to make due with Angelina Jolie look-alikes in Lara Croft get-ups. Word on the arms floor was that Israel wheeled out the best eye candy this time round.

On Friday, the arms fair was opened up to the average punters, trainspotters and weapons enthusiasts. But if you didn’t manage to hop across the pond for a sneak peak at the latest in weapons, check out the next column for what’s hot.

Allison Barrie, a security and terrorism consultant with the Commission for National Security in the 21st Century, is FOX News' security columnist.