According to the only publicly available official figures, the UK received a record £8.5 billion worth of revenue from arms exports in 2022 – more than double the total received in 2021.
Qatar purchased the largest financial quantities of armaments, totalling £2.4 billion. This included Eurofighter Typhoons and miscellaneous equipment from British multinational arms, security, and aerospace organisation BAE Systems. Saudi Arabia – typically a loyal customer of the UK’s arms industry – bought just over one £1 billion worth of equipment, including £964 million in missiles and affiliated apparatus.
The UK’s previous revenue record for arms sales was £6.9 billion in 2015, as Syria descended into civil war. However, the true scale of weapons exports is significantly larger than officially published figures. This is because, as the Guardian confirmed, ‘a large proportion of UK arms sales is not counted up’. This is because only single-use export licenses are available to the public. Open export licenses remain unquantified, including most of Britain’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Despite these hidden figures, official UK statistics show that the country was the second biggest global exporter of armaments between the years 2010 and 2019, totalling approximately £86 billion.
Perhaps expectedly, these latest figures have been met with fierce criticism within some quarters. Sam Perlo-Freeman is a researcher at Campaign Against Arms Trade, a group set up in 1974 with an operation that desires the abolition of the international arms trade. He stated that ‘the latest export license figures for 2022 show that the UK arms industry is working overtime to arm some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes.’
According to the non-profit human rights organisation Freedom House, 54% of the UK’s 2022 arms exports were delivered to countries that were characterised as ‘not free.’ One of these countries classed as ‘not free’ was Saudi Arabia, which, along with a coalition of nine nations, became militarily involved in the conflict in Yemen in early 2015. The conflict has been labelled a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ by Human Rights Watch, with the Saudi-led coalition being accused of ‘repeatedly bombing, killing and injuring civilians’ and ‘using aircraft and guided missiles supplied by countries including the UK.’ According to Human Rights Watch, Britain has equipped Saudi Arabia with £23 billion in weapons since the beginning of Yemeni civil war. Saudi Arabia admitted using Brtish-made cluster bombs in Yemen back in 2016. The Campaign Against Arms Trade claims that UK-made weapons ‘have played a central role in the Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen.’
His Majesty’s Court of Appeal in England agreed. In June 2019, it regarded the British government’s licensing grants to Saudi Arabia as ‘irrational and therefore unlawful.’ The government halted supplying arms to Saudi Arabia after the High Court’s ruling, yet quickly re-instated sales to the country. An announcement from the UK government on 7 July 2020 stated that Saudi violations of international law in Yemen were merely ‘isolated incidents.’
Despite Saudi Arabia’s infractions, many counter that the arms industry is an integrally important part of the UK economy. The British government unveiled a press release in early May entitled ‘Defence sector delivering on Prime Minister’s priorities with major boost to the UK economy.’ This Ministry of Defence release illustrates how the government utilise strong arms industry exports with the Prime Minister’s domestic political and economic commitments, including the levelling up policy. It stated how ‘defence activity showed resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic’, contributed to ‘130,000 indirect jobs’, and that ‘despite wider manufacturing contractions, there has been a 3.5% growth in surveyed defence full-time employees from 2020, showing how the sector is driving demand for high productivity, highly skilled and high wage jobs across the UK’.
The heightening of geopolitical tensions, especially the war in Ukraine, allows for an alternative argument to be deployed by supporters of the arms industry. The conflict in Ukraine is different from the one in Yemen. Conservative MP Mark Francois commented on how vital the sector has been since Russia’s invasion, proving its ‘ethical value,’ which had ‘materially assisted Ukraine in resisting Russia’s barbaric and illegal invasion.’ Francois’ riposte to the likes of Campaign Against Arms Trade would be a reference to World War II, arguing at a husting that ‘if someone hadn’t been building Spitfires in 1940, this hustings wouldn’t be taking place’.
Lecturer in History at the University of Bristol Keith Mcloughlin identified that the ‘economic dimension’ to defence is important. Citing the current cost-of-living crisis as a need for governments to create fulfilling jobs and employment, Mcloughlin states that Britain’s defence sector employs over 200,000 workers, not including military personnel and Ministry of Defence staff. For places like Barrow-in-Furness – the location of BAE Systems nuclear submarine shipyards – the industry is essential to the local economy and provides approximately 10,000 jobs to the local population. The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, confirmed this figure was likely to increase to 17,000 in Barrow-in-Furness’ BAE Systems shipyard alone in order to ‘fulfil both the Dreadnought program, the nuclear deterrent and indeed the next generation of Britain’s attack submarines.’ The total population of Barrow-in-Furness is around 56,000, making Wallace’s prediction of BAE workers just under a third of Barrow’s entire local population.
Politically speaking, this is also important for localised communities and parties seeking seats at Westminster. Labour’s shadow defence secretary, John Healey, visited Barrow to commit to the ‘unshakeable commitment to the nuclear deterrent, pursuit of multilateral disarmament and boosting investment in British industry.’ The Conservatives gained the Parliamentary seat from Labour in the 2019 General Election, and will be a key target for Keir Starmer’s party come 2024.
Despite the UK’s buoyant defence industry, some remain disgruntled at the perceived strangulation of the country’s full potential for manufacturing arms. According to 4GD – a company established by two former Royal marines that offers combat training to soldiers – ‘ethical investing’ is severely restricting Britain’s exporting potential with regards to armaments. The Telegraph characterises this as an attempt to ‘appease retail investors who are increasingly concerned about how their money is used’. The organisation discredited the ‘skin-deep moral argument as to whether defence is a good place to invest money into,’ concluding that ‘the UK undermines defence’. The two former Royal Marines would likely have criticised the students at Sheffield University that occupied a campus building to protest the university’s connections with arms companies. A Freedom of Information request revealed that the university had received over £72 million from companies in the arms trade between 2012 and 2022, including Rolls Royce, Boeing, and BAE Systems.
The recently published figures reveal questions pertaining to what kind of economy the UK wants to operate. The Ministry of Defence’s press release indicates that the government is comfortable with a resilient and growing defence industry notwithstanding the ‘wider manufacturing contractions’ the UK continues to experience. Defence and arms industries can provide vital jobs to local communities and economic benefits to the nation, as well as providing armaments for countries without their own developed arms industry to defend themselves against foreign aggressors. As John Healey remarked, ‘a thriving UK defence sector supports our economy and sovereignty.
Future UK governments should, however, remember the 2019 High Court ruling before licensing grants to nations with a questionable record of how they utilise British-made weapons. After all, the Court did reprimand the government for not undertaking a rigorous assessment as to whether previous Saudi incidents amounted to violations of International Humanitarian Law.
All of this will remain vital as geopolitical tensions increase in the immediate outlook. Future governments will have to grapple with the inextricably linked issues of protecting national sovereignty through a solid defence sector alongside achieving a net zero policy. The environmental damage caused by geographical destruction via British-made weapons is ‘becoming increasingly apparent.’ BAE Systems may want to revisit their net zero policy that seeks to ‘protect the planet.’
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