BAE Systems engages in sales of advanced weaponry to the United Kingdom’s allies globally, directly contributing to the 7,665 airstrikes that have hit Syria in the last two years. Is it ethically accountable for the UK to be a leading power in creating advanced weaponry when it gives rise to unfavorable impacts on human life? Or are the net benefits of weapons as deterrents and economic stimuli a force for good? This article aims to create discussion around BAE Systems’ role as a weapons manufacturer and its impact around the world.
Weapons as deterrents
“There is, in the world in which we all live, the principle of speaking softly but carrying a big stick – and that very often encourages people to negotiate” argued Sir Roger Carr at the recent BAE Systems annual general meeting – “we try and provide our people, our government, our allies with the very best weapons, the very best sticks they can have, to encourage peace.” Applying ethics of care principles to the business of warmongering is useless in the realm of engineering, rather, one must take a pragmatic view of the ethical cycle. The question of whether BAE Systems conducts its advanced weaponry business ethically is grounded by the principle that conflict will always exist; as such, it is human nature for distrust to fester. Hence, a case can be made that to cease the supply of advanced weaponry to responsible nations would in fact not be principled martyrdom, but ethical suicide.
As Carr points out, advanced weaponry can often prove a very effective deterrent to conflict in the first place – but furthermore, as an influential western arms dealer, BAE Systems also has the opportunity to minimize collateral damage in war zones. The supply of advanced weaponry with high levels of precision allows for targeted airstrikes that eliminate the specific threat to life posed by the target, with a minimal loss of civilian life. Now contrast this with the alternative of withdrawing supply. Undoubtedly, unprincipled arms distributors would step into cover the gap in the market, supplying less precise weaponry. The most recent major example of aging, unguided weaponry being supplied to a war zone is Russian support of President Assad’s disputed and morally reprehensible regime in Syria – which has since caused a humanitarian crisis in Aleppo. Permitting the growth of such regressive means of conflict (potentially including the rise of chemical weaponry) is the alternative to BAE supplying advanced weaponry, and so abandoning western influence on the global arms market can only lead one way – to a greater disregard for international humanitarian law. In any case, this cannot be considered a morally acceptable action – and so by default, if nothing else, the alternative of BAE Systems supplying sophisticated weaponry must be considered ethical. Such rationality illustrates why ethics of care fails to provide an acceptable moral solution in this case.
Utilitarianism and regulation of the arms market
From a utilitarian viewpoint, the sustainment of powerful weaponry enables a country to defend its people and provide assistance in foreign conflicts where there is a suffering population. Doing so arguably protects a majority of people.
Furthermore, with the FTSE 100 index about to suffer from Brexit uncertainty, the nation’s industrial future is at risk. BAE System’s economic contribution is critical for jobs in turbulent times. The UK defence industry employs 300,000 people, supplies 10 per cent of the country’s manufacturing and engineering jobs, and has a turnover of £35bn through 9,000 different companies. BAE Systems has a pivotal role in ensuring the UK economy’s prosperous future by being the real driver of the next skills generation: promoting STEM subject pathways, through which graduates get into engineering.
Additionally, as a result of the profits from the manufacture and sale of arms, BAE Systems provides a backbone of technical support to other market sectors – for example building solutions for other industries such as transport; including the digital transformation of the UK rail network.
There are a number of key international weapons regulations, whereby some governments have very robust arms trade control systems in place, but other governments are fuelling the illicit and irresponsible trade in arms by having weak control systems or non at all. BAE Systems ensures risks like this are minimised by implementing an Arms Trade Treaty that reduces and prevents excessive conflict, via making it difficult for armed groups that commit human rights abuses to acquire a ready flow of arms. The treaty provides an important framework for well-regulated defence trade and the reduction of illegal arms sales around the world.
Money should be invested in diplomacy instead of fuelling war and destruction.
BAE Systems deals with numerous countries which do not rank favorably on the human freedom index. The sale of advanced weaponry demonstrates, solely, an archaic form of diplomacy which is not apt for the modern world, where conflict is rife and human life is priceless. Arms do not have to be the prime medium through which diplomacy is navigated. The UK should explore other avenues; China for all its prowess utilizes Pandas as a bargaining tool to advance their agenda with other world powers.
Joseph Nye, named this “Soft Power”. By using civilian instruments of national security such as strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action and economic reconstruction – relationships are built on the exchange of culture and knowledge as opposed to exploiting their perceived insecurity.
BAE Systems could incorporate promotion of this moral intellectualism into their budget, where exchange of intelligence and civic action lead to stronger mutual relationships developing without the transfer of arms.
Destruction created by the weaponry not only physically affects those that are targeted but also creates a long-term drop in quality of life for citizens.
Millions of civilians have fled Syria due to the destruction of their homes and lack of basic amenities. Around two million people struggle to find clean water in Aleppo, as airstrikes have been targeted the water infrastructure of the city and this has cut civilian access to clean drinking water.
Furthermore, refugee camps such as those in Za’atari camp in Jordan contain only temporary solutions for progressively longer-term issues such as maternity centres and wash blocks. This is the environment the next generation are being born into and are therefore starting life with an inherent handicap.
BAE Systems could adopt an ethics of care framework which would allow them to reconsider and understand the severity of the consequences of their actions; principally selling such weapons.
There is no foolproof way of determining the end user of advanced weaponry, or of usage intentions – but by not producing such weaponry, BAE Systems could avoid any risk of misuse.
The weapons produced can be lost in conflict and can potentially end up in the hands of extremists who do not share western values and hence could be used against the UK. BAE Systems supply weapons to Oman which has a Corruption Perception Index (CPI) of 64 out of 120 countries marking it as relatively corrupt. Such corruption can create large uncertainty around the end users of advanced weaponry.
Group 2: Hira Nayyar, Samuel Wakerley, Pritha Banerjee, Boboi Rahedi