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Confronting Britain's military-industrial complex

The "special relationship" between the defence establishment and private arms companies is not an election issue. We need to make it one.

Harry Blain
1 May 2015
BAE flyover

A flyover of BAE Hawk fighter aircraft. Flickr/PJR. Some rights reserved.After killing fourteen unarmed civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in September 2007, four ex-Blackwater security guards were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on April 13: one to a life sentence, the other three thirty years. The Nisour Square massacre was one of a long list of scandals involving private contractors in Iraq, unique in the sense that there has been some semblance of accountability and legal process. Blackwater – since re-branded as Academi – has been seen by many as the ultimate expression of the blurred lines between war and profiteering; of the excesses of American military power; and the “military-industrial complex” which Dwight Eisenhower famously warned against when departing office in 1960.

In Britain, while we tend to accept our role as the junior partner in the “special relationship” with the United States, we frame ourselves as a more mature, less “cowboy-like” international power. In Iraq, for example, “the British model of counter-insurgency” – allegedly tried and tested in Northern Ireland – was frequently held up as “best practice”. A 2007 conference at the Royal United Services Institute – “‘Hearts and Minds’: British Counter-Insurgency from Malaya to Iraq” – was attended by academics and generals, where it was argued that “in Iraq the British Army has used ‘minimum force’ and operated among the people rather than in armoured vehicles, from direct experience of urban warfare in Northern Ireland.”

Many of us who are familiar with the history of British conduct in Northern Ireland or Iraq would no doubt question this assessment (neither this, nor this seem to fit the category of “minimum force”), but the promotional image is clear: Britain can bring its experience and wisdom to complex conflicts, providing a useful professionalism often lacking in its younger, richer and more powerful partner.

This image has undoubtedly been accepted by many intellectual authorities in the United States, who have sought to apply the lessons learned by Britain. And we, too, seem to accept large parts of this narrative: we are, in the oft-quoted phrase coined by Douglas Hurd, “punching above our weight”, a declining but still useful world power, without the baggage of countless military bases worldwide or an enormous arms industry embedded in the defence establishment.

Privatising defence

But in many ways, we aren’t too different from the United States. Although it has become commonplace for retired UK military personnel to bemoan the reduction of defence spending in Britain, it is worth remembering that we are still the world’s sixth-largest military spender, with an annual budget of around £37 billion. We are also one of the world’s leading arms exporters (and not particularly concerned with how our equipment is used), and our political leaders are far from squeamish about using military force when they deem it necessary – even if a million people march against it. In this sense, for a small island nation facing no immediate conventional threats, we are indeed “punching above our weight.”

And, though our defence budget is miniscule compared to the US, a more forensic assessment reveals a number of important similarities.

While, according to available figures, 5% of the German defence budget is spent on private services, the figure is closer to 25% in the UK and 30% in the US (see page 125 of this article). As Professor Elke Krahmann documents, the extent of private involvement in British defence is widespread: all three UK naval bases are operated by private contractors; multiple training programs have been outsourced; and after the introduction of “public-private” competition under John Major’s government, the “public-private partnership” became the preferred choice under New Labour. “The ideal”, she writes, “has been to convert the state from a provider to a manager of defence” – a trend that shows no sign of receding.

Private control can be instinctively concerning: for instance, the fact that “Britain no longer has any stake in the production of its nuclear warheads after the government secretly sold off its shares in the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston” in 2008. Then there are the scandals that we’ve come to associate with privatisation and outsourcing (particularly familiar to readers of openDemocracy): a privatised army recruitment drive beleaguered by waste and incompetence; revelations of “serious problems” with the quality of privatised military homes, and the termination of defence training contracts that fail to deliver on their promises of affordability and efficiency.

Moreover, before rushing to condemn America’s use of private contractors (to some, mercenaries) in overseas conflicts, we should also look at our own record. With a “green light” from the Foreign Office, the now-defunct Sandline International, then headed by Lt. Colonel Tim Spicer, breached a UN arms embargo and orchestrated a counter-coup in Sierra Leone in 1997 – what’s now known as the “arms-to-Africa scandal.” Spicer went on to found Aegis Defence Services in 2002, a London-based private security company which was awarded highly lucrative contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq and is likely, despite the reservations of the US Commission on Wartime Contracting, to maintain an active role there for some time. Indeed, the “Iraq Bubble” saw London emerge as something of a hub for companies like Aegis, in part because of the willingness of former British generals to pursue careers in the private sector.

The real “special relationship”

However, it is worth remembering that the vast majority of UK defence contracting is for relatively mundane tasks: logistical support, maintaining sewage systems, repairing equipment. Though waste and mismanagement has occurred, if we can achieve adequate oversight and regulation is it not perfectly reasonable to utilise the private sector? More to the point: if the same basic services are being provided – sometimes at a lower cost – why should we even care? Let the market do its job: foster healthy competition and provide for the needs of the consumer.

But rather than seeing the proliferation of competition, we have instead seen power and authority over UK defence shift to a small group of powerful and largely unaccountable interests.

BAE Systems, for example – Britain’s and Europe’s largest arms company – has been one of the chief beneficiaries of outsourcing and privatisation. It has been awarded contracts in maintaining the RAF’s Typhoon force, managing Portsmouth’s naval base and engineering support for the army’s armoured vehicle fleet. BAE is joined by the likes of VT Group and Lockheed Martin in profiting from the injection of market principles into the Ministry of Defence. Contracts – many of which are Private Finance Initiatives – serve to, on the one hand, deepen public dependence on private companies, and, on the other, tie their interests closer together: very much a “special relationship.”

A handful of companies dominate the market both in Britain and globally. Unsurprisingly, such companies find themselves in positions of political importance: from the Vice-Chair of the BBC Trust, to the “more than 10 executives from BAE alone” who “have been seconded into the MoD and the arms sales unit at UK Trade & Investment (UKTI)” in the past year. It works both ways, too, with generals and former MoD officials frequently taking up jobs in the private sector – on a scale reminiscent of the large numbers of US soldiers who decided to “go Blackwater”.

As a result we, like the United States, see successive governments finding a range of creative ways to subsidise private defence companies. Such public support can come in the form of export credit guarantees – whereby public money insures private companies against potential late payment or non-payment – or more directly in the form of large chunks of Research and Development funding, well out of proportion to the amount of employment and economic activity that defence companies actually provide. Between 2008 and 2011, over a sixth of our R&D funding was devoted to defence, “a fraction that is about three times higher than that of the major industrial nations of Germany and Japan.”

Members of the royal family, meanwhile, frequently serve as unofficial arms salesmen abroad, and governments have looked the other way when defence companies have been involved in bribery and corruption.

Making it an issue

Although Britain’s tendency to “punch above its weight” militarily is often attributed to a vague historical legacy, sometimes related to an “imperial mentality”, there are clear material interests which underpin this. There exists a powerful British “military-industrial complex”, closely resembling Eisenhower’s description: “the conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry.” It sucks up public resources in a time of socially destructive “belt-tightening”, undermines our public institutions, and, we shouldn’t forget, wages its fair share of wars.

If UK General Elections were, indeed, genuinely democratic exercises, this would be a headline issue. But it’s not: so we need to make it one.

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