The UK government spends £37bn on the arms industry every year. What if that was invested in green energy instead, asks Andrew Smith
Today the UK has the sixth largest military budget in the world and fuels conflicts globally by selling arms to a number of the most aggressive and authoritarian regimes. In recent years British weapons have been used in Israel’s attacks on Gaza, and to repress democracy movements in Hong Kong and across the Middle East.
But the UK could use its international influence to promote green energy rather than militarism and war. Offshore wind and marine energy rely on similar skills to the arms trade. Both are growing fields, but are underfunded and in need of government support if their potential is to be realised.
Unfortunately the UK has been all too happy to promote war as a force for good. Following last year’s NATO Summit the UK’s business minister Matthew Hancock said: “As part of our long term economic plan, we are working closely with the defence sector to secure new investment, highly-skilled jobs and build a better and brighter future for Britain.”
This exposes the same flawed, militaristic outlook that has driven industrial policy for far too long. The reality is that if we are really to build a better and brighter future, and secure jobs, then the government needs to shift its priorities. We should be focusing on more positive, productive sectors.
Subsiding conflict or building a safer world?
The arms industry doesn’t act in isolation. The government provides it with a disproportionate level of political and financial support. Every year the public subsidises arms companies by hundreds of millions of pounds. BAE Systems, for example, has long-term contracts that guarantee a minimum income of £230m per year from the public purse.
Government ministers argue that this money is needed to protect highly skilled manufacturing jobs and promote security. But such a narrow focus on military strength disregards the real security threats. The underlying drivers of national and international insecurity are climate change and the sustainability and security of our energy sources. Currently the UK is a large net importer of energy, with imports accounting for 47% of UK energy use in 2013.
In the UK there is a severe skills shortage in science, technology, engineering and maths. Many sectors would be grateful recipients of investment and displaced arms industry workers, and could do a lot more to tackle non-military threats.
The renewable sector is one such area. It is growing and its workforce uses many of the same skills as those in the arms trade. Yet in 2013 the government spent 25 times more on arms research and development (R&D) (£1.46bn) than it did on R&D for renewable energy (£58.6m).
The UK is in a strong position to play its part in tackling climate change. It has the largest wind resources in Europe and has substantial wave and tidal resources that could be instrumental in creating a greener and better society. But an industry-wide skills shortage and a lack of investment has lead to missed opportunities. At present only 25% of the parts that make up UK wind turbines are made in the UK, while three quarters are imported, meaning we are missing out on large numbers of supply chain jobs.
New and better jobs
There are up to 170,000 jobs in the UK arms industry. This follows a long term decline in arms trade jobs and stands at less than half of what it was 20 years ago. The arms industry’s trade association (ADS), estimates that of these jobs the number employed in arms exports is 55,000, which accounts for around 0.2% of the UK workforce.
It seems likely that the decline in arms industry jobs will continue. An international survey of arms company chief executives found that “the near-universal expectation is for a decline” in spending and jobs.
In comparison, research by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade shows that a move towards offshore wind and marine energy could benefit us all by providing greater security from environmental threats and by producing more jobs than the entire arms industry. Our estimate is that the right investment and government support could help to create over 300,000 jobs in offshore wind and marine energy alone. This estimate is based on building the domestic supply chain for renewable energy, including placing obligations on companies to locate and develop skills in local communities.
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Like the arms trade, the renewable energy sector is highly skilled. It has a similar breakdown across broad categories of skill levels and employs many of the same branches of engineering. As Dr Sandy Wilson, the president of General Dynamics UK, told the parliamentary Defence Committee: “The skills that might be divested of a reducing defence industry do not just sit there waiting to come back. They will be mopped up by other industries that need such skills… You can think of the upsurge in nuclear and alternative energy as being two areas that would mop up those people almost immediately.”
A shift from arms to renewables could ensure that appropriate work is available in the main areas where arms workers are located, with thousands of supply chain jobs that could be located anywhere in the country. This would provide both better jobs for workers and a better outcome for society as a whole. With fewer people personally involved in the war industries, we may also see public attitudes begin to shift away from militarism and conflict.
Making the choice
Even the pro-arms trade foreign secretary Philip Hammond has said that the opportunities offered by the green economy are “immense”.
The government has to make a choice about the kind of society it wants to build. By halving the military procurement bill the government could save around £7bn per year, with an additional £700m being saved by ending arms export subsidies. This money could make a huge impact when it comes to developing the green economy.
These changes would not just transform industrial policy; they would also lead to a radical, transformative change across our society. The contrast between the waste and destruction of the arms trade and the potential benefits of the renewable energy sector is stark. The arms trade thrives on war, conflict and insecurity, with devastating consequences around the world. In comparison, an investment in renewables would show a shift in mentality and could create hundreds of thousands of new and positive jobs, allowing the UK to use its influence positively.
This change will need investment and concerted UK government effort at the level currently devoted to the arms industry. It will also need highly-skilled engineers – such as those currently working for arms companies. But there is a role for all of us if we are to make the government shift priorities, create more and better jobs, and build a safer world for all.
First published by Open Democracy