Powerful interests have long opposed the conversion of arms industries to more socially useful production. Philip Austin argues that the coronavirus crisis might just be changing that dynamic.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought seismic changes to our daily life-patterns and shattered established paradigms about the sources of security at local, national and global levels. In this new world of flux, along with the fears and the dangers, there are new life-enhancing possibilities opening up in so many dimensions. Perhaps one of the most significant is the conversion of some of the capacity of arms manufacturers to the production of socially useful products. In the past few weeks we have seen firms like Babcock International and a consortium including Airbus, Rolls Royce and BAE Systems contracted to increase the production of ventilators. It seems that space is opening up for a revived focus on arms conversion – the movement from production of armaments to socially useful products.

Ingenuity and necessity

At the heart of this process is the fundamental question: How can the skills and knowledge that humanity has acquired be best used to build a secure world?

Messages regarding the Covid-19 virus from some politicians and journalists are heavily laced with militarist language that seems at odds with the work that is being done up and down the country to save lives. Perhaps a more appropriate analogy is the massive restructuring of military industries and employment that took place in the UK (and elsewhere) after the Second World War, achieving a relatively smooth transition to full employment by 1947. Is there a parallel at the present moment, on a far smaller scale, in that we are seeing a rapid transition in industries and institutions, large and small, to produce goods to meet an urgent need? 

Up and down the country, there are people finding ways of producing the PPE that the NHS needs, from people making scrubs bags from pillow-cases, to schools producing face visors on 3D printers in tech departments, and racing car makers and arms companies working together to produce ventilators. This is change happening because the context demands it – and people throughout society want to both encourage and contribute to that change. Ingenuity is coupled with necessity and twinned with our sense of being connected and responsible for looking after each other rather than just ourselves.

A broken business-as-usual model

The conversation around conversion often elicits criticism from arms industry leaders, employees and some trades unions alike, who argue from the perspectives of supporting the military establishment and protecting jobs. There are powerful vested interests in maintaining business-as-usual, a status quo that is embedded in a vision of security that acknowledges the many causes of insecurity other than military threat but then continues along the same armed-force-orientated response.

We should not overlook quite how powerful these interests are. In 2019, a record US$1.917 trillion was spent on militaries around the world, much of it on arms and equipment. Easily the largest military industrial sector is aerospace, in which most firms – like Boeing, Rolls Royce, Airbus or Leonardo – shift back-and-forth between civil aviation and military customers. But with travel and tourism in freefall, that is unlikely to be an option for years to come, meaning that many firms will redouble their efforts to drum up trade for military products.

Moreover, the UK is in the unusual position that its arms production is dominated by one company, BAE Systems, which sells 95% of its production to military customers. So the world’s sixth largest arms manufacturer is focused entirely on selling to government. That makes it much more difficult for the UK industrial sector to shift its thinking and production towards civil uses.

But how viable is this business model in the post-Covid era? Will governments beset by huge new debts and pressure to invest in healthcare and social provision really be looking to spend big on military projects? Will the Gulf states that have bankrolled UK aerospace industries really be placing major export orders in an era of record low oil prices? Will developing military technologies seem quite so ‘strategic’ in the new context? If not, there may well, and quite suddenly, be a political and business imperative to diversify production away from armaments in the longer term.

Bottom-up approaches to arms conversion

There seemed to be a political opportunity for doing things differently in the mid-1970s when shop stewards working for Lucas Aerospace faced redundancies. They worked together to produce a detailed alternative corporate plan for socially useful production, insisting that their skills were not redundant. The story of the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards alternative plan is a powerful one as it’s about workers deciding how they would like to use their skills and expertise.

150 product ideas were put forward by the workforce. Specific proposals included, in the medical sector, an expansion in the production of kidney dialysis machines, which at that time were being manufactured at one of the company’s sites. In the energy sector, proposals included the development of heat pumps, solar cell technology, wind turbines and fuel cell technology. Also proposed for the transport sector was a new hybrid power pack for motor vehicles and road-rail vehicles. The proposals were rejected out of hand by management whilst the Labour government also offered little support, seeing it as an internal matter between Lucas and its workforce.

By contrast, at the present time the impetus to convert large industries to producing ventilators is more top-down, but the significance of the shift towards producing equipment that is directed to enhancing human security should not be underestimated.

From Covid to climate

The urgency of addressing both health provision and the climate crisis can no longer be denied. Many see the current situation as a foretaste of the challenges that the climate crisis will throw up across the world, whilst also pointing out that there is no chance of a vaccination against climate disruption. Will the same forces of political and economic inertia that prevented the Lucas shop stewards’ plan going forward be brought back into play this time around? Or can ‘business as usual’ be finally seen as the problem rather than the solution?

Conversion from an over-dependence on arms production will require economic, scientific and engineering expertise. At a webinar organised by Medact on 29 April 2020 speakers and participants were united in their affirmation of the relevance and urgency of shifting priorities in how industry and the people and skills within it need to be redirected. There needs to be a shift in political will from top and bottom, a recognition that such a change might both save us from disaster and help build a security that is caring and protective of the health and well-being of people and planet rather than founded on increasingly sophisticated ways of harming or killing others.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership. 

Image: Engineers more accustomed to building spacecraft than medical devices worked on a prototype ventilator for coronavirus patients at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California in April 2020.