The ethics of advanced weaponry: should we expect BAE Systems to care?

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


20 thoughts on “The ethics of advanced weaponry: should we expect BAE Systems to care?

  1. An interesting and thought-provoking article. The concluding thought that the only way to avoid the misuse of weapons is to not produce them is well made. I was particularly intrigued by your suggestion that the production of such weapons can only be defended under the assumption that conflict will always exist. Seems to suggest that continued warfare is very much in the interests of BAE Systems and they would have no reason to oppose it with their profits in mind. I also hadn’t heard of panda diplomacy so that was a nice touch too, lightened the tone of what could have been a dense article.


  2. Interesting article! However, whilst China may well use soft power initiatives, this is backed up by the country’s military prowess. This reality surely reinforces the notion that weapons, whilst not always the primary method, will always constitute some part of the diplomatic process, consequently rendering the idea of non-production an unworkable solution?


  3. Great Article and an excellent read!
    The article covers both sides brilliantly but I have to agree with the 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 and there is no foolproof way of determining the end user of advanced weaponry, or of usage intentions.
    Defence companies such as BAE Systems will continue to raise ethical dilemmas, due to vast amount of yearly production of missiles, rocket launchers, warships etc. On one hand, I do believe it does help protect innocent civilians from outside threats, but overall I strongly feel these weapons are being used to kill more innocent people than to protect them. History backs this claim up, as we have witnessed past World Wars, the Vietnam War, the Afghanistan War or more recently the Middle Eastern crises, and they have only led to nations/families being destroyed as a consequence. I believe no one wins these wars, but they only lead to destruction and distraught populations.
    We can hope for a better future but with the current world crises, things aren’t looking great!


  4. Personally, I’d agree that the weapons business in general is highly problematic, especially with so many different factors in play (particularly the moral/ethical ones!). You make the point that if BAE and other like companies were to stop supplying advanced weaponry, presumably an underground weapons market would quickly fill the gap left by the more above-board organisations. The proliferation of weapons worldwide brings to mind the current situation with firearms in America; their rationale seems to echo a worldwide attitude of inevitability regarding weapons – i.e. ‘the only way to be safe is to have the same or better weapons as everyone else, just in case’, hence the ongoing weapons development industry etc etc. The extent to which this proliferation can be halted or reduced seems to me to rest on changing this ingrained attitude from isolationist fear into something more cooperative. For example, would there be any potential for BAE/others to organise an amnesty for older or unwanted weaponry for redevelopment and ultimate resale (presumably/hopefully into something other than weaponry…!) in exchange for an investment or donation to that country’s economy? There would clearly need to be deeper global political change to make any credible difference, but surely there is the potential for weapons developers to do more to mitigate the consequences of their actions?


  5. A few thoughts of mine on this topic and this article:

    Weapons as a deterrent are only effective to the point where our weapon technology is equal to or superior to our potential allies. Without new significant investment by the UK government, export income is key to funding R&D for new weapons technology. Therefore in order to adequately defend our nation, the government must either spend a fortune on r&d itself or allow arms exports to occur to help pay for our defence.

    Many weapons systems produced by BAE are expensive and require a military apparatus of a scale that most of their products can only be used effectively by governments and would be unusable if they fell into the hands of non-state users. eg aircraft, armoured vehicles or ships.

    Arms production and exports are a major form of soft power in themselves – having a leading arms company under the control of the UK government means we can influence other nations by using arms trade agreements to bring them into our sphere of influence, and as such can use arms agreements to incentivise other nations to improve their human rights record (for example). If BAE ceased to exist, other nations may look to other major arms exporting countries such as Russia, who may have less noble goals.

    Clausewitz wrote “war is a continuation of policy by other means”, Warfare occurs because of decisions made by governments, not arms companies. BAE did not cause the situation in Syria any more than Ford causes traffic fatalities. It is up to the owner of weaponry to decide how to use it, The mere existence of weaponry is not unethical, but how it is used.

    Sales of weaponry are already heavily regulated internationally and BAE cannot trade the majority of its products overseas without government approval. As such it is up to the government to decide what is ethically correct. A business’s only goal should be to supply a demand in the market – it is up to governments to decide what industries pose ethical considerations and require regulation, BAE cannot and should not simply stop existing because its products are used to kill; supplying a demand is not unethical, even if the demand itself is (in my view).

    The only way to control the arms trade effectively is by international agreement, If BAE stopped producing weaponry there would be no shortage of other companies and countries more than willing to fill the gap in supply. By having a major arms dealer under UK control, at least we can attempt to use such influence for good, and attempt to create some ethical considerations in an otherwise relatively amoral industry.


  6. I would say that weapons are not inherently unethical, but the profit motive behind them always is. Even if the weapons are ostensibly being produced for defense, the manufacturer has an incentive to see them used or they’ll be out of a job. It’s impossible to ethically mass produce weapons because as soon as peace is achieved, you have to keep looking for conflicts elsewhere to keep the money flowing. For example, even in peacetime the USA has steadily funneled arms to various conflicts all over the world.


  7. A very meaningful topic of discussion in the present geopolitical environment.Let me begin with China’s “panda” diplomacy.Does a totalitarion single party ruled China practice diplomacy the way the civilised democracies do? How else can you describe their clandestine support to the two most notorious nations of Pakistan and North Korea. Fortunately or unfortunately in life we need to choose between an evil and a lesser evil. BAE systems for me is the lesser evil.Yes it thrives on war and profits from human sufferings. But then somewhere down the line they try to remain ethical as decided by a majority of right thinking humanity. Because the other option of unregulated weaponry falling in the hands of insane individuals or groups can annihilate mankind,just like the sacred nuclear non proliferation treaty which every nation tries to protect. I am from a place where mosquito repellent companies also make obnoxious profits year after year!


  8. Well argued from both sides.

    A big stick can be effective if used appropriately, weapons research should strive to make sure the impact is focused and the collateral is kept to a minimum. The key is making sure the target is effective and yields the desired result. That is down to the competence of the politicians.

    Pandas are a business commodity used for either financial or political gain by the Chinese, I have seen this in many countries / city zoo’s where people are lining up to see the new panda aquisitions. They are rented out and its a simple business proposition as to whether they draw a big enough paying crowd.


  9. BAE systems is an important clog in the developed worlds “war supported economy”. This began with the rampant colonialism of European countries and the scars are all too visible to every one. Many conflicts in today’s world can be attributed to colonialism. The rulers have left, their fights are now won and lost by their proxy’s to whom companies like BAE supply weaponry. The developed world can couch their sales of advanced weaponry, in terms that Sir Carr uses, but you cant avoid the fact that there are no good killings and bad killings. The Assad regime was one of the most stable, secular regimes in the middle east until developed world geo politics intervened.
    The article raises many disturbing but important issues that need to be pondered over, however they can by no stretch of imagination support the ideologies of money spinning companies like BAE who along with the regimes that support them thrive on the premise that their arms are a pillar of world peace.


  10. Thought provoking article!

    It is very difficult to judge whether companies in the arms business are behaving ethically. There should be pressure from public/stake holder so that the BAE System at least serves responsibly and look at who they sell to.


  11. Well written article. As long as arms are used as a deterrent and used as a last resort. As long as they do not target life in any shape or form. As long as they help in bringing about lasting peace on earth, they seem to have served their purpose.


  12. A very powerful and current topic, depicting both sides excellently!
    The closing remark about the fact there is no way of determining the end user of advanced weaponry and their usage intentions summarises well the need to stop producing such weaponry and its misuse. This has been evident as weapon manufactures such as BAE Systems sell these to states with atrocious human rights records (Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Qatar, Zimbabwe, etc) and have also been found guilty of horrendous corruption by the UK and US governments. There is no role of weapons in the future, as global security can’t be based on threats of mass destruction. And I think Russia and the Ukraine crisis is a perfect case-in-point. Through NATO, the United States keeps almost 200 tactical weapons in Europe. These weapons did nothing to prevent the crisis from developing in Ukraine, and they’re useless in addressing it. Therefore, I think the crisis in Ukraine a great example of the fact that these weapons can’t address the many challenges that we face in the 21st Century. We can’t use them to tackle threats posed by rogue states, failed states, proliferation, regional conflicts, terrorism, cyber warfare. None of these problems can be solved by nuclear weapons. In fact, their existence only magnifies the potential danger. Advanced weaponry is a barbaric tool of the 20th Century that should have no place in the 21st.
    Finally, there will always be a risk that weapons will be developed by another state or will be acquired in some way by non-state actors so long as these weapons exist. The only way to bring that risk down to zero is to drain the swamp, eliminate these weapons and essentially stop manufacturers like BAE Systems from distributing and producing them.


  13. Interesting Article and a good read!
    My thoughts strongly oppose the utilitarianism and regulation of the arms market claim.
    I believe all companies exploit people to make a profit. It is just a case of how, where and who. In the case of BAE Systems the people exploited are its workers (in the extraction of surplus labour) and the victims of wars fought with BAE-manufactured weapons. I don’t view the exploitation of one group of people by another for personal profit as acceptable. The permeation of the profit motive into warfare results in the perpetuation and escalation of conflict worldwide. Not to mention the diversion of funds from beneficial public spending to destructive ends.
    A more realistic claim is that the arms trade exists as a predictable eventuality of capitalism running its course. There are systemic problems within capitalism that need to be confronted, not explained away or ignored. BAE apologists are trying to have their cake and eat it too (something leftists get accused of far too often); the profit motive is responsible for its victims as well as its beneficiaries.


  14. A very good read. The discussion is what moral constraints should those who design and develop weaponry put in place?This could also be seen as limiting the kind of engineering development that is acceptable. My take …professionally the engineer should have the liberty to think or design all kinds of items under the sun. The liberty to discover and develop new knowledge has greatly contributed to our civilization. The question of moral or ethical consideration for BAE System should rest with state policy and political decision makers(the peoples representatives)…those that chose to apply the weaponry on Syria. It should be noted that BAE Systems meets a need that other business would meet if BAE Systems did not exist! A lot of times business like BAE Systems are commissioned by the state to develop these weapons. It has been said that the long period of peace (generally) since World War Two, has been as a result of the nuclear deterrent…which is a very moral side to powerful weaponry!


  15. Difficult subject to tackle, but well presented. However I think it is naive to believe that sophisticated weapons are the main reason for destruction and devastation of humanity. Looking into history, Genghis khan did not use sophisticated weapon to conquer half the world, and the Spanish inquisition certainly did not use sophisticated weapons to kill hundreds of millions of fellow citizens. Thousands of millions have perished in the name of religion.
    Faced with North Korea and ISIS, where logic and diplomacy has no leverage, kill before getting killed appears to be a reasonable policy. Remember the only country in the world to use nuclear weapon for deliberate mass destruction was the USA, and it ended the second world war. Did anyone ever suggest taking the US president to the international court of law for committing genocide? A genocide it was to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Was that act less heinous than Hitler’s actions? But then USA was on the winning side, and the war was ended.
    Iraq was a prosperous country before 1991. Saddam Hussain, its leader was supposed to be an evil man. The righteous forces attacked Iraq, and twenty five years down the line, the Middle East is a bubbling cauldron. Why are the Western nations so hell bent on regime change and unleashing untold human tragedy? Why is Assad a bad man, and the Western leaders who violate his sovereign country the good ones? Libya was a prosperous nation ten years ago, today it is a mess.
    It is not the weapon that causes destruction, devastation and death. It is the thought of superiority and righteousness that has killed more people than all the plagues and epidemics and natural calamities put together. Do not fear the weapon, fear the wielder’s mind.


  16. In an ideal world, weapons would be redundant. However, the world in which we live, and in which mankind has always lived, is far from ideal. There is, therefore, a big argument in favour of militarily equipping forces of ‘good’ on this earth with the latest technology, in order to ward off the forces of ‘evil’. Now, who is ‘good’ and who is ‘evil’ could be a matter of endless debate. If BAE weaponry is sold to forces fighting a ruthless, lawless, murderous lot, threatening civilisation as we know it, and who cannot be made to see reason by any peaceful means (ref. the air strikes in Syria mentioned in the opening lines of the above text), there should be no qualms on anybody’s part . The weapons and methods of deployment, however, need to be more and more precise in order to avoid collateral damage as far as possible.


  17. Anyone who stays abreast of International news will agree that armed conflict is still very much a part of our world. It is rather naïve to think that restricting BAE systems will suddenly prevent conflict. The recent bombing in Syria was neither decided nor directed by BAE systems. If their weapons systems were not available to the Governments who decreed this course of action, other weapon systems would have been used. Panda diplomacy has been mentioned, but no pandas are being utilised in the current crisis in the South China Sea – it is very much the naval warships of China which are the biggest sticks in that region. From the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo British history has repeatedly shown that periods of peace lead to demands for reducing military expenditure, which then finds the British armed forces severely depleted of men and equipment when the next war commences.


  18. A thought provoking article which has been nicely scripted to highlight the ethics of Advanced weaponry Business and it’s role as a responsive deterrent towards spread of fringe warfare and civilian casualties.An organization like BAE has developed after decades of Research and development , manufacturing and managerial excellence thereby developing core competencies in Advanced Weaponry Business.BAE should strategically develop Weaponry Business and forge into newer Technology areas like clean fuel, transportation, nuclear medicine, water conservation,climate control to benefit societies worldwide.Also Marketing focus of BAE should be on countries known for their Democratic and Human Rights .BAE should step up their share of Business contribution to UK economy but over a period of time weaponry Business should be balanced with Technology Business of civilian interests as listed.Warfare is a result of political action but BAE needs to manage their Advanced Weaponry Business ethically with a focus on Democratic and Human right values .


  19. J S SODHI
    As students of management, we are always told that being ethical is the only way for an industry to survive for long term. Compromise with ethics for business may reap short term benefits but it could not ensure your success for long periods. Look at Volkswagen. It had won all the ethical awards and was considered one of the successful ethical companies of the world. But their emissions scandal has totally shattered that myth. They are paying dealy for the same. This is true of a large number of other companies. The business motto in today’s competitive world is that companies cannot survive by being totally ethical.
    The question of ethics of BAE systems is clear cut. It is manufacturing advanced weaponry which would only result in human tragedies and the more it is used the more is the business of the company. How so ever they couch it in the name of a deterrent or peace, they are like many others manufacturing weapons of human suffering. Any industry whose products create sufferings for the human beings cannot be described as ethical .After all, having consciousness about our responsibility towards the society is at the core of being ethical


  20. A thoroughly worked argument with a good consideration of contemporary realities and responses, all the while framed over the ethical cycle. However, Your rejection of care ethics perhaps misses its point. For BAE, it would be the case that they must ask themselves: what is the most ethical response to the current situation for us? Rather than ‘BAE are wrong because they supplied weapons to X, who then used them to kill civilians’, ethical judgement does not come in judgement of consequence but rather looking at how BAE could cultivate care into their future actions and those they have supplied weapons to, thereby reducing the chance of future conflict altogether. You seem to have overlooked that care ethics should be framed in a context of moral relativism as a reality – it would not necessarily, as you seem to suggest, only allow for the abandonment of weapons supply altogether. Instead, it could be seen from a number of standpoints depending on the agent making the decision; the most benevolent action may be to supply weapons to international superpowers who have the political authority to enforce a ceasefire with their ‘stick’ to wave. The issue with this is where to draw the line: at supply, at precision airstrikes, or at supplying to conflict-torn countries for extra profit? This depends on BAE and shows why an ethics of care approach risks being so relativistic that it justifies almost any operation.


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