Defense manufacturers from around the world hawked their wares in London on Tuesday, at a time when military budget cuts and the drawdown of operations in Afghanistan pose a challenge to the industry.
The Defense and Security International show _ sometimes billed as the world's largest arms fair _ took place as anti-arms activists demonstrated against the gathering, which included delegates from Arab countries accused of using force to clamp down on dissidents.
Britain's Defense Secretary Liam Fox acknowledged that times were tough both security-wise and economically.
"The pressure on the public purse means that now more than ever, value for money for the taxpayer must be demonstrable," Fox told attendees in a keynote speech at the exhibition.
Britain has the world's second-largest defense industry after the United States, generating more than 22 billion pounds ($35 billion) in sales in 2010, according to a survey published Monday by ADS, the trade organization advancing UK Aerospace, Defense, Security and Space industries.
Economic problems are weighing heavily on the U.K., where the government is cutting 80 billion pounds ($130 billion) in public spending over the next four years. But while the U.K. plans to slash military spending and troop numbers, it also is looking to the defense industry to help drive an economic recovery.
Increasingly, selling arms abroad is being pushed as a way out of the economic crisis _ a point Fox underscored.
"For too long export potential has been ignored when initiating projects for the U.K.'s own use _ that needs to change," he sad.
Many of the wares on display from the more than 1,200 exhibitors at London's Excel Center for the arms fair represented the culmination of design and capability borne out of Afghanistan _ lighter flak jackets, thermal surveillance equipment, light and maneuverable unmanned vehicles.
But many manufacturers are looking beyond Afghanistan now that military operations there are winding down _ some by simply rebranding their products or tweaking their sales pitch.
On the packed exhibition floor, a representative for France's Panhard boasted of the urban capabilities of the company's newest PVP armored personnel carrier. On display, it bore the markings "POLICE" _ to show that it is not just for military operations and can be of broader use.
Many exhibitors highlighted cyberwarfare and information security systems, a testament to the changing nature of war.
Cost effectiveness and long-term capabilities were a common refrain from defense manufacturers, as vendors took note of the challenges governments face as they try to maintain military capabilities while writing fewer checks.
A heavy police presence kept protests by anti-arms campaigners and human rights activists far from the docklands venue.
Activists angry about the presence of delegates from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia _ both accused of using U.K.-exported arms to suppress demonstrations _ protested outside Parliament in central London and plan to march on the conference center Wednesday.
Fox insisted Britain would not arm repressive regimes, reiterating that the U.K.'s export-licensing guidelines were among the toughest in the world.
"Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are mandatory considerations for all export license applications, which we consider on a case-by-case basis," he said.
"When conditions change we act swiftly to revoke licenses that do not meet our strict criteria _ just as we did earlier this year as the events in the Middle East and North Africa unfolded," Fox added, though he did not address the specific allegations involving Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Inside the conference center, the mood was light. At one stand boasting the latest in thermal night vision equipment, attendees tried out the wares.
"It's the 'hottest' story of the day," joked Thermoteknix managing director Richard S. Salisbury.
Elsewhere, military men in full uniformed regalia were ushered around the displays_ some clambering aboard the turrets of heavy armored vehicles, others stopping to drop bombs in precision-guided weapons simulations reminiscent of high-tech video games.
Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd