What Does ‘National Defence’ Mean in a Pandemic? It’s No Time to Buy Fighter Jets
The UK dismissed early warnings about coronavirus — spending billions on the arms industry while ignoring real threats
LONDON (April 8, 2020) — We are defending ourselves against the wrong threats. For decades, UK governments have been fighting not just the last war but a redundant notion of war, spending hundreds of billions against imaginary hazards. At the same time, as we have become horribly aware over the past few weeks, they have neglected real and urgent dangers.
A month ago, just as the coronavirus began racing across the UK, the government boasted that it had raised military spending by £2 billion to £41.5bn. Our military force, it claimed, was “the tip of the spear for a resurgent Global Britain”.
Most of this money will be spent on equipment and infrastructure. The UK is acquiring 138 new F-35 aircraft. According to the manufacturers, Lockheed, this “supersonic, multi-role” fighter “represents a quantum leap in air-dominance capability”. It “has the range and flexibility to win, again and again”. But win against what? Can it bomb the coronavirus? Can its “advanced stealth, integrated avionics, sensor fusion and superior logistics support” defeat climate breakdown? It is of as much use in solving the world’s complex and pressing problems as a jackhammer is to a watch-mender.
The most likely role for such weaponry is to wage elective wars in distant nations. Even in these circumstances, the F-35 could be outdated before it is deployed. The decisive weapons in such conflicts are likely now to be drones, not jets. It might have “multiple capabilities”, but all this means is that the UK will bring a Swiss army knife to a gunfight.
Last month Ben Wallace, the British defence secretary, gave a speech in which he characterised international law as “a straitjacket of permissions and authorities that make it hard for us to respond”. And he claimed, like any 19th-century colonial official, that the UK’s intervention abroad is “a force for good”. We have, apparently, “a moral imperative” to address conflict and instability overseas.
In reality, for the past 17 years the UK’s intervention abroad has been one of the major causes of conflict and instability. This nation’s involvement in the Iraq war has helped to cause collapse, continued fighting and the rise of terrorist groups. Our current contribution is to supply the hardware and training Saudi Arabia currently deploys in Yemen.
Yemen is now suffering a humanitarian crisis: starvation caused by the Saudi blockade, and epidemics of cholera, diphtheria and other infectious diseases. Saudi Arabia has used British weaponry to bomb schools, markets and hospitals. Yemen’s health system is collapsing, just as Covid-19 is about to strike.
Last year, as a result of these atrocities, the UK’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia were ruled unlawful in the court of appeal. The court instructed the UK government to stop issuing new licences and to review its past decisions. There has been no review. When it was caught issuing new licences for weapon sales to the kingdom, the UK government claimed it had done so “inadvertently”.
British bombs and rockets, fired by British jets, many of them deliberately targeting civilians, continue to rain misery on the world’s most vulnerable people. But this trade in death has been worth £5bn to UK companies since the war in Yemen began, so it continues to be supported by the government, in defiance of both UK and international law. This is not defence. This is mass murder and the perpetuation of conflict.
The great majority of the UK’s “defence” capabilities have no defensive purpose. There is no strategic reason to spend 2% of our GDP on military force. Other countries spend far less, and are just as secure. Nato’s tepid conflicts with Russia, stoked by each other’s paranoia, would be better resolved by diplomatic means. But people such as Wallace talk of only “adversaries” rather than of potential — and necessary — allies in confronting common threats.
That £41.5 billion spent on the military is more than twice as much money as the UK spends on preventing climate and ecological breakdown — which are not just potential threats but current emergencies. It is hundreds of times more, as we are now discovering, than the government has spent on preparing for pandemics.
We now know that both the UK and US governments ignored warnings about the potential scale and impacts of pandemics, and failed to invest in genuine national defence: extra capacity in the health system, beds, training, ventilators and protective equipment. Even when the disease began to spread, they downplayed its likely effects. They attend, lavishly and zealously, to imaginary threats, while neglecting real ones.
We need a complete reassessment of what security means. China’s dispatch of specialists to the UK to help treat the coronavirus makes a nonsense of Wallace’s attempts to portray that country as our “adversary”. Yes, like Russia’s and Iran’s, its government competes with western governments for spheres of influence and resources. But in confronting genuine threats to humanity and the rest of life on Earth, there should be more that brings us together that sets us apart.
If ever there were a time for brokering peace, this is it. If ever there were a time for nations such as the UK and the US to meet their disarmament commitments under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and work with Russia and China to put their wasted billions to better use, this is it. If ever there were a time to reassess the genuine threats to our security and separate them from the self-interested aims of the weapons industry, this is it.
Yet our governments’ primary effort is to enhance their power at the expense of other countries. In failing to address our real and common threats, we are our own adversaries.
Revealed: £1 Billion of Taxpayers’ Cash to Help Foreign Countries Buy British Arms
Campaigners Say Plan Will End Up Fuelling Conflict and Human Rights Abuses
(March 28, 2020) — The government has quietly drawn up proposals to lend other countries £1 billion of public money so that they can buy British-made bombs and surveillance technology.
The move has been attacked by arms-control campaigners who say that taxpayers’ cash may end up fuelling conflict and human rights abuses.
The plan was revealed in a single sentence slipped into this month’s budget. Unveiling a new £2 billion lending facility for projects supporting clean growth, the government also announced the creation of “a new £1 billion (fund) to support overseas buyers of UK defence and security goods and services”.
It is understood that the fund will be overseen by UK Export Finance, which gives loans to help foreign countries, especially those with developing economies, buy British goods and services.
“Even in times of crisis, the government is showing that it will go to any length to sell as many weapons as possible,” said Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade. “The arms deals being supported with this money could be used in enabling atrocities and abuses for years to come. Government should be regulating and controlling arms sales, not using public money and doing everything it can to promote them.”
The government sees the defence industry as a major contributor to Britain’s post-Brexit economy. The Department for International Trade has a specialist team to promote UK arms sales.
In 2018, the latest figures available, the UK won arms contracts worth £14bn. Between 2008 and 2018 the UK was the second biggest arms exporter in the world, with 19% of the market share. Three-fifths of arms sales over the period went to the Middle East.
Some £5.3 billion of arms have been licensed to Saudi Arabiasince the war in Yemen began. There are concerns that the Saudi-led coalition, which is fighting Houthi rebels in the country, may have committed human rights violations by targeting civilian infrastructure.
Smith said the crisis in Yemen showed how policies to promote UK arms sales could backfire: “Over the last five years we have seen the devastating impact of UK-made fighter jets, bombs and missiles on Yemen. The war has killed tens of thousands of people, and created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Those arms sales need to end now, but so do the policies that allowed them to happen in the first place.”
The Treasury did not respond to requests for comment.
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