Red poppies and the arms trade

A vast blood-red memorial in London evokes war's victims. Behind it stand the weapon-makers that could create millions more.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
12 November 2014

The huge field of ceramic poppies around the moat of the Tower of London has had a profound impact over the past few weeks, representing more than 888,000 people from Britain and its then empire killed in the 1914-18 war. It has taken the red poppy symbol to a much greater prominence, but the very use of this symbol and its link with remembrance has changed over the years.

Until around 2000, the annual experience of remembrance in Britain in early November had marked military overtones, even if it was essentially still being about remembering the military dead. For the best part of a decade the emphasis then seemed to move subtly away from the military dimension and more towards an anti-war sentiment. Perhaps this was the impact of the few very elderly survivors of the war still living, most notably the remarkable Harry Patch, and their evident attitude of regret and even detestation of war. It may also have been affected by the concern across so much of the population at the loss of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What was unusual but in many ways understandable was that the anti-war element in national culture was directed at the wars and the politicians who ordered them and not at the military. If anything, the popularity of the army actually increased. People were able systematically to draw a distinction between unpopular wars and the people who fought them - some dying and many more maimed for life.

This attitude lay behind a surprisingly wide satisfaction at the coalition government’s failure to gain a parliamentary vote in support of military action against Syria in late August 2013, and it represented a change of mood which was a clear worry for the government. Part of this has been met by a greater emphasis on the soldiers, with parades through towns and cities becoming more common than in recent decades, and it may also lie behind the ministry of defence’s substantial budget for military education in schools.

The gun and the flower

Where the tension comes to the fore, if not currently with great publicity, is one aspect of the annual "poppy appeal" - the ready gaining of sponsorship from some of the world’s largest arms companies. There are a number of examples, including the very striking Red Poppy hoarding at Westminster underground station which is sponsored by Thales, a singularly large French arms company with a substantial branch in the UK. Another is probably the biggest single celebration of the autumn, the Poppy Ball on 30 October 2014, sponsored by BAe Systems, the world’s third largest arms company, behind Boeing and the leader, Lockheed Martin.

Which brings us to Lockheed Martin itself, a primarily United States company with a turnover of $36 billion in 2013. Its British offshoot is  Lockheed Martin UK, which sponsors another prestigious event: the Poppy Rocks Ball, held this year at the Honorary Artillery Company in London on 25 October and aimed, if that is the word, at young professionals as part of a process of raising awareness among a younger generation.

So  where does Lockheed Martin actually come from and how does it link with the UK defence posture? Its origins lie with the 1994 merger of the Lockheed Corporation with Martin Marietta, the latter being one of the main US arms companies in the 1960s and 1970s with a particular speciality in developing and producing long-range nuclear missiles.  These included the Titan 2 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) the most powerful nuclear missile ever deployed by the United States with a single 9 megaton warhead, over 700 times the explosive force of the Hiroshima bomb. 

In the latter part of the cold war, both sides went for multiple smaller warheads on each missile. When Martin Marietta merged with the Lockheed Corporation in 1995, much of the expertise went into Lockheed’s work in producing submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). The most recent of these is the Trident D5 SLBM deployed by the US navy and the Royal Navy; the latter has four Vanguard-class missile submarines, each capable of carrying and firing sixteen missiles, these constituting Britain’s nuclear force.

For many years now, intercontinental nuclear missiles have typically had multiple warheads, each of which can be aimed at a different target. One of Lockheed’s Trident D5 missiles can theoretically carry twelve warheads in what in the jargon is termed a multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV); since each boat can carry sixteen missiles, that gives a theoretical total of 192 warheads. In practice, it is believed that the UK system normally operates with eight missiles and a maximum of forty warheads, and some sources suggest just three warheads per missile.

Taking this minimum figure, since each warhead is believed to have a 100 kiloton force (i.e. equivalent to 100,000-tons of conventional high explosive), this means that one missile can target three cities with warheads eight times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb that killed 100,000 people. 

Thus a single missile can easily kill far more than the 888,000 men and women represented by the red poppies encircling the Tower of London. Some may see an irony in Lockheed Martin UK sponsoring the Poppy Rocks Ball, but perhaps the real irony is that neither Lockheed Martin UK nor the Royal British Legion sees the irony of it.

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