The skyline of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.

The skyline of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. Kamran Jebreili/AP

Defense One at IDEX: Western Military Leaders Seek Looser Arms Restrictions

At the world’s largest arms expo, defense leaders, military commanders and weapons makers want to make it easier to arm allies in the Middle East.

ABU DHABI – Tens of thousands of defense leaders, arms makers and contractors are descending on Abu Dhabi this week for the International Defence Exhibition and Conference, or IDEX, looking to ink lucrative weapons deals amid a new age of conflict and concern across the region. Before the exhibit space even opened for business, some Western leaders were calling for their own governments’ export controls to be eased so that Middle East allies like conference hosts United Arab Emirates could purchase the best and most lethal military technology available – including armed drones and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

It’s welcome news for defense firms, which have long been hoping that sales of armored vehicles, tanks, helicopters, fighter jets, drones and missile defense systems in the Middle East could offset slowing U.S. and European buys following more than decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

More than 80,000 attendees are expected to pass through 375,000 square feet of exhibits at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. On Saturday, workers were putting the finishing touches on the exhibits, painting tanks on the walls of the facility. While the exhibits don’t open until Sunday, a daylong defense conference filled with top-level speakers set the tone here on Saturday.

“We have an obligation to change and modify our export restrictions to countries like UAE,” said former Clinton administration Defense Secretary William Cohen. “[T]hat means the possibility of F-35 at some time in the future; it means the possibility of exporting [drone] technology that we have, because we know that UAE is in the forefront of this battle.” UAE flies more sophisticated F-16 fighter jets than the U.S. Air Force.

Changing export restrictions for close allies could increase weapons sales, experts say. Earlier this week, the Obama administration eased some drone export restrictions, but it’s unclear how it this will change the market.

Philip Dunne, British defense procurement chief, stressed the need for innovation and science-and-technology investments by governments. Dunne’s address hit many of the same points emphasized by U.S. deputy defense Secretary Robert Work in recent months, including “harnessing the power of big data analytics,” exploiting autonomy and robotics for future unmanned platforms and the use of intelligent networks. Like the U.S. the Brits are protecting their science-and-technology funding and investing in what Dunne called “game changing capabilities.” Along those lines, the U.K. defense ministry is researching technologies “that allow intelligent analysis of social media to help identify new threats as they emerge,” Dunne said.

Dunne also touted the British defense industry, of which 80 companies will be exhibiting at IDEX. “In the U.K. we’re encouraging our defense primes to open up their supply chains and encouraging non-U.K. domicile defense primes to look to the U.K. defense and security supply chain, which is the broadest and deepest aside the U.S.,” he said.

Dunne said he will announce “further air-to-ground strike capabilities” for the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jet at IDEX on Sunday.

Germany is expanding its military partnership with the Netherlands, and integrating units within both countries' armies, said Lt. Gen. Rainer Korff, deputy commander of the German Army. More partnerships like this between Germany and Poland, Austria and Switzerland are on the possible, Korff said.

IDEX continues through Thursday. 

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