You emerge from your small, back-alley hotel in the Latin Quarter of Paris doomed to a hot and frustrating day, although you don’t know it yet. The Latin Quarter is a lively college student neighborhood so named for the universities that used to only teach in Latin. The area is full of restaurants and brasseries and bistros and bars and young girls in light summer dresses, just your kind of place. But now you head for a nearby Metro stop, the Parisian subway with those marvelous Art Deco signs. On the way, you grab a quick espress, a condensed shot of coffee that seems to be the only thing that’s remotely affordable with the U.S. dollar pounded to nothing. Sight-seeing is free, however. You stroll past the cathedral of Notre Dame, daunting, gray and Gothic, and then you disappear down the subway steps, headed for Eurosatory. It’s the largest military exposition in Europe, second only in size to America’s AUSA show. But you won’t get there. The hot day of frustration begins.
The long distance RER trains are on strike today. The taxi drivers decided to show solidarity with their underground brothers so there’s no option of a cab out to the show, even if you could afford it. Buses don’t go that far and you figure they’re probably on strike too. It’s almost a summer tradition for the French transit system to strike. Even the ambulance drivers pitched in today and struck as well.
“Why? Because they are French. That is what they do— they strike,” explains your Parisian friend. “They want more money and less work.”
The French work week is already 35 hours, you point out, and public employees are given free health coverage, housing subsidies, college tuition, you name it. “That’s why I hate the French,” growls your friend, even though his grandfather was a French count and high ranking naval officer and he served in the equivalent of the French special forces as an artillery officer, “They are so… French.”
The next day your friend arrives with another buddy in his car and you drive to the Parc Des Expositions, site of the Eurosatory show. The show will draw some 50,000 visitors and exhibitors from all over the world. It is a predominantly land warfare exhibit, although there are a few naval and air products on display, mostly drones of various sorts. You’re there to check out the small arms, machineguns, assault rifles and whatever high tech new accessories or systems you can find.
As you walk into the show’s entrance hall, you blend into a crowd of colorfully uniformed military officers. You recognize the funny round hats with the little sharp brims that the French wear, a throw-back to a Napoleonic tradition no doubt, but there’s a good sprinkling of heavily gold laced hats on the heads of African, Latin American and Asian officers. It occurs to you that the smaller and less significant an army, the more ornate and pretentious the uniform.
Inside, the expansive show floor is divided into countries or regions. There’s the U.S. pavilion in the way back, next to the night vision demonstration area. The French defense contractors are of course given prime real estate at the front of the show. The Belgians are just behind, but that’s okay because Belgium has Fabrique Nationale and that’s a top stop on your list of booths to visit. You’re suspecting that there might be some new versions of the SCAR on display or maybe something interestingly belt-fed. (There wasn’t, although you had not seen SCAR’s 40mm grenade launcher before. It’s like an M203 but with a much more ergonomically placed trigger. You remind yourself that those Belgians really are pretty damn good gun designers. Probably learned it all from John Browning.)
You stop at the Sagem Defense booth, the first one you see as you enter, and you’re greeted by a soldier in full battle rattle with a French FAMAS bullpup fitted with a humongous green sight with a camera and other electronics built-in. It’s part of France’s FELIN “soldier modernization” program, an acronym for Fantassin à Équipement et Liaisons Intégrésas (Integrated Equipment and Communications Infantryman).
The Qioptiq sight proves to be the first of what will prove to be the show’s over-riding theme— turning the infantry solider into a combative cameraman with all sorts of high tech recorders, sights, sensors and transmitters. The FELIN soldier’s sight is massive, about the size of a shoe box, with two cables running to a remote battery pack and an LCD viewer the size of a 30-round M16 magazine in a fold-out mag pouch on the soldier’s FELIN version of a MOLLE plate carrier. The sight allows the soldier to switch between thermal, I-squared and daylight modes, all while recording or transmitting his sight’s image in real time. You think to yourself that no grunt is ever going to hump that thing into the mountains of Afghanistan or even down the street. Never mind the remote battery pack, cable or viewer.
You remind yourself that miniaturization is a wonderful thing and that the first combat radios were hauled on trucks. The Qioptiq sight will eventually get smaller. The idea of the solider-as-cameraman is catching on big time, you notice, as you see more and more sight-recorders. And not just for rifles either. A former Seattle cop turned entrepreneur named Tom Burns is there to show his new VieVu miniature lapel camera. For $699 it records four hours of a soldier’s or policeman’s activities onto a 4 gig flash memory.
There are cameras on guns, cameras on uniforms, cameras in the sky and cameras on the ground. Drones and robots are big hits at Eurosatory with a robot obstacle course set up. Several exhibitors were using tracked robots to hand out brochures and to shoo passers-by into their booths. Wall-E would be right at home.
You happen past the Taser booth and shake your head again at how dumb you were not to buy Taser stock when it was three cents a share. Their latest introduction is a flying dart that fires from a shotgun— without the little wires that are needed on the pistol version. But that’s not what catches your eye. A small helicopter-like device looking like a foot stool with a rotor at each leg, buzzes overhead guided by, what else?, a camera. The flying foot stool can fire one of the new Taser darts from above. You think of all sorts of fun uses for that baby (like that brat neighbor kid on his infernally loud motorized skateboard).
Other than cameras, the other hot category at the show is armor. Up-armored personnel carriers, off-road scouting vehicles, mine sweepers, trucks, tanks and even SUVs are replete with thicker and more resilient armor. You realize this is a direct result of terrorism’s newfound weapon, the IED.
You wander down to the U.S. pavilion and see several familiar faces and companies. SureFire is there with their new X400 handgun WeaponLight that incorporates a visible laser with a 5 watt LED. Trijicon is there with their new 6x “ACOG on steroids” made for crew-served weapons. Colt is there, but it’s not the Hartford Colt, it’s Colt Canada with a new iteration of the M4 with a fold-down front sight, redesigned quad rail forend and lollipop style rear sight. DuPont is there with a new type of Kevlar called Kevlar XP that promises to stop a handgun bullet in three layers, allowing the remaining layers to soak up blunt trauma.
As you head outside into the sunshine to see all the tracked and wheeled armor that was too big to fit into the exhibition hall, you hold your breath and move past a small army of French smokers just outside the door. France recently banned smoking in public places, including restaurants and bars. Even more amazing, the French are actually accepting the law.
The U.S. Army is there with an M1 Abrams main battle tank on display. There are Dutch tanks, German tanks, French tanks and English tanks. If armor is your thing, plan on Eurosatory in 2010.
Just outside the main entrance, a small throng of leftover hippies and greenies are gathered to protest the show. “Stop war, stop weapons, stop Bush” they chant. You make your way back inside the exhibition with renewed interest. The only thing better than a hall for a military hardware is a hall full of military hardware that’s sending the liberals into a tizzy.
For more information on Eurostatory, check out www.eurosatory.com