x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

May the force be with us at Idex 2013

Idex 2013 reveals the military vehicles that might have something we shall all want

A Mercedes-Benz Zetros 1833A. The high payload vehicle has been used by German forces in Afghanistan. Lee Hoagland / The National
A Mercedes-Benz Zetros 1833A. The high payload vehicle has been used by German forces in Afghanistan. Lee Hoagland / The National

Entering the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre isn't normally this complicated or time consuming. I'm expecting, after the almighty rigmarole that almost included having my DNA tested, to have my mind blown by what's inside and, what do you know, the first manufacturer I see as I join the throngs of attendees is none other than Kia.

Much farther along, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Renault and Land Rover are present, showing off some serious machinery, but this is no motor show. The Mercs (G-Class excepted) are gargantuan off-road vehicles and the paintwork would definitely not stand up to scrutiny under the glaring lights of the Geneva Auto Salon. There are runs everywhere, the occasional chip and plenty of visible welds. But none of that matters for the people these colossal trucks are catering for - far more important to be able to escape enemy fire or to serve the infantry on the front line.

This is Idex 2013, and any previous ideas I've held about war being big business have been summarily blown into the weeds. This is a trade show unlike any other I've attended and, to be honest, I'm feeling a little bit uncomfortable, walking past exhibitor stands that wouldn't look at all out of place in the more glamorous motor shows, were it not for the fact that they're displaying machine guns, missiles, ammunition, grenades and many other death-dealing gadgetry. When I see these things up close for the first time, the Hollywood treatment of war and police shoot-outs couldn't be further from my mind.

I'm surrounded by thousands of visitors, most of whom are here to check out the latest in military hardware, but my own interest is not in the cannons, tanks or bulletproof kanduras. I'm here to see what, if anything, used by the military worldwide, bears any resemblance to the vehicles we use in our own, more mundane lives.

Ignoring the Kia stand, I'm immediately distracted by the sight of what, for all intents and purposes, looks like a regular Toyota Land Cruiser. But it's not exactly regular and the man who approaches me to see why I'm curious, Oliver Gucia, of the German company Alpha Armouring, proceeds to talk me through the changes made to its physical make-up. "Bulletproof glass all round," he says, while gesturing for me to try swinging open the driver's door. As I open it, I can feel the extra weight courtesy of the glass and the steel plating housed within the door skin. But it's much easier than I expected.

Underneath the Land Cruiser, there is more steel plating to protect the occupants from landmines. Up front, on the bumper, there are a couple of outlets. "Tear gas," says Gucia. "We can also fit rocket launchers, guns, whatever the client demands we can do." When I enquire about the total weight of the vehicle after all these upgrades have been made, he draws his breath. "More than four metric tonnes. More than twice the original weight. Which is why we only use the most powerful engines, we change the suspension, the brakes, everything to make these cars as usable as possible."

Gucia also tells me that there is only a finite number of vehicles that can be given the Alpha treatment. "We have a range, but we can't do everything, because we test these vehicles to destruction, obviously, until we get it right. The sheer costs involved prohibit us from offering these facilities for too many cars."

Not too far away is the Land Rover stand. The company's Defender model is inextricably linked with the military, police and rescue services and it's proved its worth in countless situations. It's also a highly adaptable platform, as demonstrated by the two Defenders on display. Clive Macey is Jaguar Land Rover's contract manager for overseas operations and he shows me around.

"This one," he says as we walk around a sandy-coloured car, "was specified and built for the Jordanian army. It's basically a service vehicle for mechanics to carry out repairs on other vehicles. So there are specially designed tool boxes and trays, kit for welding, spare fuel carrying capacity and lots of different storage boxes."

The paint is quite fashionable these days, being a matt finish, but Macey says it's a special anti-infrared coating. Presumably, if it's dark and you can't remember where you parked it, those fancy night-vision goggles won't be of any use when trying to locate it.

Macey also says that, in general, the Defender models aren't made bulletproof. "The demand is there for Jaguar XJs and Range Rovers, which we cater for. But the Defender is the ultimate workhorse and isn't really used in that capacity. We can do it, though, but we're rarely asked about it." What, I enquire, will happen once the new Defender comes along? Will this iconic vehicle continue to be produced for the military, or will the funky replacement model be utilised in its place?

"This is a matter being discussed right now," he confides. "Obviously it will be a shame to say goodbye to the Defender as we know it, but I do know that this model will stay in production for another three or four years. We're seriously looking at our options, so it's too early to say what will happen."

Another stretch of the legs and I wind up looking at a battery-powered Hummer, of all things. Only, it isn't a Hummer in the traditional sense - rather, it is the vehicle that Hummer was going to build before the company shut its doors for good in 2010. "It's the vehicle that many people say could have saved the company," Dominic Jude tells me. Jude is one of the directors of Corsica Cars UAE, which is building these cool little electric vehicles under licence from GM, using the model name MEV Hummer HXT.

"We've just sold a number of these to a high-profile royal here," he says, "and we're expecting them to be popular as vehicles for transporting troops and other personnel around army bases and the like."

You can imagine, it's rugged looking enough to appeal to the military for use as a silent runabout, but it can also look cool when painted in bright colours and fitted with chunky tyres. "We have a few running around London at the moment," continues Jude, "fully road legal, and they're getting a lot of attention." I can believe it - it's a highly adaptable platform and it's fantastic to see that most macho of names attached to a car that won't attract the ire of the green brigade.

There are a number of other companies displaying bulletproof cars, but one in particular deserves our attention. Armor Global is an Omani company and its display Range Rover is its first foray into the world of occupant protection. What, I enquire, are the benefits of buying a car like this from a local outfit when Land Rover can build one from scratch to a customer's individual requirements? Ali Husein Alaidarus, from one of Armor Global's marketing team, reckons it comes down to that age-old matter of cost. "If you already have a vehicle like this, you can avoid paying huge taxes by having the conversion done here. We have the expertise and the ability to offer world-class protection, but at a much more sensible price scale. Simply because we are local."

It's nice to see regional businesses like Armor Global making a go of it, taking an idea and turning it into reality, and I sincerely hope the company enjoys enormous success. But every now and then, at trade shows such as this, there's an undiscovered diamond of an idea or a fledgling business that cannot help but grab you and fire your imagination. And, as I saunter from Armor Global's stand on my way out, I find it.

Firetrace Aerospace is a business we should be hearing a great deal of in the future. Not exclusively a military service, what the company offers could soon make the day-to-day journeys for all of us a great deal safer, and Dustin Moran, the company's vice president, is only too glad to explain what makes its product so important. But first, he whips out his iPad to show me some real-life footage of a serious car collision.

Two cars smash into each other, with one of the vehicles rupturing its fuel tank. As you might imagine, petrol escapes and hits the road surface and almost immediately ignites, with predictable results. But the somewhat inevitable inferno need not necessarily take place. Because, as his second clip shows, two vehicles can suffer the same sort of head-on collision without ending in a huge fireball, thanks to the fuel tank protection system being produced and marketed by Firetrace Aerospace.

Essentially a purpose-made carcass that envelopes a car's (or military vehicle's) fuel tank, it is filled with the powder you would normally find inside a fire extinguisher. In the event of a serious impact, its membrane ruptures when the fuel tank takes a hit, and this extinguishing powder spills forth before a fire has managed to break out. "It's designed to fail," says Moran.

What he means is that, as soon as a fuel tank is ruptured, the surrounding membrane and its contents have already disintegrated and been dispersed. "We started out fitting this to the US police Ford Interceptors," adds Moran, "and it really does save lives without adding complexity or much in the way of weight to a vehicle."

It appears to be such a simple life-saving device that it seems ludicrous that this isn't standard fit for all car manufacturers. "We're in discussions with a number of different automakers," says Moran, "to see if it's feasible to fit our protection system to production cars." The additional weight, he tells me, is usually less than 30 kilograms - neither here nor there in the big scheme of things - but the benefits of your car not bursting into flames as a result of a smash cannot be overstated. "We can cater for any car," Moran adds, "even when the fuel tank is awkwardly shaped."

According to a recent feature in Time magazine, the Pentagon is currently spending US$126 billion (Dh462.7 billion) on a missile defence system and the US Navy has committed $42 billion on three aircraft carriers alone. Clearly, then, warfare is a bloody business but a lucrative one, too, and it's at shows such as Idex that these deals often start gathering pace.

But among all the military hardware on display here, it's refreshing to come across an invention such as this lowly fuel tank protector, that's only designed to do one thing: save lives, rather than end them.

khackett@thenational.ae