Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Protests against DSEI Arms Fair, Surrey, September 1999
Photo: CAAT

Death Inc

Weapons Technology For The Third Millennium

The largest ever government backed arms sale on UK soil took place in September, confirming Britain's position as the second biggest arms dealer in the world. Despite rhetorical claims for the human rights high ground, this government, like those before it, are proving there is no morality when it comes to arms sales. Si Mitchell takes a look at the government's blighted record and investigates behind the scenes moves to privatise government military research.

September 1999

The excitement surrounding the Defence Systems Equipment International (DSEi) arms fair is dying down. The shipments of assault rifles, cluster bombs and electric shock batons are winging their way to Angola, Turkey and both sides of the India/Pakistan border dispute. So, once again, the top brass at the Ministry of Defence must turn their attention to a problem that has been cluttering their in-trays for some time now - what to do about, DSEi's hosting organisation, DERA.

The Defence Evaluation Research Agency (DERA) is the MoD's research and development arm, designing and testing military equipment for the Government to the tune of £2.1 billion a year. It is DERA's responsiblity is to develop new and ever more marketable weapons to maintain Britain's position as the world's second largest arms dealer. Though DERA's future has been under discussion for some years now, unsurprisingly we haven't heard much about it. The proposal on the table since mid 1997 is the creation of a Public Private Partnership (PPP), where a significant part of the agency would be sold into private hands. The exact form of the PPP is undecided, or even whether it will go through at all, though the big arms companies are no doubt salivating at the chance of cornering the largest defence research agency in Europe. And after such a productive year, the bank accounts of British Aerospace, GEC and Lockheed, among others, must be fit to burst.

Britain's expenditure on military research and development (R&D) far outstrips any civil research. In 1995 it took 38.9 per cent of the total government's R&D budget; industrial development receiving 9.6 per cent, health 7.6 per cent and environmental protection just 2.3 per cent. DERA employs 12,000 of the keenest scientific and engineering minds in the country. Plucked from the nation's top universities, their ability was so important to the state that they simply couldn't be left to drift uselessly into medical research or waste their attention on devising ways to revive British industry. No, this elite workforce is given by far and away the best budget in the land and told to invent weapons technology.

The numerous defence analysis and testing establishments all over the country include Malvern in Worcestershire, Farnborough in Hampshire, Chertsey in Surrey (where September's arms fair was held) and the infamous chemical and biological warfare research station at Porton Down in Hampshire. DERA are keen to promote their technological innovations especially the ones with 'realworld' applications. The Liquid Crystal Diode is a particular favourite, as is Thermal Imaging. Designed to give night vision to military reconnaissance and weapons siting, the same technology is used to search for buried victims following earthquakes. However the reality is that only around ten per cent of DERA's work has a civil purpose. The rest is warfare; the quest for Joseph Heller's fictitious Shhhhh!: "The plane so fast, you can bomb someone even before you decide to do it. Decide today - it's done yesterday."

Recently declassified documents are only now beginning to shed some light on the extensive chemical and biological weapons testing carried out in Britain by Porton Down during the 1950s and 60s. The Chemical Defence and Microbiological Research Establishments, CDE & MRE (DERA has been renamed more times than the dole) released large quantities of a known carcinogen, Zinc Cadmium Sulphide, over substantial tracts of the population. The tests were designed to map the effects of a potential chemical or biological attack on Britain. Salisbury and Norwich were both subject to 'Air Pollution Trials', that consisted of barium treated ZCS being sprayed over the towns by air and out of the back of Land Rovers.

Similar, biological, trials to ascertain the danger from offshore germ attack were carried out, along the Dorset coast, throughout the 1960s. An Anthrax simulant, Bacillus Fubtilus Varniger, was sprayed from a boat in the English Channel to see how far inland it could spread. Communities from Portland and East Lulworth experiencing clusters of birth defects and misscarriage, have called for a public inquiry or the setting up of a parliamentary select committee to look into the effects of the trials. DERA have been accused of breaching the Nuremberg code which outlawed 'experimenting on people without informed consent.' The MoD have said they will appoint a toxicologist do study what effects the releases may have had, though they are having trouble finding a willing candidate.

Last month, Wiltshire police launched an unconnected investigation into claims that nerve gas was tested on servicemen at Porton Down during the 1950s. At least one soldier is known to have died as a result of exposure to the nerve agent Sarin. Possible charges of corporate manslaughter, assault and administering noxious substances could be brought. Another DERA 'breakthrough' was the Future Infantry Soldier Technology (FIST) project. FIST gained celebrity status when it featured in a Channel Four documentary 'The War Machine' screened in February 1998. In the film an army Brigadier lauded the project as creating the "soldier of the future" and described how useful the technology would be to troops in the Gulf. However during the field trials the helmet mounted screen of the automatic 'Video Aiming System', (which was supposed to replace the need for a soldier to aim his rifle), became invisible, and therefore useless, simply because the sun was shining. And the £20,000, satellite linked, 'Global Positioning System' was unable to detect an 'enemy' in full view only yards away.

"As a navigation aid it made a good ashtray," concluded the field trial manager. So far FIST has cost the taxpayer £7 million, they say they hope to have positive results by 2008.

However the dilemma facing DERA at present is not how it spends its money, but where that money is going to come from. The exact form of the proposed PPP is undecided, or even whether it will go through at all, though both the Government and corporate sector are pushing hard for privatisation. "It will make DERA more vital, commercial and efficient," says DERA's Helen Craven.

DERA's 'Agency' status means it is officially classed as a 'trading fund' That is they "sell" their research to the MoD and other government departments and are not therefore officially subsidised by the MoD. The ninety per cent of their work carried for the MoD, would most likely continue post sell off, resulting in taxpayers effectively subsidising a private corporation whose sole purpose is to make money for its shareholders from the production of weapons. Opposition has come in various forms. The Pentagon has voiced concerns over joint research carried out between the British and US militaries falling into private hands. The Association of Independent Research Organisations has described the plan as "unworkable". And according to Fiona Draper, from the Institute of Professional Management Specialists (IPMS), DERA's leading trade union, the majority of the Agency's workforce are opposed to PPP. Draper says many of her members, who see themselves working for the public good are uncomfortable about working for someone else's private profit. "DERA has to advise the MoD on the usefulness of equipment. If they themselves are owned by a company who had an interest in manufacturing that equipment, they may no longer be in a position to give totally impartial advice." Draper also points out that, as a public body, DERA is accountable to Parliament and through Parliament to the public. As a private company, this would no longer be the case. (Though there are those that argue that the Parliamentary custom of not questioning military expenditure could hardly be described as accountability.)

When asked what control the government could maintain over who owns a private DERA ,the MoD's Marcus Deville dismissed the danger of military technology falling into the hands of less than ethical regimes, as the new organisation "would still be subject to Strategic Export Controls". However many arms traders have become quite adept at circumventing these controls, and the growing tide of 'free trade', corporate protecting, legislation such as GATT, NAFTA and the soon to be reappearing Multilateral Agreement on Investment, is likely to mean any Government veto over the dealings of the proposed conglomorate would be little at best.

(It is worth noting here that when SQUALL approached Deville for a press pass for the DSEi arms fair, his response was effectively: Sorry but the exhibition is being run by a private company and we dont have any say over who gets allowed in or not. It appears the MoD claim to 'have control' when it suits them, but 'have none' when it doesn't.)

In his book, 'The Armour-Plated Ostrich - The Hidden Costs of Britain's Addiction to the Arms Business', Tim Webb, who spent 25 years in the arms business, details the need for the diversification of the 'defence' industry: "Education, health, social services and other areas of manufacturing have all suffered as a result of successive British governments' over-indulgence in military hardware." Currently standing at £22 billion a year. Tony Blair with his trusty sidekick George Robertson (UK Defence Secretary and Nato Director General-to-be) have proved to be as hell bent on killing foreigners as any of their predecessors. Yet a poll of Labour MPs taken just after the 1997 general election found them to be six to one in favour of a reduction in defence expenditure. All the same, Chancellor Gordon Brown's threats to pull the plug on the £16 billion Eurofighter project quickly disappeared, and Blair's recent Strategic Defence Review fell foul of the MoD's unparalleled muscle in Whitehall.

(Despite a steady flow of reliable reports, spanning much of the last 24 years, demonstrating British arms were being used domestically in East Timor, only now does Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, become concerned about a hawk jet sighting over Dili. Though despite the massacre underway in East Timor, the UK Government will still not stand by their election pledge to cease arms sales to the Indonesian regime. 'Sales', it was recently revealed, that were in fact 'gifts' when Indionesia could not afford to pay for the planes.)

Reluctantly Labour did stick by one manifesto commitment. In March 1998 a consultation Green Paper was drawn up proposing the setting up of a Defence Diversification Agency (DDA) whose purpose is intended to reduce Britain's defence dependency by transferring military technology into the civil sector. Webb argues that had steps down this road been taken sooner Britain's manufacturing industry could be in a very different state. One DERA project led to the invention of a flat, wall hung, television screen that could project 3D images. The manufacturing licence went to a Japanese company because there are no British owned TV manufacturers. In its presently proposed state the DDA looks likely to fall well short of expectations. The Government has decided to place the new organisation within DERA. Its £2 million budget, described as "paltry" by CAAT, is the equivalent of 0.0001 per cent of total arms expenditure. Fiona Draper of IPMS believes a DDA within a privatised DERA would prove totally ineffective: "What incentive would DERA have as a commercial body to pass on knowledge to other firms its in competition with." Any real commitment to diversification must also be questioned while DERA's 'Pathfinder' arm is out and about actively encouraging industry to generate new military ideas for the Agency to work on, and the Defence Export Service Organisation (DESO) are zealously promoting arms sales overseas with their air shows and arms conventions.

In response to the Green Paper, Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) have called for the DDA to be made independent of both DERA and the MoD, suggesting it could be situated within the DTI. "Any diversification agency within these bodies will be highly influenced by its environment," says CAAT's Rachel Harford. She points out that it was another election pledge to promote diversification and reduce arms exports. So Labour owe it to the British people to disband the DESO and put the money into a more powerful DDA. Webb also thinks, given the right conditions,the DDA has potential. He believes it should be a free-standing agency made up of scientists, businessmen, people from education, industry and defence, with trade unions, government departments, local authorities and the EU all playing a role. While wrangling continues over DERA's privatisation, perhaps the question should not be: How does DERA go forward? But: When does DERA stop doing what it does and set their immense cerebral reserve to some more relevant tasks. Are British people not sick of seeing their schools close, their jobs disappear and their relatives die on hospital waiting lists? Yet the government they elected still think it necessary to pour the majority of the nation's wealth into an industry that is like a dog chasing its own tail. Spending on research into undetectable aircraft is matched by that into planes that can detect anything. Despite the "defence" moniker, the aim is thinking up more effective ways of killing people. No doubt the new DERA will get a more cuddly name.

"Its not easy to persuade people that a tank is useful," says disgruntled, DERA spokeswoman, Helen Craven. No it's not. Yet DERA, along with the rest of Britain's defence industry, seem caught up in NATO's incessant push Eastwards. Britain's generals are still Empire building and it benefits the arms manufacturers to keep the Cold War alive. All the smart money is on the 'Smash it up - Rebuild it' school of economic thought. And with George Robertson at the helm? That'll do nicely - American Express? As author Tim Webb puts it: "Learning nothing from past mistakes of cost overruns and weapons designed for a world that no longer exists, the planners press ahead and the multinational manufacturers start jumping into bed with each other to promote their bids. A few dogs may bark but the armoured caravan moves on."

* The annual COPEX arms fair will take place 2-4 November at Sandown Park, Esher.
Campaign Against the Arms Trade are coordinating protests (including Non Violent Direct Action) against both events.
Ph: 0171 281 0297.

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