Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Call to Arms

The military intervention in Libya is a far cry from the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq. This time round all the right checkboxes were ticked. An appeal for help from the rebels was heard, the approval from the Arab League was sought (never mind that most of the 22 members are repressive dictatorships), the approval of the United Nations was granted, and it was a genuine coalition of forces from NATO that struck. The first assault, while overwhelmingly comprised of US armed force, included or was soon followed by attacks from some of her European allies. The British initial offensive was carried out by Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon jets. These latter were made by British Aerospace, or BAE Systems, Europe’s biggest manufacturer of weapons.

Times are tough for this gigantic “defense contractor”. There is too much peace around, apparently. And the economic crisis has meant that governments like that of Britain have announced cuts in military spending, which is of course bad for BAE and its shareholders. The company recently projected an expected downturn in profit for 2011. Last year their turnover was 22.39 billion pounds (over 36 billion dollars). But you never know. There is always hope that more wars will break out. And apparently India has an arms shopping list of 100 billion dollars, to be spent within the next ten years. So that sounds hopeful, but of course competition is stiff. Which means BAE is willing to look everywhere and everyone for customers, even Libya’s Gaddafi.

Earlier this month in fact, Barack Obama approved a sale by BAE’s American subsidiary of 77 million dollars worth of military equipment to Libya. That’s right folks, you heard me: Obama approved a sale of military equipment to Libya just a few weeks ago. Sell weapons to Gaddafi at the start of the month, bomb him at the end of the month – how’s that for a foreign policy? Believe me, I’m not making this up.

Made by BAE

But American arms sales to Gaddafi are dwarfed by those of the Europeans. In fact in 2009 European sales of weapons to Gaddafi were ten times those of the USA – the biggest deals have gone to French, Italian and British (BAE) companies. All of these states were involved in the military intervention this week. When Tony Blair made his infamous visit to Gaddafi in 2007, one of many visits he made to the dictator on behalf of British business, he was accompanied by Guy Griffiths, CEO of MBDA Missile Systems, a company partly owned by BAE. Gaddafi was the man who, according to a British court, had organized the bombing of Pan-Am Flight 109 with the consequent loss hundreds of innocent lives. But that didn’t stop Blair from shaking hands with him already in 2004, indeed embracing him. All for the good of British businesses, like arms manufacturers. And when Prime Minister Cameron decided last week to bomb Libya, he first conferred with Ian King, CEO of BAE Systems. Their willingness to do business with anyone, their ability to supply both sides in the conflict means these guys literally get it both ways.

If you visit the website of BAE Systems you’ll immediately find their Social Responsibility manifesto. I’m not joking. There, you’ll be relieved to discover that the company cares a lot about the environment and ensures that their workers are well cared for and the risk of injury in the workplace is minimal. That’s right folks, they are making sophisticated weapons that have the capacity to kill with breathtaking efficiency (but at a high price), but hey, they care about worker’s rights. Are these guys trying to be funny? You’ll also learn that they are an honest company, that they put responsibility and service to the client at the top of their priorities. Well some of that is true – they do provide excellent service to all sorts of nasty clients. But I don’t think they are 100% honest. For years they have done their shadiest deals through a front company called Novelmight Ltd. The firm operates out of Switzerland (what did you expect?), where they rented a small space in Geneva, at 48 Route des Acacias. In December a London court found BAE Systems, socially responsible arms manufacturer, guilty of corruption and fined the company a half a million pounds for bribery during an arms sale to Tanzania.

No doubt BAE will soon make up the difference, once the rebels are in power in Libya and the orders start flowing in. But wait a minute; will these rebels turn out in turn to be tyrants? Who cares? Business is business.

This article was first published in Technorati on March 28th, 2011


  1. Your views might carry more weight if your picture caption knew the difference between your Typhoons and your Tornados

  2. Brat Blog,
    Ah, I get it. The caption is wrong, so BAE turns out to be a fine company - forget the content of my argument. You've latched on to a technical detail in order to ignore the argument as only an engineering mind can.
    Thanks for the correction. I will change the caption.