Mike Phipps

The myths behind the arms trade

Mike Phipps
The myths behind the arms trade

In 2008, an arms dump in a small Albanian village blew up, killing 26 people, including two small children. This tragedy, next to a populated village, was no anomaly. It was the direct result of the US Defense Department outsourcing its supplying of ammunition to the Afghan military to a shady, inexperienced private contractor - routine practice.

Global military spending in 2015 amounted to $1,676 billion, nearly $250 for every one of the earth’s 7 billion people. The US spends the most, 16% of its annual budget. It spends more than ten times the next ten nations in the world combined and four times its closest rival, China. Although arms deals can be hugely burdensome to the taxpayers of both the selling and buying countries, the profiteers are feted by governments, largely due to the myths peddled by the trade.

Myth 1: higher defence spending means increased security. In fact, arms expenditure means increased militarism and the greater likely use of arms against a country’s civilian population. Greater arms spending can even lead to a decrease in national security, as rivals respond in kind, leading to an unaffordable arms race and a spiral of insecurity. 

War itself does not increase security. US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan made the world a lot less safe and helped create Isis, many of whose top leaders shared the experience of torture in the US’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Military solutions to problems rarely work by themselves - the US ‘war on drugs’ in Colombia merely displaced the narcotics trade to Central America instead.

Equally, money wasted on systems that don’t work, the result of the endemic corruption in the trade, can also undermine national security. One example is the US Littoral combat ship, which costs $780m each, but which is unable to perform most if its functions, described by one analyst as “the warship that can’t go to war.”

Another myth is that military spending is driven by security concerns. In practice, many deals are just a form of corruption, with kickbacks to those involved, as seen with Saudi Arabia. South Sudan too squandered half its huge oil revenues on defence spending, but failed to develop an army. When conflict broke out with Sudan, most of its soldiers proved non-existent - ‘ghosts’ put on the payroll so generals could collect their wages. The same scam was used by officers in Iraq, with deadly consequences when Mosul and other parts of the country quickly fell to Isis in 2014.

It’s also a myth that we can control where weapons go once they are purchased: “Isis was able to arm itself by seizing enormous troves of weaponry the US had recently given to the unstable new Iraqi state.” The scale of the seizures was mind-boggling, sufficient, according to the UN, to arm and equip three Iraqi conventional army divisions. The millions of dollars worth of armoured vehicles in particular allowed Isis to advance rapidly, further destabilising neighbouring Syria.

Somalia and Libya provide further examples of dispersion. Gaddafi imported £30 billion of weapons between 1970 and 2009. This ludicrously bloated arsenal was largely looted following his overthrow, fuelling warlordism and chaos. Meanwhile the UN’s Arms Trade Treaty of 2013 is full of loopholes and not internationally enforced.

Far from being  a key contributor to national economies, across Europe defence companies are dependent on public subsidy to survive. The jobs created could be greatly multiplied if such huge sums went to other industries. Research shows, for example, that $1 billion spent on defence in the US creates 11,200 jobs. Spend the same amount on healthcare and 17,200 jobs are created. Worse, arms spending can be actually harmful to the economy, increasing budget deficits and fuelling corruption. 

Far from being incidental to the trade, corruption is intrinsic to it, encouraged by the highly complex nature of the transactions, lack of scrutiny and the close relations between the industry and governments and their military and intelligence agencies. The ‘revolving door’ is part of this problem: in Britain, over 3,500 senior officers and MoD officials over a 16 year period went on to be employed by arms companies after leaving their posts - fuelling concerns about conflicts of interest and ease of access to government by these merchants of death.

This highly accessible account concludes with some key demands we should be placing on government to secure greater transparency and accountability over the arms trade. It’s an essential read for anti-war activists, packed with arguments and facts that demolish the myths peddled in support of this vile business.