British commandos with automatic rifles peer from foxholes. Behind them, Scorpion tanks lumber onto a ridge, where Rapier antiaircraft missiles scan the sky. A Lynx helicopter hovers above, spotting enemy positions.
The scene could have been from the Falkland Islands war. Instead, it was staged 120 miles southwest of London in the rolling hills of the English countryside, where prospective buyers from 100 countries could view a demonstration of the weapons that won the South Atlantic conflict.
The biannual weaponry show, staged jointly by the government and Britain's influential arms industry, was planned months before the Falklands conflict ignited. But defense officials concede that the war has triggered a significant increase in interest in British arms. They are stressing the Falklands connection in hopes of boosting Britain's share of the world arms market as a lucrative spinoff of the war.
Defense Secretary John Nott opened the week-long exhibition yesterday by invoking the Falklands triumph and giving some of the credit to British-built weapons.
"I believe the history of the Falklands campaign will show it to be one of the most remarkable military achievements this century," Nott said, adding that the low casualty rate of British soldiers was "a tribute not only to them but also to their equipment."
Prospective buyers have been intrigued. Defense officials say the most interest has been in equipment made famous in the Falklands, from Arctic clothing and footwear, to the Scorpions, which crossed the bogs of East Falkland Island in a few days, to the Rapiers, credited with shooting down dozens of Argentine Mirage and Skyhawk warplanes.
"It's only human nature that they want to see the stuff they've read about," said Jeremy Baldwin, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense. "There's undoubtedly an increase in interest, but whether they'll buy remains to be seen."
Britain currently is the West's third-ranking arms exporter, behind the United States and France. The British sold $2.5 billion last year to 90 countries, and this week's exhibit at the village of Aldershot of booths from nearly 300 British arms makers is designed to help increase that figure.
The British will not discuss the countries to which they sell, but officials concede that Argentina was a long-time customer, a situation that produced some bitter ironies for British forces on the Falklands. British warships were bombed by British-built Canberra bombers dropping bombs also made in England. The first Harrier shot down over Stanley, the capital of the Falklands, was destroyed by a British-made Tigercat missile. Type-42 destroyers manufactured by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd, were a major component of the Argentine fleet.
The irony has not been lost on opposition members of Parliament. Labor Party leader Michael Foot repeatedly has denounced what he calls the "absolute obscenity" of selling arms to Argentina and other Third World dictatorships. Liberal Party leader David Steel has called for a parliamentary inquiry into arms sales, with an eye toward a possible ban.
None of this has deterred the government. Nott, a former officer with the Gurkhas who posed wielding a light machine gun for photographers yesterday, said Britain has to seek foreign sales because the demand from its own armed services is not adequate to support the nation's extensive defense industry.
Former brigadier Dick Purvis, director general of the Defense Manufacturers Association, a trade group of more than 300 companies, put the issue in a different perspective.
"We don't live in a perfect world, unfortunately," he told the Observer newspaper. "I am afraid that if we do not sell overseas, then someone else will."
The exhibition at Aldershot is closed to the public. Defense officials say the restriction is designed to protect foreign arms customers from unwanted publicity or the embarrassment of having their neighbors discover they are shopping for arms.
There are reported to be dozens of African and Asian countries here, as well as Britain's European allies. Despite frosty relations over the Falklands, several Latin American nations are here as well, including Brazil, which reportedly is considering the Rapiers.
No sales are allowed at the hall, but Barclay's Bank has its own booth, at which governments can discuss loan terms and credit arrangements.
The press was invited to today's demonstration of mobility and firepower, conducted near this country village just a few miles from the English Channel. Hundreds of prospective customers jammed three reviewing stands and afterward examined the equipment.
In the morning, battlefield conditions were simulated on hilly and muddy terrain, traversed by a large array of armored vehicles.
The afternoon was devoted to a display of firepower from the entire armored fleet but starring the same light artillery used to pound Argentine positions at Goose Green and Stanley.
At one point, 30 white barrels were set up to simulate an attacking ground force. Two Chieftain tanks fired antipersonnel canisters at the barrels, all of which were neatly punctured. Red paint, used to simulate blood, poured from each barrel.
"I think you'll agree that the effect is impressive," said the show's announcer. There was polite applause from the audience.