Prof Paul Rogers: A new survey reveals the immense wealth and power of the arms industry. But we must remember that its product is death


Bombed out streets of Mosul. Northern Iraq, Western Asia. 18 November, 2016. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov

This week saw the publication of one of the leading surveys of the world’s military corporations.

Put out by the US-based Defense News, it identifies and ranks the world’s 100 biggest arms companies, using a combination of its own research, the work of think tanks and some government departments, and data from the corporations themselves.

Where it is particularly useful is that it separates out military from non-military outputs. Airbus, for example, would be one of the world’s largest defence companies if its ranking combined military and civil aviation, but it doesn’t, meaning that it comes in at 15th rather than well into the top 10.

Looking at the overall list, three elements stand out as significant. One is the sheer size of the larger corporations. The current UK budget for all military spending – equipment, pay, research and the rest – stands at $68.5bn, but this is very nearly matched by a single military corporation, the US-based Lockheed Martin. Apart from the United States, with its massive $877bn budget, and China with $292bn, all the other states worldwide, including Russia, have budgets at or below the output of the largest corporations.

The second element relates to the continued dominance of US corporations in the global list, taking six of the top ten positions (Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, General Dynamics and L3Harris Technologies). Those six corporations account for revenues of well over $200bn. This dominance has held sway since the end of the Cold War, and even the UK-based BAE Systems (ranked seventh, with defence revenue of $25.3bn) does much of its business in the United States.

However, the third element is the steady rise of Chinese corporations in the global list. This year three Chinese corporations are in the top ten, one being a recent joiner, and all three have improved their relative standing. The Aviation Corporation is up two places at fourth, China North Industries is up one place at eighth and China South jumps three places to tenth.

As well as the size of the corporations, with their formidable lobbying power, most countries with large military industries see them as working as integrated military-industrial corporations. Revolving doors between militaries, civil services and corporations are common, especially at senior levels. Senior military officers, especially those involved in weapons procurement and deployment, will be much in demand by corporations for lucrative consultancies after they retire, or they may join think tanks or universities.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that all the world’s military corporations depend on wars, the risk of wars or even an underlying fear of wars to succeed in business. Only then will the profits continue to flow. This means that now is a very good time to be in the business, and the conflict in Ukraine should lead to a boost in military spending by many countries.

What happens at the other end, so to speak, is the horrendous cost of conflicts to people and societies. The Defense News data is not helpful here and we have to turn to very different sources such as the multidisciplinary Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

In what it describes as “post 9/11 wars”, the institute reports that over 940,000 people have died due to direct war violence, and between 3.6 million and 3.8 million have died due to what it terms “reverberating effects” in the 22 years since the 11 September 2001 attacks. This makes a combined death toll in the post-9/11 war zones approaching five million. It also reports that 38 million people have been displaced within their own countries or forced to flee abroad.

As to material impacts, with towns and cities damaged and destroyed, and infrastructure crippled, the total costs are estimated at over $8tn. The rebuilding of towns and cities in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere will take years, and the impact on the mental and physical health of millions of people could last for generations.

It may be interesting and even relevant to look at surveys of the world’s military corporations but we need always remember that, in a real sense, they are in the business of selling death and destruction.

Source: OpenDemocracy

16 Aug 2023 by Paul Rogers

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