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Canada's aerospace tradeshow goes continental: Airshow Canada/Aerospace North America.

It is increasingly clear that two major recent events-the end of the Cold War and the 1991 Persian Gulf War-played a large role not only in helping transform the Canadian and international arms industry, but also in drastically enlarging the aerospace tradeshow landscape. The end of the Cold War ushered in an era of declining military procurement in the arms industry's traditional First World markets, leaving the industry scrambling to find new customers in what was already an intensely competitive global market. Much of this post-Cold War competition for arms sales has focused on the Asia-Pacific region, where unresolved tensions, lack of effective security institutions, and, until recently, booming economies have combined to keep arms imports almost at their Cold War level (and increasing them in terms of percentage of the global market). (1)

The Persian Gulf War also had a major effect on the international arms trade, showing the world the vast supremacy of high-tech air warfare over its ground war counterpart. A lot of countries watched their most advanced military equipment become obsolete during the Gulf War, and many concluded that new equipment was needed or, if they couldn't afford new, that old equipment needed to be upgraded.

Fuelled by this demand for higher tech aerospace hardware and intensified competition for sales, an aerospace tradeshow "phenomenon" has swept through the world in the 1990s. Only ten years ago there was little activity surrounding aerospace tradeshows that was not related to the world's two oldest and largest air/trade shows-the Paris Airshow and Farnborough (in London). During the late 1980s and early 1990s dozens of air and trade shows suddenly sprang into being as manufacturers of military and civilian aerospace products worldwide fought for market share; Airshow China, Airshow Indonesia, DefenseAsia, ILA-Berlin, TATE (Taiwan Aerospace Technology Exhibition), FIDAE (Chile), the Tokyo Aerospace Air and Tradeshow, LIMA, and Singapore's Asian Aerospace are a few examples of the many shows now in existence. Many other countries, like Russia, have announced that they soon will be opening an aerospace tradeshow or, like South Africa, India, and South Korea, are just beginning to advertise their recent entry into the business.

Airshow Canada, the biennial aerospace tradeshow adjunct to the Abbotsford International Airshow, is a clear example of this aerospace tradeshow phenomenon. Since its birth in 1989, Airshow Canada has viewed itself as a gateway to a "new" kind of aerospace industry-one focused almost exclusively on the vast emerging markets of the lesser developed nations (particularly the Asia Pacific region) and one driven more by exports than by domestic sales. As Airshow Canada stated during its second show in 1991, "Airshow Canada has achieved its objective of creating a sustaining, world-class event ... by taking full advantage of its location as the Doorway to the Pacific Rim" and by "attracting aerospace procurement personnel from developing countries to meet Canadian aerospace companies [with the] intent of creating business and joint ventures between Canada and the developing countries." (2) For each of the past three shows, more than 100 Chinese delegates have been received by Airshow Canada, and over the same period CIDA has paid for approximately 240 delegates from the lesser industrialized or Third World to attend the tradeshow.

This stands in contrast with the Paris and Farnborough Airshows, both of which continue to address a primarily domestic and First World market (although they too are slowly embracing the new "export driven" hallmark of the post-Cold War era). Airshow Canada's success is deeply grounded in its ability to develop a niche distinctly different from these two airshow giants. "We are building," said Airshow Canada President Ron Price in 1991, "an important bridge between the aerospace markets of Europe, Asia, and North America." It is ownership of this "bridge" that Airshow Canada has prized above all else. While the Paris and Farnborough airshows fought for bragging rights in Europe, and while Singapore, Thailand, China, and many others competed for the same rights in Asia, Airshow Canada has sought to place itself as the premiere presence in North America, a bridge between old markets and new, between the past and the future.

Aerospace North America

Never was this more evident than at Airshow Canada '97. The tradeshow was back again this past August, taking every possible media opportunity to attach to its name the more prestigious title Aerospace North America. The 1997 show revealed, perhaps above all else, that this is a title few today can dispute. While the pure "numbers" of the last three shows have remained relatively constant-approximately 500 exhibitors at each show, at least 100 of which represented the interests of firms involved in the arms business in a major way (3) -it is the qualitative dimension of the tradeshow (the ability to penetrate every segment of the aerospace industry from East to West, to attract very high profile people and organizations from both regions, and to provide participants with correspondingly high profile conferences and seminars) that has really flourished. As Airshow Canada spokesperson Patrick Reid commented last August, "the exhibits have become better, there are more professional visitors, and there is a sense of maturity that we haven't seen before."

What Reid didn't say is that, while much of what goes on at Airshow Canada involves promotion of the commercial aspects of the aerospace industry, the greatest beneficiary of this so-called "maturity," at least since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, has been the military element of the tradeshow. An Airshow Canada publication focusing on the 1991 show highlighted this when it states that "although Airshow Canada likes to present the image of a commercial-rather than military-show, it was impossible to avoid the echoes of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. ... the F-117 [stealth fighter] was a star of the flightline and, inside, Hughes Aircraft Co.'s large exhibit was dominated by an enormous screen that projected videos of smart bombs devastating Iraqi targets." (4) A total of 48 major Canadian military corporations exhibited at the 1997 show. Bristol Aerospace of Winnipeg extolled the virtues of its CRV-7 rocket system, already sold to such nations as Oman, Thailand, and Singapore. Other major international aerospace arms manufacturers included the likes of British Aerospace (the #1 exporter of arms to the world), France's Aerospatiale (the largest missile manufacturer in the world), Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and Sikorsky. New to the 1997 show was a vast, almost exclusively weapons-oriented exhibition put up by the Czech Republic's Omnipol, a corporation that openly describes itself as maintaining "a long and noted tradition in the weapons industry." In fact, while the number of exhibitors has remained relatively constant throughout the three shows since the Gulf War (1993, 1995, 1997), the percentage of corporate military exhibitors compared to corporate civilian exhibitors has shown considerable growth. (5)

The support Airshow Canada and the US and Canadian governments provided military manufacturers and buyers in terms of symposiums and conferences was also notably larger in 1997. The Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) maintained a large booth of its own, contributed substantially to a large exhibition on NATO Flight Training in Canada, and was very involved in four separate symposiums (see below). In fact one of the most media-hyped visits was the first ever tour of the exhibition by a Canadian Minister of National Defence, Art Eggleton. As Ken Epps has pointed out, military product marketing has become an important role for the Department of National Defence as it tries to sustain domestic military manufacturing by aggressively seeking out new export markets. (6)

The US government's involvement in the 1997 show is even more reflective of the show's new status as "the" North American showcase and its corresponding inclination towards military trade. In previous years, the US government did not want to admit that Airshow Canada had succeeded in supplanting US shows (primarily the US Air and Trade Show held in Dayton); it remained officially absent from 1989 to 1995. In 1997, however, it officially sanctioned the show, and did so in a big way, sending US Secretary of Commerce William F. Daley as well as the single largest exhibition at the tradeshow-actually four separate but attached exhibitions put on by the four branches of the US military-complete with video presentations of actual bombings and missile attacks choreographed to Top Gun-like tunes.

Many of the other more "professional" visitors, as Reid put it, included people like Chilean Navy Rear Admiral Felipe Howard (still under the command of the brutal ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet); Captain Mariano, the Chief of Armaments for the Chilean Navy; Major General Yoram Yair, Defence and Armed Forces Attache, Embassy of Israel; US Admiral Joseph Prueher, Commander in Chief, US Pacific Command; Al Volkman, the Principal Director for Armaments Cooperation, US Department of Defense; and dozens of high-ranking officials from Peru, India, Indonesia, China, Colombia, and elsewhere.

Unlike previous years, when the media were told that there was next to no military trade at the event, organizers of the 1997 show no longer attempted to deny that "defence" was one of the tradeshow's "main focal points" (although they still tried to downplay it to the media). If the show was to be taken seriously by the US, if it was to hold onto the status the international community appeared to be offering it, military business would not only have to be "tolerated" but actually encouraged. Thus, when questioned about the military activity at the 1997 show by Vancouver Sun reporters, Airshow Canada spokesperson John Burley argued that "of course some military deals will be struck ... There is a big military component to Airshow Canada ... It is an essential part of the aerospace industry." (7)

And, of course, Burley was right. Deals were made, and have been made in the past. During the 1995 show, for example, the Canadian government made a serious attempt to sell some or all of the surplus CF-5s it has for sale. Ten months after the show, Canada sold 13 of these used fighters to Botswana in a deal that made the headlines of the Botswana Guardian but was not even announced to the Canadian public. This year, one sale that was announced publicly was a $20 million dollar contract received by Kelowna Flightcraft Ltd. to refit or "modernize" the Bolivian Air Force's jet trainers. Many others jockeyed for the right to build Canada's new military helicopter fleet, a contract announcement expected shortly.

Making contacts

But sales, although welcomed by those involved, are hardly the stuff of these rather secretive affairs. As David Ong of the Malaysian Business Times recently said, "although the international airshow is an exclusive world of champagne and expensive aircraft, you don't often sell airplanes; what it does is give the industry a chance to all come together under one roof." (8) The main intent, in other words, is to make contacts in foreign military communities, develop business relationships, see what the competition is up to, and attend seminars and conferences that advance these objectives. A few of us were able to get a glimpse into this semi-secret world as we managed to get press passes into both Airshow Canada and by far the most high-profile of the six military conferences put on by Airshow Canada, the ComDef '97 Asia-Pacific Conference held at Vancouver's Coast Plaza Hotel. Not surprisingly, ComDef '97 was what its own promotional material describes: a conference for "CEOs looking to meet government and military leaders, military leaders looking to fund their programs with international cooperation, and government officials responsible for international defence."

What was surprising was the frankness of the discussions-the way India stated that its nuclear policy regarding China was to maintain the ability to "at least give China a bloody nose," the way Russia talked openly and aggressively about increasing its already vast military trade, and the way Canadian officials like Asia-Pacific Secretary of State Raymond Chan (and others) openly applauded the proceedings. (When we questioned Chan about human rights and his involvement here, he offered the same platitude that we have been hearing for years now: that trade, in and of itself, promotes democracy and human rights.) Session titles for the 1997 show included:

* Cooperation in Armaments Development (hosted by Joel Johnson, Vice-President, International, of the Aerospace Industries Association);

* Information Warfare (hosted by retired US Navy Captain John Parrish, now with Lockheed-Martin);

* Upgrades, Retrofit and Modernization (hosted by Rangesh Kasturi of CAE Electronics);

* Russia's Weapons Transfers to the Pacific Region (hosted by Dr. Igor Khripunov); and

* Perspectives on Asia-Pacific Defence.

It was the arms trade in full regalia, no holds barred, a frightening reminder that the world is anything but a safer (or more just) place since the "new world order" began. But ComDef, as mentioned earlier, was only one part of the military events at Airshow Canada '97. Others included:

* The Pacific Area Senior Officers Logistics Seminar: More than 140 officers from 30 Pacific Rim nations (including China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Brunei) attended this event, which was jointly hosted by Canada's DND and the Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Command;

* The North American Technology and Industrial Base Organization: Delegates from the US DOD, the US armed forces, and Canada's DND participated in this session on how best to support the private sector for military purposes;

* SICOFAA (the "System of Cooperation among the American Air Forces," the military wing of the Organization of American States): This session was attended by senior officers from the air forces of all North, Central, and South American countries, most of whom had "procurement responsibilities"; and

* Defence Attaches: DND arranged visits to the tradeshow for foreign air attaches accredited to Ottawa to foster trade development and business networking opportunities. Military representatives from Ottawa and Washington met to discuss military business opportunities with representatives of Peru, Mexico, Chile, Thailand, Malaysia, India, and others.


Airshow Canada, one of the newer players in the now vast aerospace tradeshow landscape, was "blessed" in August 1997 as the official aerospace tradeshow of North America, the single most important aerospace bridge between Europe and Asia on the continent. And it has accomplished this primarily because of its ardent and relentless "post-Cold War" attitude-where international trade has become the panacea for all ills (including the most severe human rights abuses) and where military exports to lesser industrialized regions are sought in order to maintain the bloated military corporate world of the Cold War era. Unless a concentrated national campaign is brought to bear on our governments and Airshow Canada organizers, the manner in which Canadian politicians insist on courting "globalization" and the commercialization of the arms industry suggests that it will remain this way for quite some time.

Public opposition mounts

Project Censored Canada ranked the military activities at Airshow Canada the eighth most under-reported news story of 1995.

They would be hard pressed to do the same for 1997. Media attention, fueled by a tremendous collective showing of public opposition to the show, was everywhere. Concerned citizens called for community support for a civilian-only airshow, withdrawal of ComDef's city permit, and an end to the BC government's financial support of Airshow Canada. In Vancouver, End the Arms Race organized a press conference and a 3-day vigil/demonstration in front of the Coast Plaza Hotel (where the ComDef '97 conference was taking place). Doctors, politicians (including Svend Robinson and Libbie Davies), veterans, educators, the young and the elderly, all took part. A BC-wide letter writing group - 20/20 vision-adopted the military activities at the Abbotsford Air and Trade Show as one of its monthly issues and wrote letters to the BC provincial government asking it to withdraw its financial support and boycott this year's show. The Fraser Valley chapter of Project Ploughshares once again staged the annual Fraser Valley Arts & Peace Festival, a three day long "airshow alternative" festival that began in 1992. The Ploughshares group also continued its leafleting tradition, working this time with the Vancouver Island Network for Disarmament to distribute 12,000 pamphlets to airshow attendees. Finally, Project Ploughshares Fraser Valley, End the Arms Race, and Vancouver's Working TV co-operated to produce a 20-minute introductory video about the show (Bombs Away: Airshow Canada, Globalization, and the New International Arms Trade), completing it this November. The video premiered on November 20th at the APEC People's Summit at Vancouver's Plaza of Nations. (Bombs Away is available for purchase for $20. Contact David Thiessen, #31-3120 Trethwey St., Abbotsford, BC, V2T 4H2, phone: 604 850-1462, e-mail:

The next step-without which little will change-is to go national with our campaign. Keep your ears open.

David Thiessen is a member of Project Ploughshares Fraser Valley who has spent several years researching the Abbotsford International Airshow and Airshow Canada.

(1) See Ken Epps, "Feeding the Tigers: Canadian Military Sales in Asia," Ploughshares Monitor, June 1996.

(2) Airshow Canada, Brief to the Province of British Columbia, 1993

(3) These are conservative figures, thus the phrase "at least." It is impossible to produce exact numbers since each year more and more firms are exhibiting their products under the banner of the aerospace association of which they are members. For example, while many British manufacturers did have their own booths at Airshow Canada, hundreds of others chose to save money by jointly plugging into one large "British Aerospace Association" exhibition booth, a booth providing materials on behalf of all the companies in the association, but which is counted as one military manufacturer. The same is true for many other nations; the Japanese, Chinese, US, and Ontario Aerospace Associations, among many others, each maintained their own exhibition booth and were counted as only one military manufacturer.

(4) Airshow Canada, Aerogram: 91 Review/93 Launch, p.14.

(5) In 1993 and 1995 about 465 of the 500 exhibits were corporate exhibition booths. The 1997 show saw quite a decline in the number of corporate exhibition booths (to about 360 of 500), but the number of these that were related to military manufacturing and trade remained virtually the same as in previous years (about 100)-meaning the percentage of military related corporations exhibiting at Airshow Canada has increased.

(6) "Feeding the Tigers: Canadian military sales in Asia."

(7) Brian Morton, "Airshow Trade Forum Touted," Vancouver Sun, August 1, 1997.

(8) David Ong, Malaysian Business Times, February 26, 1996, p.1.
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Author:Thiessen, David
Publication:Ploughshares Monitor
Date:Dec 1, 1997
Previous Article:Politics of small arms.
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