Contrary to glossy advertisements, halting the arms trade would not be detrimental to the UK nor its various industries
If you travel through Westminster underground your senses are jarred by arresting advertisements for BAE Systems. Slogans are emblazoned against a union jack background: “Proud to support our armed forces”, “Investing in UK manufacturing”, and “Built by Inspiration”.
However, BAE Systems is much more than a UK manufacturer. It is one of the largest players in a globalised arms industry. While the UK government holds a “golden share” in BAE, this supposedly ‘British’ company states that it has not one but five home markets – Australia, India, Saudi Arabia, UK and USA. BAE has as many employees in the USA as it does in the UK. Like other global businesses, BAE manufactures, trades and services where it is most profitable.
The arms industry, (BAE in particular), tries to present itself as one of the few industries where the UK can compete internationally and as one which is vital to export performance. But what would be the result if the UK decided to end all arms exports?
Both the Committee for Arms Export Controls (CAEC) and the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) estimate UK arms exports are worth £5 billion a year. To put this in context, it amounts to around 1 per cent of UK exports. If the UK decided to stop exporting arms, it could develop other goods to export.
One of the most frequently used arguments against ending the arms trade is that the industry provides much needed jobs. While it does generate employment jobs, numbers have dropped substantially over the years. In 2010 alone, BAE axed over 9,000 jobs and many have gone since then. So it seems government and industry routinely exaggerate the numbers of jobs. The most quoted figure is 300,000 direct and indirect jobs. However, this figure is based on outdated data and includes large numbers of non-military and civil protection jobs. CAAT’s calculations, based on government data, are that there are 160,000 workers in the arms industry with a maximum of 55,000 in arms exports – just 0.2 per cent of all UK jobs.
Nor, as often asserted, are arms industry jobs focused in depressed areas. A 2013 mapping exercise by CAAT found companies making arms and components for arms in all regions of the UK. Many make a range of products. Some areas would be harder hit, notably those with BAE plants in north west England and Humberside, but focused government intervention could support the re-employment of these skilled workers into other industries, notably, the renewable energy sector.
Yet even if jobs are lost, is it not better that the UK stops exporting deadly arms across the world? Why should British jobs be held to be more important than the lives of people devastated by conflict or repressed by abusive governments equipped with British weaponry?
The government contends that supporting the UK arms industry ensures “security of supply” for the UK military and protects the realm. However, like other nations, the UK imports a large proportion of its weaponry. All significant Ministry of Defence purchases include hundreds or thousands of imported components and sub-systems. International businesses like BAE will not prioritise any one country’s armed forces over those of another on anything other than financial grounds.
In any case, as the government’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review pointed out, a conventional armed attack on the UK is very unlikely. Far more likely are cyber attacks or terrorist actions, neither of which are adequately met by conventional weapons or national security systems.
Since 2008, the UK has licensed over £18 billion worth of “military goods” for export, plus almost £30 billion worth of “dual-use” goods (i.e. goods that can be used for military and civilian use). The military goods ranged from small arms and ammunition to tanks, battle ships and fighter jets, as well as telecommunications and “information security”.
The largest market for arms is the Middle East and North Africa where licences worth £7.5 billion were approved over five and a half years (Jan 2008 – June 2013). The lion’s share went to Saudi Arabia, with Oman and the UAE as substantial customers. These are highly authoritarian states, with dreadful human rights records.
The UK government actively promotes arms exports. David Cameron, together with various ministers, has made a number of visits to the Middle East to promote these sales. The latest, largely unpublicised, trip was to the UAE, where he exhorted the BAE Eurofighter sales team to “go out and win”.
His efforts are backed by government mechanisms, primarily via UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO), the government’s arms sales unit. UKTI DSO employs 160 civil servants to promote sales of military and security equipment around the world. They arrange arms trade missions to “priority markets” like Saudi Arabia and Libya, and hold overseas exhibitions. They even provide military personnel to demonstrate equipment. And this is all paid for by UK taxpayers.
Does the arms trade aid UK security at home or abroad? Hardly. History shows that arming dictatorial regimes is not a wise move. The UK government should have learnt this from past errors, arming dictators in Argentina, Indonesia and Iraq. Today, the UK arms dictators in the Gulf States.
At present the government has shown no inclination to change its support for the arms industry. Just a week after the House of Commons voted against military intervention in Syria, the government hosted one of the world’s largest arms fairs, just a dozen miles downriver from parliament.
We need to expose the self-generated image of the arms companies, to see beyond the patriotic advertisements, the slick PR, the misuse of data and fallacious claims about employment and security. This is not a legitimate or ethical industry but a rapacious and destructive one.
Photo Credits: Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT)
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