Arms industry: the tail wagging the dog

February 22, 2022
Activists ran a successful campaign to shut down Elbit Ferranti factory in Oldham, Greater Manchester. Photo: Palestine Action

War would be in no one’s interests. How often have we heard that in the current Ukraine crisis? But there is one obvious exception. “Defence industries” are perennial winners in such situations and, whatever the outcome of the standoff involving thousands of Russian troops at the border, arms dealers will be circling for opportunities to profit.

Stability is no good, from their perspective, if it engenders too great a sense of security. “Actual shooting wars are needed” from time to time, as Ismael Hossein-Zadeh put it, “not only to draw down stockpiles … but also to display the wonders of what they produce".

Being able to stamp the brochure for a new weapons’ system with the words “battle-tested” is the ultimate marketing ploy. In between open hostilities, however, a period of raised tensions will do nicely.

As Europe in the 1990s enjoyed the benefits of a peace dividend after the fall of the Soviet Union, United States arms manufacturers set to work, pushing for NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe, thus reneging on promises to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev by a parade of Western leaders — François Mitterrand, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and even then-US Secretary of State James Baker — that the alliance would not grow in the direction of Russia’s borders.

Under heavy lobbying pressure, the US Congress in 1996 agreed to establish a multi-billion-dollar fund to allow the Pentagon — the taxpayer — to guarantee loans for “defence” exports to enable cash-strapped new members Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to bring their militaries up to standard.

So the main source of grievance outlined in President Vladimir Putin’s demands to NATO came about as the result of a campaign of sabotage against a carefully conceived program of statecraft to ensure peaceful relations in post-Cold War Europe. Surely this is an example of what former US President Eisenhower, in his famous valedictory address to the American people on leaving the Oval Office in 1961, called “unwarranted influence” by the “military-industrial complex”.

As it prepared to open its doors to former Warsaw Pact countries, NATO changed its rules to allow military action on the territory of a non-member to engage in “Operation Allied Force” — the 1999 bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia over its attempts to suppress claims for independence by the Albanian-speaking population of Kosovo.

Changing international borders by the use of force was another precedent duly noted in Moscow, and played in aid of its own interventions in portions of Georgia and now, of course, Ukraine.

newly-published report by the Australian Democracy Network identifies today’s exertions of unwarranted military-industrial influence as an example of “state capture”. It looked in detail at a $1.3 billion contract for armoured vehicles from Thales Australia — a local subsidiary of the French manufacturer — which the country did not need and, even if it had, could have been procured at much lower cost elsewhere. A federal audit office report was suppressed and the company even went to court in a failed bid to stop the truth coming out.

Confronting State Capture outlines how networks of corporate think tanks influence media reporting to promote overblown risk assessments and convince the public they are living in a much more dangerous world than is, in fact, the case. Australia, with its trade and cultural links to China, has every interest in developing friendly relations with Beijing, for instance, but one of these think-tanks in particular, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has for years promoted a “China threat thesis” that serves the interests of its funders in the arms industry.

The switch was flicked on the Thales contract by the current Coalition government, but development work had continued with equal dispatch under its Labor predecessor. Indeed, when that government took office in 2007, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd commissioned an inquiry into Australia’s defence needs, chaired by former New South Wales Senator Stephen Loosley — who had, months previously, joined the advisory board of Thales Australia.

Neither party wants to expose itself to charges of being soft on security, or indeed negligent in bringing jobs. The traction enjoyed by arms industry lobbying has only increased as manufacturing in other sectors has continued to recede — so careers requiring high levels of training and technical skills, in occupations that add value and therefore command high salaries, are at a premium.

A recent edition of the Illawarra Mercury, serving a section of rural and coastal New South Wales that is also a key political battleground in the forthcoming federal election, noted: “The Australian government is going through the largest defence acquisition cycle in living memory.” David Bridge, who chairs the Illawarra Innovative Industry Network, told Mercury: “Defence is really an untapped opportunity for the Illawarra, because there is a tremendous amount of money to be spent with new equipment, systems, plant, resourcing.” Woe betide the MP, or candidate, who is seen to welcome that prospect less warmly than their rivals.

Amid this gloom, there are two chinks of light: one recent and the other from nearly half a century ago. This year, the campaign to close down the plant operated by the Israeli arms dealer, Elbit Systems, in the northern England town of Oldham, finally succeeded. Activists for Palestine braved all the hazards of protest criminalisation in neoliberal states such as Britain, keen to promote profit over notional political freedoms. They endured repeated arrests to occupy the factory entrance, smash windows, chain themselves to the premises and spray blood-red paint on factory walls. The group said its repeated occupation of the site has cost Elbit “millions” and forced the “factory closure”.

So some other principle can, at the expense of considerable courage and sustained pressure by a social movement, be inserted ahead of profit. In this case, the responsibility on states that claim to be law-abiding, not to collude in Israeli war crimes.

A more profound and far-reaching challenge can still be glimpsed in the 1970s proposal from workers at Britain’s Lucas Aerospace to “beat swords into ploughshares” by repurposing plant, machinery and workforce from military to civilian applications instead. In fact, as one veteran of the plan noted, some of the technological innovations proposed as new lines by a “Combine” of trade union shop stewards from all 15 of the company’s plants, such as hybrid power packs for motor vehicles and wind turbines, have since become familiar.

But the initiative failed, he reflected, because: “While individual Trade Unions and the Labour Government supported Combine’s plan in principle, there were neither the structures in place, nor the political will, to put pressure on Lucas Aerospace management to negotiate with the Combine to implement the plan. An opportunity was lost to make a company receiving public money accountable to the community … Like other UK-based manufacturing companies, Lucas Aerospace was a victim of poor, unaccountable management, and a sad lack of successive governments’ industrial strategy.”

That is indeed the challenge.

In his writings on power, Michel Foucault teased us: “If it never did anything but say no, do you really believe that we should manage to obey it?” Militarism is a menace in efforts to build a more peaceful world system and it is propelled by the gravitational force, which distorts political and media responses, of the military-industrial complex.

To oppose it entails having something else to propose and put in its place as a source of security and prosperity. That will require governments to rouse themselves to reset relations between capital, labour and broader society.

[Jake Lynch is based at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies of the University of Sydney. He served for two years as Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association. Lynch is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and advisor for TRANSCEND Media Service. He is the co-author, with Annabel McGoldrick, of Peace Journalism (Hawthorn Press, 2005), and Debates in Peace Journalism, Sydney University Press and TRANSCEND University Press. He also co-authored with Johan Galtung and Annabel McGoldrick, Reporting Conflict: An Introduction to Peace Journalism, which TMS editor Antonio C. S. Rosa translated to Portuguese. His most recent book of scholarly research is A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict (Taylor & Francis, 2014). This article was first published at Transcend Media.]

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