My weekly Guardian column:
It’s a good time to be in the weapons business. Three of the leading US defence contractors, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, are all making unprecedented profits.
In December, Northrop will host an event at the Australian War Memorial to mark the company’s expansion into the Asia-Pacific region. It will be launched by Federal defence minister David Johnson. It’s a curious location because, as Crikey’s tipster drily noted, “without the endeavours of arms companies stretching back centuries, there’d be significantly fewer Australians for the War Memorial to commemorate”.
Northrop’s US-based corporate HQ decided in the last 18 months to open a major office in Australia. In March the company purchased Qantas Defence Services, a firm that provides engine and aircraft maintenance to the Australian Defence Force and global militaries. It was an $80m deal. In September 2013, Northrop bought M5 Network Security, a Canberra-based cyber-security outfit.
Northrop appointed Ian Irving as CEO of the Australian outfit in June, as part of a plan to capitalise on the “strategically important market” of the Asia Pacific. The centrepiece of that plan is to give smaller enterprises in the defence space access to Northrop’s global supply chain. That’s nothing to be sneezed at: they’re a vital defence contractor for the US military and the company’s weapons have been used in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.
Irving explained to Australian Defence Business Review in July that he was pleased to sell the Australian government the firm’s MQ-4C Triton surveillance drones. The machines will be used to monitor the nation’s borders and protect “energy resources” off northern Australia. Northrop Grumman Australia is set to make up to $3bn from selling the drones. Countless European nations are equally desperate to use drones to beat back asylum seekers.
Despite all this, a Northrop spokesman assured me that the company’s growing presence in Australia has no connection to the Abbott government’s increase in defence spending.
As Northrop’s Australian expansion makes clear, arms manufacturing thrives in an integrated global defence space. Australia is an important market for that other military powerhouse, Israel. In 2010 leading Israeli arms company Elbit Systems sold a $300m command control system to the Australian military. In August 2013 Elbit announced the $5.5m sale of “an investigation system” to the Australian federal police that was tested in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
That’s a trend that has become commonplace since the 9/11 attacks. As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in August, “[Weapons companies] need to sell in the large international defence markets – where the products are scrutinized partly on the uses the IDF makes of them on the battlefield.”
In August pro-Palestinian activists climbed on the roof of Elbit’s Melbourne offices to protest its involvement in the recent Israeli military incursions in Gaza, after which the company’s share price soared. Amnesty International recently accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes during the war.
Defence contractors rarely stop with the profits from war and colonisation. In Britain, Lockheed Martin is now reportedly bidding for a massive National Health Service contract worth $2bn. In the US, Northrop was a presenting sponsor at a recent Washington DC event for honouring war veterans.
It’s rare to read about arms trading in the Australian press; even the country’s largest privately owned small arms supplier, Nioa, rarely registers beyond the business pages. Our politicians are also loathe to speak out, and are happy to have factories and bases in their electorates, and donations for their parties.
The Greens do oppose military trading with Israel. Leader Christine Milne tells me that, “given the continuing disregard by Israel of international calls to halt settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories and the disproportionate response used against the people of Gaza, the Australian Greens have repeatedly called on the Australian government to halt all military cooperation and military trade with Israel”.
Greens senator Lee Rhiannon spoke in parliament last year, saying “if any of the military equipment that Australia has sold to Israel has been used in Israel’s deplorable wars in the Gaza strip which has killed thousands of civilians, the Australian government should be held accountable for this”.
Australia, the 13th largest spender on arms globally, has a choice. We can keep embracing these merchants of death, and the botched deals and waste that they bring. Or we can reject the the rise of Northrop and its associates, and refuse to participate in an investment culture that continues a cycle of violence both at home and abroad.