Dollars from death: The arms industry in Australia

By Hamish Chitts

The global arms industry is a very lucrative way for businesses to profit from death, destruction and oppression. It is estimated that each year 2% of world gross domestic product (GDP), or more than US$1 trillion, is spent on the military. Part of this goes to the procurement of military hardware and services from the arms industry.

Australia’s rich want a greater share of this global industry. Particularly the governments of Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory are vying with each other to be the most arms industry-friendly place in the Asia Pacific. Promoting the Asia Pacific Defence and Security Exhibition (since cancelled due to planned protests), organisers of this arms fair proudly announced in a press release in September 2007, that between 1994 and 2006 the Asia Pacific was the only region with increased defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP. It has been forecast that the Asia Pacific will overtake Europe and the Middle East, becoming the world’s largest arms market with US$104 billion of military projects scheduled in the next 10 years, of which US$25 billion is projected from Australia. Threats of instability and future conflict, real or imagined, caused primarily by the US “war on terror”, are driving this arms race.

The Australian government’s military spending is over A$62 million per day. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Australia was the eighth largest arms importer for the period 2003-07, accounting for 3.08% of world deliveries. Most of this spending in was a result of Australia’s involvement in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, but there has also been lavish spending securing Australia from the threat of mythical terrorists, and the big players in the arms industry have been quick to exploit this market.

Privatisation

This new climate of government and corporate media-induced fear has not only allowed some of the most vile arms dealers to receive taxpayers’ money; it has also allowed these dealers to set up shop in Australia. In recent years, the federal government has privatised the local arms industry, which used to be dominated by state-owned enterprises such as Australian Defence Industries (ADI), whose sole purpose was to serve and supply the Australian armed forces. Now private, often multinational, corporations dominate arms and military equipment manufacturing. The former ADI is now owned by Thales Australia, the local branch of the French-based Thales Group.

Before privatisation, the production of arms through the defence department allowed some public scrutiny through limited parliamentary processes. Since privatisation, the arms industry has been able to shroud itself in secrecy by classifying all its activities as “commercial in confidence”. It has allowed more weapons and military hardware to be produced for export. According to figures gathered by the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, from July to December 2006, Australian-based arms dealers exported A$314,387,766 worth of arms, including A$84,623,989 to the United States and A$21,445,060 to Israel.

Australia’s biggest arms export market is the US. Because of this, the four big defence companies in Australia — Raytheon, Boeing, Thales and BAE — are now allowed to hire, fire and redeploy people based on where they were born. Under a recently signed defence trade agreement between Australia and the US, Australian-based arms dealers are required to investigate the birthplace of their workers if they want to do business with the US government, and anti-discrimination laws have been bent to allow this. Countries proscribed include Afghanistan, Belarus, Burma, China, Cyprus, Cuba, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, North Korea, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen and Zimbabwe. Employees only have to have been born in one of these countries (no other factors are considered). Washington can add to or change the list any time it likes.

Nuclear connection

Multinational arms dealers with dubious records like BAE Systems and Raytheon are now firmly planted in Australia. BAE Systems, the third largest global arms dealer, has locations at Abbotsford (Victoria), Braddon (ACT), Edinburgh (SA), Holden Hill (SA), North Ryde (NSW), Tamworth (NSW) and Williamstown (NSW). BAE is indirectly engaged in production of nuclear weapons. It is involved with the production and support of the ASMP missile, an air-launched missile that forms part of France’s nuclear arsenal. BAE is also the UK’s only nuclear submarine manufacturer and thus produces a key element of the UK’s nuclear weapons capability. US-based Raytheon is the fifth largest global arms dealer. It has offices in Brisbane, Canberra, Sydney, Nowra, Alice Springs, Tindal (NT), Perth and Adelaide.

Raytheon is most infamous for its development and production of cluster munitions, each containing hundreds of smaller bomblets that scatter before they hit the ground. Many of the bomblets do not explode initially, leaving deadly unexploded “duds” for years afterwards. The New York-based Human Rights Watch organisation estimates that 1600 Iraqi and Kuwaiti civilians were killed and 2500 injured between 1991 and 1993 by unexploded cluster bomblets dropped by the US and UK in the first Gulf War. Because the bombs’ appearance is toy-like and attractive to children, 60% of those victims were children under 15.

Land Warfare Conference

BAE Systems and Raytheon, along with more than 200 others, attended the Land Warfare Conference in Brisbane in the last week of October. The conference is the Australian army’s annual planning and strategy meeting. Once exclusively involving military and government personnel, in recent years it has been opened to arms dealers. It now tours around the country each year looking for pleasant locations to do business. At these conferences, army heads meet and socialise with big business and academics and discuss army strategy and policy, with particular emphasis on the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Arms dealers are able to pitch their products of death and destruction directly to the conference, allowing aspects of army policy to be set by the public relations and advertising campaigns of arms dealers.

The security of Australian working people is not enhanced, but undermined, by the continued dominance of big business interests over the Australian Defence Force. Hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers have been killed in the illegal and unjustifiable occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, primarily for oil profits and to help maintain big business domination of the Third World. The money arms dealers receive comes directly from the wages of working people via taxes and diverts resources that could be used for health, education and our social and environmental security. The billions of dollars consumed by Australian imperialism’s war budget should be reallocated to help meet the social needs of working people.

The Australian government can spend A$62 million per day on the military, yet it can’t pay for adequate health care for working people. Decisions related to war must be taken out of the hands of the capitalists, their political representatives and general staffs. Working people and rank-and-file soldiers have a right to know all the real aims and commitments of the government’s military and foreign policy. All military and diplomatic treaties, agreements and business contracts should be made accessible to the public, and the public should have the right to vote directly on the question of war.

[Hamish Chitts is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party in Brisbane and one of the founders of Stand Fast — veterans and service people against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For information about Stand Fast visit www.stand-fast.webs.com or phone 0401 586 923.]