The rush to sell arms to brutal regimes is encouraged by strictly national defence industries. Charles Grant wants more defence mergers and Nato supervision of arms exportsby Charles Grant / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Contemporary Britain and France are among the most civilised states in modern history. But their public morals are disfigured by one especially ugly stain-the sale of arms to brutal regimes. Sir Richard Scott’s report on arms-to-Iraq explains how the competitive scramble for markets and jobs in the defence sector prompts otherwise civilised men to take uncivilised decisions. The report shows that the government believed defence exports justified the misleading of parliament, the withholding of documents from a criminal trial, and the provision of secret subsidies for export credits.
Why? It is an uncomfortable fact that a large slice of Britain’s manufacturing sector is based around defence. 400,000 jobs are thought to depend on it, directly and indirectly. The number of jobs dependent upon arms exports is far smaller but still substantial-British Aerospace (BAe), the biggest arms company in Europe, generates at least 80 per cent of its sales from exports.
Partly for these economic reasons, and partly for strategic reasons, ministers consider the defence industry to be different-an expression of British sovereignty. And despite an expanding role in multi-national projects, such as the four-nation Eurofighter 2000, the government regards Britain’s defence companies as engaged in a Colbertian struggle against rivals in France, the US and elsewhere. The economic logic of the eternal excuse is: “If we don’t sell arms to this undesirable regime, somebody else will.”
But this moral stain can be removed from western countries in ways that avoid economic self-denial. For this to happen, two lines of policy must be pursued. First, Nato and the EU must establish and enforce clear rules on arms sales. Second, governments must nudge their defence companies into appropriate international mergers which makes the very idea of “national champions”-which need to be aided by fair means or foul-outmoded. Fortunately, there are trends working in this direction.
Nato countries have cut their spending on arms by about 30 per cent since the end of the cold war, yet the real cost of new weapons continues to grow. Not even the US can afford to maintain every sort of military technology within its frontiers. Information technology is making the defence industry more like other sorts of manufacturing and more dependent on diversified global sourcing. There is more “spin on” from the civilian sector to defence than “spin off” from it.
Economies of scale are growing larger. That is why US defence contractors have embarked…