Home > Archives > 11 - 2007 > The power of weapons
from issue no. 11 - 2007

ANALYSIS. The weight of the interests of the armaments industry in deciding on war

The power of weapons

As far back as the ’sixties President Eisenhower warned the United States of the danger from the military-industrial complex. An interview with Professor Maurizio Simoncelli of the Archivio disarmo

Interview with Maurizio Simoncelli by Davide Malacaria

A column of US tanks in the desert on the Iraq border

A column of US tanks in the desert on the Iraq border

«In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.» It was on 17 January 1961 that Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States, by then at the end of his mandate, made this speech. It was the first time that the term “military-industrial complex” had been used to indicate a merging of interests capable of influencing the domestic and foreign policies of the United States. Decades have passed, but those words appear more relevant than ever. Afghanistan, Iraq and, there is the fear, in the future Iran... There are those who wonder whether much of this US strong-arm policy may not be due precisely to the weight, and to the interests, of the military-industrial complex. The more wars, the more business. In short, in the word of Alberto Sordi, whilst there’s war there’s hope. We asked for explanation and data from Maurizio Simoncelli, former Professor of the Geopolitics of Conflict at the Third University of Rome and member of the board of Archivio disarmo, an international institute researching into weapons control, industrial reconversion and the prevention of conflict. It was he who pointed to Eisenhower’s speech as showing that the fear of the influence of the US military-industrial complex wasn’t something that arose out of anti-American feeling nor out of the pacifist movement since the President had formerly been a US Army general, and as such, one guesses, had come across the danger in person...

What is meant by US military-industrial complex?
MAURIZIO SIMONCELLI: A combination of industry, the upper ranks of the armed forces and political groups. Specifically, there is a process taking place whereby industries involved in the military sector are ever more integrated with the Pentagon. And not simply through liaison officers. Normally the armament companies, in the widest sense of the term, house permanent Pentagon offices. Private companies in which hundreds of people work who are not employed by the contractor but the Secretariat of Defense. Additionally, the interconnection is clear in the intense swapping of roles and posts: top ranking officers who, once retired, join the boards of weapons companies and contractors who end up on the benches of Congress... This lobby has more than a little influence on the economic choices of the country, but also on the funding priorities and the foreign policy itself of the United States. Still more alarming is that it is happening to the best armed power in the world.
Does the fact that military bases are present in every electoral college influence the politicians?
SIMONCELLI: The weapons industry is located throughout the national territory and every congressman or senator must take account of it, both at the moment of an election and during his term. One must also consider that the troops – we’re talking of about three million men and women – make up 1.5% of the US population: a not indifferent slice of the electorate.
How much weight does the weapons industry have in the American economy?
SIMONCELLI: According to the SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the most authoritative research institute on these matters), in 2006 the United States spent 528.7 billion dollars on defense, 46% of the world total spent for that purpose. To get a comparative idea, the second country to invest most in defense was the United Kingdom with 59 billion, then France with 53 billion, followed by China with 49 billion and Russia with 34.7 billion. Russian spending is on the increase, but we are very far from what happened during the Cold War; there is only one world superpower now... In recent years there has been a real boom in military spending in the United States, going from the 345 billion dollars of 2001 to the 528.7 of 2006, with an increase of around 180 billion in the space of five years. Money, obviously, going to the weapons industry. Another significant figure that well shows the growth in the sector is that for exports. In 2006 the US exported weapon systems (mostly planes, ships, armored vehicles, submarines, etc., since the market in small arms, though flourishing, is very much less profitable) to the tune of 7.929 billion dollars. Six of the ten leading companies in the sector are American; seven among the first twelve. At one time exports from the United States and the Soviet Union were even, today Russia exports analogous quantities, but of technologically inferior quality, destined to a more modest market, mostly to the Third World. The US devotes around 3.04% of its GDP (a remarkable figure in itself) to the defense sector, compared with 5.06% devoted to education and 6.06% devoted to health. Other western countries, such as the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Canada, devote smaller percentages of their GDP to defense (2.4%, 2.5%, 2.1 % and 1.02% respectively). The same with China (2.05%), while Russia has begun rearming and gone beyond the American percentage (4%).
Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan been profitable for the US weapons industry? Do you have figures?
SIMONCELLI: These wars have enabled an increase in supplies not only to the American army, but also to allied countries, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan. All the American weapons companies have shared in the boom. In the military vehicle sector the turnover of Am General, of Armor Holdings and of Oshkosh Truck rose respectively from 690 million dollars to 1,050, from 610 to 1,190 and from 770 to 1,060 between 2004 and 2005. In the field of helicopters L-3 Communications went from 5,970 million dollars to 8,970. Finally Northrop Grumman went from a turnover of 25,970 to 27,590 million dollars. An amazing increase when you consider that it’s a matter of only twelve months. Such sudden growth hasn’t occurred in the civilian sector. Additionally, for some years now, various tasks previously carried out by the army have been privatized: the setting up of camps, their security, provisioning, etc. The private security firms, the so-called contractors, have even been given military functions. A whole industry with a turnover of billions of dollars, non-existent previously, has blossomed around the military sector.
Is it true that US technological development is due more to the weapons industry than to civilian industries?
SIMONCELLI: About 30% of the scientists and engineers engaged in the research sector and scientific and technological development are linked to military type industries. According to the figures of the National Science Foundation, 52.7% of the national budget devoted to scientific development, around 46 billion dollars, goes to the military sector. A very much higher percentage compared to that of other western countries. Compare that, on the other hand, to Japan’s 4.3% and Germany’s 7.1% funding of the sector… Based on these figures one can say that American technological and scientific development is doubly bound up with the weapons sector. Very many products in everyday use were created for a military purpose: think of satellite navigators, an extreme simplification of the Cruise guidance systems; or of the Internet itself, created as the “Intranet” of US defense. Looking at this model of development, Seymour Melman, the foremost expert on the American military economy, described the US economy as a war economy, more precisely an economy of permanent war.
Wars provide a great chance to test new weapons and enable a qualitative leap in the product to be put on the market...
SIMONCELLI: Certainly. Firing ranges aren’t enough for the testing of weapon systems. Their reliability must be tested in extreme situations, that is during conflict. Think of the “smart” bombs tried out on a wide scale in the first Iraqi war, or the drones, in the second intervention in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And not just that. Some weapons, by their very nature, can’t be tested on firing ranges, as, for example, bullets of impoverished-uranium. Still now little is known about the effects on the health of the people, civilians and military, who were in range of the radiation. Weapons of that kind don’t get tested on the firing range…
There are people who have suggested that US industrial development is closely connected with the wars that the country has fought...
SIMONCELLI: There is, in fact, some relevant data. The 1929 crash and slump of the following years finished with the Second World War. Immediately after the end of the war there was a period of stagnation in the US economy that ended between 1947 and 1948 with the start of the Cold War. In 1989, however, and the end of the Cold War, everything changed. It was a period of crisis in the weapons industries: some laid people off, others shut down, but mostly there was reorganization in the form of mergers between various companies. A process of concentration that created the current giants in the sector. The boom in the military sector only came about in 2001...
With the beginning of the war on terrorism... So the thesis gets confirmed.
SIMONCELLI: Up to a certain point. The link between war and overall development isn’t axiomatic. And that because the weapons industry has a very different dynamic from civilian industry. First of all, because for any substantial growth there has to be some crisis, some conflict. The turnover chart of a weapons firm doesn’t have the kind of curve that civilian industries have in general. If you look at a graph showing the economic development of a weapons company you see peaks and sharp falls, resulting from moments of crisis or detente. So there is intrinsic instability. To which is to be added an element of global imbalance: the behavior of the products in this sector does not conform to any marketing logic. If to be sold in the civilian field a commodity needs to look like a bargain, in the military sector, on the contrary, crucial outcomes and reasons of national security demand the total reliability of the product, even if the cost for the buyer, in general the State, is high. It goes without saying that hypertrophy in military funding entails an increase in public expenditure that causes an imbalance in any national economy.
A Bosnian soldier passing among tons of munitions destined to be destroyed, 
in Doboj, near Sarajevo, in November 2006

A Bosnian soldier passing among tons of munitions destined to be destroyed, in Doboj, near Sarajevo, in November 2006

Agreed, but in the past wars have energized civilian industry.
SIMONCELLI: Massive military spending ensures jobs and positive turnover for the defense industry. In one way or another that has positive effects on the whole national economy, but the ever more sophisticated technological characteristics of the various weapon systems now has diminishing spin-off in the civilian field. Just to give an obvious example, the expensive Stealth invisible fighter-bomber has characteristics opposite to those required for a civilian plane, which must instead be economical and altogether visible to the control tower. And that is part of a picture in which various US industrial sectors are simply marching on the spot, and the trade deficit – caused by the increase in the price of oil and competition from China – are weighing very negatively on the American economy. Just to give an idea of the difficulties in which the US economy is struggling: according to OECD figures, in 2004 China exported ICT (Information and Communication Technology) goods worth 180 billion dollars, against the 149 billions of the United States, that had been world market leader the previous year. The difficulties caused to US industry by foreign imports is also testified by the weakness of the dollar, kept down so as to favor national industries.
It has been said: once upon a time weapons were made so as to make war, now wars are made so as to make weapons...
SIMONCELLI: Mankind has always tried to furnish itself with weapons so as to impose its will by violence. Thus the weapons industry has, over time, become an enormous business in some countries. Today the system, as Eisenhower warned us, can influence international relations, at times succeeding in its push for military options even when not necessary. We need to be vigilant.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português