Australian government pushes weapon sales to the world

A Littoral Combat Ship being built at an Austal shipyard.
January 27, 2017

Most of the arms companies that made submissions to the Inquiry into Government Support for Australian Defence Industry Exports said government assistance in the promotion and facilitation of overseas arms sales should be increased.

Thales Australia and engineering company Supacat Australia said the Australian Military Sales Office (AMSO) should be a more commercially focused and “aggressive” organisation, with “annual sales targets and incentives”. Several companies said the use of Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel, defence attaches and government ministers in promotional activities should be increased.

Shipbuilding company Austal complained that while other countries use senior military officers to promote military exports, “regrettably defence exports are unlikely to be an objective for Australian senior military officers”. Supacat described serving “uniformed users” as the “most powerful sales agents” while Thales Australia said “there needs to be a significant increase” in the use of ADF personnel at arms fairs.

Indo Defence Exposition

The Department of Defence organises trade missions and delegations to arms fairs through Team Defence Australia (TDA). TDA delegations are “led by a senior Defence official or military specialist from Navy, Army, or Air Force”.

Arms fairs provide a showcase for arms manufacturers to spruik their lethal wares, often to representatives of states that are involved in armed conflict or internal repression.

TDA recently took 22 Australian companies to the 2016 Indo Defence Exposition in Jakarta, including Austal and weapon mount manufacturer W&E Platt. The pre-show brochure featured an endorsement by Indonesia’s Minister for Defence, Ryamizard Ryacudu, a hard-line former general who played a key role in the brutal repression of self-determination movements in Aceh and West Papua.

Delegations from 40 countries, including Myanmar and Saudi Arabia, were invited to Indo Defence, with 844 arms companies competing for their business. The star attraction was an actual-size model of a “tank boat”, a catamaran with a 105 mm gun designed to help the Indonesian military fight “riverine warfare”. Russia’s military export agency Rosonboronexport reportedly used the event to market cruise missiles that have been “battle tested” in the war in Syria.

Conflict and insecurity always help to drum up business for the arms trade. Ahead of Indo Defence, Reuters reported that “tensions in eastern Europe and Asia are reversing a post-Cold War slump in defence spending that until recently weighed on arms firms”. Reuters predicted aircraft manufacturers seeking to offset a downturn in the civil aviation market, such as Lockheed Martin, would flock to the arms fair, “just weeks after Indonesian jets staged exercises on the edge of a South China Sea area claimed by Beijing”.

Another drawcard was the dramatic increase in Indonesia’s military budget, up nearly 80% in the past four years. Meanwhile, the Indonesian military and police continue to be implicated in serious human rights abuses. Half a million people are estimated to have been killed during Indonesia’s ongoing 53-year occupation of West Papua, while thousands of others have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention.

Department of Defence export promotion

The use of military personnel to promote arms sales at such events is at odds with the ADF’s stated mission, which is to defend Australia and its national interests. Similarly, defence attaches are stationed in Australia’s diplomatic missions to promote its security interests abroad. These functions cannot be reconciled with a role promoting companies that depend on conflict and insecurity for their existence.

In addition to organising delegations to arms fairs and facilitating sales, the Department of Defence also arranges the “gifting or other transfer of surplus and obsolete Defence articles to foreign government partners under international arrangement” through AMSO.

In its submission, Austal highlighted Australia’s 2014 gift of two Bay class patrol boats to Sri Lanka, which the Abbott government hoped would be used to prevent vessels containing asylum seekers from leaving Sri Lankan waters. The gift was condemned by the Refugee Council of Australia, which said the government was turning a blind eye to Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses and helping to prevent genuine asylum seekers from fleeing persecution.

However, Austal, the company that builds the Bay class patrol boats, said it was “very encouraged” by the gift to Sri Lanka, and a later gift of two patrol boats to Malaysia, and recommended the government use such gifts to push for ongoing support contracts for Australian companies.

High-level sales support

Austal and several other companies also expressed a wish for more high-level political support for Australian arms sales overseas.

Austal complained that in Australia “industry has been left to its own devices and is often a low priority afterthought”, while in Europe and the US “political capital is often brought to bear in support of business”.

BAE Systems Australia said “most other nations use ministers and eminent personalities” to promote arms exports, citing fifth in line to the British throne, Prince Andrew, as an example.

Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has documented how the British royal family has been used to facilitate the sale of billions of pounds worth of arms to repressive states, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. CAAT says high-level promotion of such sales lends legitimacy to authoritarian governments and signals support for repression.

There is a clear risk that increased Australian government support for arms exports will facilitate human rights abuses overseas. Evidence suggests that Australia is already exporting to states with poor human rights records.

Defence Export Control office

The Defence Export Control office (DEC) is responsible for approving export licences for military and dual-use goods and is supposed to take into account the risk of goods being used to facilitate serious human rights abuses. DEC has not routinely published information regarding the licences it approves since 2004, but has occasionally provided information on request. Additional information about Australian arms exports can be gleaned from other sources.

Figures submitted to the Inquiry showed that the vast majority of applications for export licences are approved by DEC. In March 2016, DEC provided IHS Janes with figures that show military exports from Australia nearly doubled between 2013 and 2014 and increased by another 50% in 2015.

Australia exported $366 million worth of “defence” equipment to Malaysia in 2015, while the Malaysian government was engaged in a wave of repression.

Austrade’s website touts opportunities for companies wishing to export military and security products to the country, including the Malaysian government’s plan to spend $4.4 billion on patrol cars and motorcycles “for internal security and public safety”.

Responses by the Minister of Defence to Senate questions on notice in 2006, 2007 and 2010 listed Australia’s military exports to Indonesia, Israel, Papua New Guinea, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

In 2010, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam asked then-Minister of Defence John Faulkner why he had judged there was no risk that military items exported from Australia to Israel might be used in the commission of serious human rights abuses or might contribute to insecurity in the region.

Faulkner responded that no risk was identified because Israel is a “close ally of Australia”, suggesting that human rights violations are okay with the Australian government as long as they are carried out by an ally.

Ludlam also asked the minister whether drones (remotely-piloted aerial vehicles) Australia had exported to the US had been used in Afghanistan or Pakistan. The less than reassuring response was that “the exporter has advised” that they have not been used in either country.

Other exports to the US from Australia include combat ships, radar technology and military aircraft parts .

More than 1.3 million people have been killed and 5.5 million people have been displaced in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan as a direct or indirect consequence of the United States’ ongoing “war on terror”.

However, when it comes to military exports, the US is Australia’s biggest customer and Australia imports about 60% of its arms and arms-related products from the US. Given Australia’s continuing involvement in US-led wars and bipartisan support for our military alliance with the superpower, concerns over how Australian exports are used by US forces are unlikely to limit sales.

Most of the submissions to the Inquiry referred to DEC in a positive light. However, Lockheed Martin Australia said that one impediment to increasing overseas arms sales is “the bureaucratic and regulatory environment for defence exports [in Australia] is considered onerous”.

BAE Systems Australia appeared to suggest that governments should not be overly concerned about weapons exports being used in the commission of human rights abuses. Its submission noted that South Korea had grown its arms exports from US$250 million in 2006 to US2.6 billion in 2013 and commented: “South Korean foreign policy and its willingness to not interfere or comment on other state’s potential use of their defence equipment is also an advantage — this is often an impediment in more liberal democracies.”

[This is the second part of a three-part series on the Australian government’s support for the arms trade. The first part appears here.]

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