LONDON — London’s Excel Center found itself converted into a huge emergency hospital when the coronavirus pandemic struck last year. Thankfully, it wasn’t required. Now the halls, having reverted to an exhibition venue, prepare to host the DSEI 2021 show against a backdrop of new emergencies and challenges for the defense sector.
The four-day exhibition and conference, along with an associated virtual show called DSEI Connect, opens Sept. 14 in the shadow of a strategic shock to NATO countries and others caused by the U.S. exit from and subsequent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
How that plays out for foreign policy and defense cooperation in the Western alliance is too early to say, but the potential implications and lessons from the withdrawal are likely to generate plenty of discussions among industry executives and senior military officials attending the show in London’s dockland center.
Away from the international stage, there’s plenty to discuss at a more local level following the British government’s integrated defense and security review, published in March.
However, the show will likely be short on Defence Ministry proclamations. DSEI 2019 saw nearly 20 announcements emerge during the four days, but with the integrated review having sucked up some news only a few months ago, analysts are anticipating little more than a handful this time around.
Still, as attendees negotiate COVID-19 safety requirements at the show, they could see information emerge on programs treated in the review — for example, the planned procurement of a new ground-based air defense system, or the British Army’s ongoing travails over efforts to modernize its armored vehicle fleets.
Several of the Defence Ministry’s strategic developments are awaiting their unveiling: It was hoped a land strategy could be launched around the time of the show, but that now looks more likely to appear later in the fall.
There are better hopes for a long-awaited space defense strategy to finally emerge, but nothing is certain, according to analysts.
Overall, the show organizers have themed the exhibition to reflect the outcome of the wide-ranging integrated review now beginning to impact the structure and requirements of the British military.
“When people walk away from the show, they will definitely have got a vision of multidomain integration,” said retired Air Vice Marshal Gary Waterfall, the senior military adviser to DSEI. “The first keynote speech given by Gen. Sir Patrick Sanders, head of Strategic Command, will really set the tone.”
Waterfall said the growing importance of issues like data, artificial intelligence, space and energy sustainability will emerge from the show. “The chat will be very much focused on the integrated review implications, what it means and how everyone works better together,” he said.
John Louth, an independent defense analyst in Britain, said the U.S. administration’s actions and what they might mean for future military cooperation require a fresh look.
“If the British are being serious, then they have really got to open the integrated review and the industrial strategy again. Both are heavily predicated not just on U.S. technology and capability, but Washington being the principal partner we operate with,” he said. “Anybody who has half a brain has to think about hedging their bets on equipment collaboration. If you are in the U.K. government right now, you may want to start thinking more overtly about proper collaboration [with Europe].”
The rival future combat air programs led by Britain and France as well as the Eurotank project led by France and Germany could offer avenues for increased cooperation, the analyst said. Both topics are expected to feature prominently in discussions on the show floor and in officials’ speeches broadcast to live and virtual audiences.
The idea of reopening the integrated review was echoed by a retired senior British military commander as the exit from Afghanistan came to a close. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph on Aug. 25, the former deputy commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. James Bucknall, said Britain should revisit the introspection and reverse planned Army end strength cuts of 9,500 to just 72,500 troops.
“If the last few days in Afghanistan shows anything, it is that numbers count. Strategic patience is all — you must have the critical mass to sustain an operation. The defense review removes that capability,” he warned.
Former chief of the Defence Staff, Gen. David Richards, said the lesson to draw from Afghanistan was that Britain and its European NATO allies must spend more on defense, as they were “totally dependent” on the United States.
Meanwhile, the Defence Ministry is going “all in” on novel weapon systems, such as swarming drones, artificial intelligence systems, directed-energy weapons and hypersonic technology, said Dan Darling, a senior military markets analyst at U.S.-based analysis firm Forecast International.
There will also likely also be a focus at DSEI on unmanned and underwater defense capabilities in light of a joint U.K.-France effort on autonomous mining systems, and with Belgium and the Netherlands partnering on a new mine countermeasure ship that includes unmanned surface and underwater vessels, he noted. “This appears to be an area of growth for Europe,” Darling said.
Vivienne Machi in Stuttgart, Germany, contributed to this report.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.