Weapons Trade Driving Ukraine War

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began (24 February 2022), there has been one clear runaway winner of the conflict — the global arms trade. After two years of near stagnation in the industry due to a pandemic emergency, the war in eastern Europe has been a massively lucrative lifeline for behemoth weapons manufacturers in the United States and Europe. The companies that are producing all the guns, the tanks, the fighter jets, and the surface-to-air missiles — industrial giants like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman — have seen their stock prices soar. BAE Systems, the largest arms manufacturer in Europe and Britain, has seen an index jump of 26 percent and the shares of Lockheed and Raytheon in the United States are up about 16 percent, bringing the combined value of this industry — which supplies all sides — to half a trillion dollars.

Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, the producers of the most technologically advanced killing machines in the world, have been openly telling their investors that Ukraine is good for business. Jim Taiclet, the CEO of the aerospace and defence company Lockheed Martin, was proud to tell his company’s shareholders that the ‘great power competition (between the US and Russia over Ukraine) bodes more business for the company.’ And he is not wrong. The more people killed, the more bullets fired, and the more missiles launched, the more Lockheed Martin can make and sell. This isn’t a war between developing countries. This is happening in the ‘civilised world,’ and all the big spenders — the United States, its NATO clients, and Russia — have brought their chequebooks. With a single Javelin launch unit retailing at $175,000 (plus change), this war — which Washington wants to see transformed into a long insurgency — promises the armaments industry profits it has not seen since the height of the Cold War. This is boom time in more ways than one.

Raytheon and Lockheed Martin’s CEOs have not been able to hide their glee. Their latest financial projections are showing early signs of their shares becoming ‘over lucrative business prospects’ for those fortunate enough to have a spare few million dollars to invest. And this promise of easy money for the super rich only brings to mind Eisenhower’s dire and prescient warning in his 1961 farewell address to the American people of a military industrial complex that would bring nothing but endless war and continual and untold suffering.

War in Ukraine is even better for business than the Cold War because it has opened up new markets. Not only will these companies be selling weapons to the warring sides, they will be selling to all the governments around Europe which have promised ‘lethal aid’ to the Kyiv regime — and this will also include Germany and Denmark, European states which have, since the Second World War, kept their defence spending to just that — defence. On 25 January, a month before Russian forces crossed into Ukraine, Raytheon CEO Gregory J. Hayes boasted:

We just have to look to last week where we saw the drone attack in the UAE … And of course, the tensions in eastern Europe, the tensions in the South China Sea, all of those things are putting pressure on some of the defence spending over there. So I fully expect we’re going to see some benefit from it.

‘Benefit’ means money, greens — returns, and there is plenty of it in the pipeline. Between 2016 and 2020 the US weapons manufacturers possessed 37 percent of the global market share in the arms trade, but the US is not the only winner. In just two days, the Israeli weapons firm Elbit Systems saw its share price jump 18 percent. Not even sanctions against Russia have slowed this astronomical growth; in some cases, regardless of the sanctions, the licensing of arms trades has gone on, with Britain pocketing an estimated £3.7 million in arms deals with Russia since the start of the war. Imagine that! British-made munitions killing British volunteers in the Ukrainian international mercenary brigades. And all the while the cash pouring into the industry is paying for an army of lobbyists working with politicians to persuade their governments to increase their defence budgets.

One significant weakness in any effort to slow or stop this march towards a wider conflict with Russia is that there are massive financial incentives for state governments which increase their military spending. As share prices continue to rise because of the conflict, billionaire investors — who have a clear economic interest in the escalation of the war — are getting richer. Consequently, they have more money to donate to politicians and political causes that are in line with their money interests. People invested in the arms industry do not profit from peace.

So, when the Russian invasion began there was a lot more money to be made and the investment-to-war chain reaction began. The European Union promised €450 million in military aid to Ukraine (not including what individual EU and NATO member states committed) and the United States threw in $350 million — this is on top of the $768 billion (or ten percent of the federal budget) the US is already spending on weapons annually. This sharp increase in demand, following the beautiful law of supply and demand, began to drive share prices up. In fact, the economy of the United States is completely dependent on arms manufacturing. It stands to reason, then, that the US government spends more on its military than any other nation and exports tens of billions of dollars worth of armaments every year. And now we have the Biden administration demanding that Congress cough up another $6.4 billion as part of a ‘lethal aid’ package. Out of the goodness of its heart — or so we are to believe — Washington is funding this war.

What is of great significance to the future of the peace and security of Europe in all of this is the rate at which Europe — the whole of Europe — is militarising. The boost in weapons sales comes in part from a development in the European Union. In a historic first, the EU has pledged money to a belligerent side in an international conflict. The EU — a trading block established in large part to ensure peace in Europe — has picked a side in a European war. Now, this fundamentally challenges the Congress of Vienna’s formula for peace on the continent; that the peace of Europe demands good relations with Russia. By remaining neutral — on the Ukrainian side — Brussels has in effect guaranteed a frosty relationship with Moscow, and thus taking us back to the geopolitical mistrust that fed every single pan-European conflict in history.

Another worrying development is the militarisation of Germany. The 1990 NATO-Soviet agreement Washington broke in order to instigate the Russian invasion of Ukraine was brokered between the US and Russia to ensure Germany would not rearm, and now the souring relationship between NATO and Russia has given Berlin cause to get back into the soldiering game. What appears to have gone under the radar in the din of the media circus conjured up by the western media’s war horniness is the fact Germany — the largest economy in the EU — has in fact rearmed. The German government has taken this opportunity to spend a whopping €100 billion to bring the Bundeswehr up to a state of battle readiness. This is precisely what European politics since 1945 — the partition of Germany, the European Union, and the NATO-Soviet agreement — has been all about. And not only this, Germany is spending more: ‘It is our duty to support Ukraine to the best of our ability in defending against Putin’s invading army,’ said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. ‘That is why we are delivering 1,000 antitank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles to our friends in Ukraine.’

Modern history has been a swinging pendulum between heady warmongering followed by regret and half-hearted attempts to stop future large-scale warfare — after the destruction and death of a major war of course. In the aftermath of the ‘Great War,’ with Britain having needlessly lost a significant proportion of its young male population in the slaughter of the trenches, the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George, acutely aware of the power of the arms industry to drive states to war, said that we ‘must eliminate the idea of profit of great and powerful interests in the manufacture of armaments.’ A sentiment echoed by Woodrow Wilson when he argued for the inclusion of the line in the Covenant of the League of Nations: ‘The manufacture by private enterprise of munitions and implements of war is open to grave objections.’ But that was way back then. The silly sloganism of a ‘war to end all wars’ soon became another war — one that resulted in the industrialised killing of eighty-five million people around the world.

Since 1945, following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US’ military industrial complex has relentlessly enriched wealthy western investors by fuelling wars and genocides in every corner of the world. They have devised a capitalistic mechanism with the power to stop the pendulum at a permanent state of warmongering — and why? Money! From 2017 Capitol Hill has been home to more than 700 arms industry lobbyists, whose job it is to keep international relations tense and to keep ordinary voters in a state of anxiety about imagined threats to national security. In terms of numbers, this is more than one lobbyist pushing weapons of war for every member of the United States Congress. This is the real threat to national security.

The Biden administration has been dogged day in and day out by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, pushing the White House to take action against Russia. What the CSIS does not broadcast, however, is that it was founded by Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics — the largest weapons makers in the United States. All of this is happening in light of the lessons of history. At the other end of the pendulum swing, back in 1921, the International Disarmament Commission informed the US government that weapons makers were ‘fomenting war scares, bribing government officials, disseminating false reports concerning the military programs of countries and organizing international armaments rings to accentuate the arms race by playing one country off against another.’ The West is militarising at an alarming speed — and we already know better.

Eisenhower realised what winning the Second World War had done to the arms industry, it had transformed it into a monster that would never see its manufacturing capabilities revert back to the production of cars and refrigerators. Making weapons and creating opportunities to use them was the future, and this — even after his warning — has remained the foundation of US power and global dominance ever since. The US is a truly massive economy which simply cannot function without conflict and war, and for this economy to continue and to continue to grow the United States government — as the sales team of the arms industry — has to be in the business of making war, wherever and whenever it can. The unipolar moment — since the end of the Cold War — has been a period of endless war, and in all of these wars and conflicts the US arms industry has been supplying the instruments one man needs to kill another. Now with Russia regaining its place in the world, the Biden administration has sanctioned the Russian weapons industry to ensure that the US and only the US will profit from endless war and endless death.

The morning after the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941), the lead article in The Wall Street Journal declared: ‘War with Japan means industrial revolution in the United States.’ Fighting the Japanese Empire in the Pacific and the Germans in Europe would awaken an industrial giant; with coal and steel, shipbuilding and armaments, and agriculture and the food industry all getting in behind the war effort. Full industrial mobilisation truly awakened the United States to its potential as a global manufacturing powerhouse, and in this it saw the incalculable benefit of a synthesis of state interests, weapons production, and the economy for the future ambitions of the United States. The realisation of the military industrial complex opened the way for the US to move from hemispheric domination to global dominance. Through the Cold War, this new industrial revolution deeply entrenched the arms industry into the economic and political structures of the country.

With the power to make money on this scale, the US weapons industry gained the leverage within the world’s largest and wealthiest capitalist country to bring about the lucrative promise of endless war — driving one US administration after another to make war, support brutal military juntas, and supply weapons to the Soviet Union’s enemies right around the planet. This power was mutually beneficial to government and private industry, expanding the United States’ global influence and making weapons makers rich beyond their wildest dreams — and giving the industry the economic and political clout to ensure war was America’s number one priority.

‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired,’ said Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address, ‘signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.’ The arms trade is worth an estimated $2 trillion a year, a sum of money which translates to unfathomable political influence and military might — the actual cost of ignoring the plight of the cold and hungry. War creates hunger, and the cold and hunger experienced by the victims of war — the blood they spill — is worth a great deal of money to the people who invest in this industry. Yet, it does not have to be like this. In a 2007 study by the University of Massachusetts it was found that a billion dollars spent on renewable energy, education, and  healthcare would generate more jobs than a billion dollars spent on ‘defence.’

‘Why,’ asked Pope Francis, addressing the United States Congress in 2015, ‘are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.’ He was speaking to the government of a country plagued by an epidemic of school shootings — children taking firearms from their family homes to school to murder their fellow students. He was speaking to the government of a country where the first response to gun violence is more guns. His Holiness, the Holy Father, did not miss and hit the wall when he identified the problem — the arms trade and the evils it causes. ‘In the face of this shameful and culpable silence,’ he said, ‘ it is our duty to confront the problem and stop the arms trade.’ Unless we heed that message, we will continue to live in a world pushed to ever more violence and war by a superpower state that simply cannot function without people killing people. Without the arms trade, there would be no war in Ukraine.

Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies
The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.


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