Arms spending and war: which comes first, at home and abroad?

Christopher Pyne, Minister for Defence Industry, has been talking up the possibilities of Australia growing its arms exports industry. Fairfax’s David Wroe says Pyne ‘wants Australia to become a major arms exporter on par with Britain, France and Germany and use exports to cement relationships with countries in volatile regions such as the Middle East’. We would design and build defence equipment and then sell it to trusted buyer countries in the Middle East and South-east Asia.

1500112067454Minister Pyne tries out some defence kit (Fairfax/Corporal Max Bree)

Tim Costello of World Vision has argued in response that Pyne’s plan is ‘exporting death’ and ‘profiting from bloodshed’. This is particularly galling, Costello says, in view of Australia’s reductions in humanitarian foreign aid – aid which saves lives rather than taking them.

Honest History has looked a couple of times at the connections between Australian expenditure on arms and our involvement in wars. (The work is consolidated here.) Did we increase arms spending (essentially spending on imports) because we saw threats coming or did we get involved in wars and conflicts after we had spent up big on weapons and equipment? Our work asked eight key questions and we have adjusted them only slightly (the words in italics) to bring in the export angle:

  1. Will ‘sunk costs’ provide an impetus towards the use of arms in combat – or the export of arms with only minimal assessment of the suitability of the buyer country? (In other words, will there be a disinclination to ‘waste’ all this investment?)
  2. Will the desire for a return on investment in arms influence military advice to governments which are considering involvement in war – or considering exporting arms?
  3. Will the concern to achieve a return on investment also influence the response of governments to military advice?
  4. Will further pressure toward war come from the military desire to work successfully in combat environments with sophisticated ‘kit’, leading to promotion prospects for some and experience and training for all – including training buyer countries in the use of arms?
  5. Will there be a desire in government to support such opportunities in buyer countries for the military?
  6. Will arms sellers encourage moves to war – in buyer countries – to provide opportunities for ‘demonstrations in use’ of their products, leading in turn to future sales?
  7. Will the ‘return on investment’ and the ‘eternal expenditure’ spurs continually reinforce each other in relation to exports?
  8. Given the weight of all these drivers, to what extent will the desire not to place personnel – including personnel in buyer countries – ‘in harm’s way’ work as a countervailing factor?

Minister Pyne explicitly links proposed increased expenditure on defence at home with the possibilities for exports. ‘He wants’, says Wroe, ‘to use the $200 billion in additional money the government has committed to defence acquisitions over the next nine years to build up a local industry that will “eventually design, build and export ships, vehicles, missiles, whatever it might be that we have an expertise in”‘.

So, if we at Honest History get a chance to update our earlier research we may have to work in an extra line on the graph to see if there is any correlation between, on the one hand, flinging big bucks at big toys and high-tech offensive and defensive wizardry for home use and export, and, on the other hand, increases in wars and human suffering overseas. How many votes in marginal South Australian seats will be affected by future scenarios of that ilk?

Meanwhile, here’s the graph we did earlier:


David Stephens

17 July 2017


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