Australian Universities Becoming Militarised

GBU 12 Paveway II bombs (500b), built by Lockheed Martin

The “War on Terror” Generation

We have been labelled “Millennials” and “Generation Y”, but not the “War on Terror Generation”. Our lives are not considered to have been profoundly affected by war, unlike our great grandparents and grandparents — the “Lost” and “G.I” generations respectively.

Why do few people make this connection? The fresh-faced students who started their first university classes last week were born in 1999–2000. They have no memories of the world before the September 11th attacks and the subsequent passage of the Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF) through US Congress. This is the case for most of Australia’s undergraduate and postgraduate students who were children in 2001. Now young adults, legislation that was passed just nine days after 9/11 continues to provide legal justification for military intervention in countries and against individuals and groups who had no part in the attacks. Australia, a key ally to the United States in the “war on terror”, has never fought a longer war.

In contrast to people our age in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and parts of Pakistan, only a handful of us have lost family members or friends to the “war on terror” (to date, 44 Australians have died). We are safely thousands of miles away from airplanes and drones, dropping bombs and firing missiles, inflicting psychological trauma and frequently killing civilians. This does not mean, however, that the effects of a sixteen-year war have not been felt at home.

My generation has come of age amidst the hardening of Australia’s policy on asylum seekers and refugees (in the name of “national security”), growing Islamophobia and the rising popularity of right-wing populist politicians — both at home (Hanson) and abroad (Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Wilders, etc.). The Australian Federal Police have been militarised in their “counter”-terrorism role, while “Customs” was replaced by the creation of the Australian Border Force in 2015. In August 2015, Melburnians would have experienced a city-wide stop-and-check of visas — “Operation Fortitude” — had protestors not closed-down streets and foiled the Border Force’s plans on the day. My generation has also grown up in the age of diminishing privacy post 9/11, as data sharing between Five Eyes governments and domestic legislation regarding data retention means our personal information and online activity is collected, scrutinised and stored for a minimum of two years.

Poster campaign for Operation Sovereign Borders, led by the Australian Defence Force

The Role of the University in War-Time

If all of this has happened in 16 years of war-time, what might happen over the next 20? According to the 2016 Defence White Paper, the Australian government is planning its continued assistance to the United States in the “war on terror” at least until 2035 (63).

What role do universities have at times of war? One could argue that Australia’s academics and students have an important part to play in the nation’s defence; however, the Defence Paper itself admits that “there is no more than a remote prospect of military attack by another country on Australian territory in the foreseeable future” (15). The “behaviours of other countries and non-state actors such as terrorists” are cited as the key security threats, meaning that Australia is looking to increase its involvement in overseas conflicts, particularly US-led “counter”-terrorism operations in the Middle East and North Africa (15).

This is where Australia’s universities should be intervening to offer their analyses. Academics are meant to think critically about the world, to develop a deep understanding of society’s most urgent and confounding problems, and to come up with innovative solutions. University students should be encouraged to do the same. The global security environment is worsening: 16 years of war-faring and ill-considered “counter”-terrorism measures have not worked. Terror attacks across the globe (affecting people in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa more than the West) have increased exponentially since the “war on terror” began. Universities must strive to be independent as possible from the interests of governments and arms manufacturers, so that their researchers and students can freely critique the government’s status quo approach to the “war on terror” and suggest alternatives without fear of reprisal (whether in the form of loss of research funding, loss of career opportunities, or workplace conflict and/or alienation).

Global deaths from terrorism 2000–2014

This independence will be endangered in the coming years if Australians allow higher education to continue on the path of militarisation. Australia’s universities are strengthening their ties to the Australian Defence Force, American and British weapons manufacturers (referred to euphemistically as “defence contractors”) and military funding bodies like the United States’ Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The Militarisation of Australia’s Universities

Last year, the Defence budget rose substantially while higher education suffered cuts. Tony Abbott, and subsequently Malcolm Turnbull, willingly obliged the United States’ request to NATO members to spend 2% of GDP on the military, joining only 5 of 28 NATO countries that do so. If GDP projections are correct, by 2026 Australia’s military spending will be 81% higher than it was 2016 (rising from $32.4 billion to $58.7 billion in a decade). To give context, Australia’s international aid budget for 2016 was only $3.8 billion. Its education spending in 2016 was 33.7 billion.

What do Australia’s universities have to say about the Defence budget? Sadly, nothing but their resounding support. One might hope to hear them advocate a more peaceful and less dangerous world for their students and for young adults worldwide. If one cares to look at public submissions on the 2016 White Paper, however, they can find statements from the University of New South Wales, University of Sydney and Universities Australia that all voice encouragement of militarised research.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor of University of New South Wales, Professor Les Field, writes that UNSW has identified “Defence and Security” as a key research strength, “underpinned by a broad range of areas, including national security, uninhabited aerial vehicles [drones], hypersonics, quantum computing”, the list continues. Field goes onto state that “the ADF can only maintain a technological edge over any likely adversary by investing in UNSW and other tertiary institutions.” Field does not engage critically with who this “likely adversary” will be, nor does he consider non-military solutions to global conflict.

University of Sydney’s Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence, offers his praise for the Defence Science Partnering Deed, writing that it will provide an “excellence model for enabling Defence to leverage or supplement its own capabilities” through “heightened levels of cross-pollination with university-based researchers”. Universities Australia’s chief executive, Belinda Robinson, writes that “the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency in the United States provides a very successful model that could be considered for application to Australia”.

Funding from DARPA and Weapons Manufacturers

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for those who are unfamiliar, is part of the US Department of Defence. It approaches academic researchers in the United States and worldwide and offers to fund their projects. “M-16 rifles, Hellfire-missile-equipped Predator drones, stealth fighters and bombers, Tomahawk cruise missiles, and B-52 bomber upgrades”, to name just a few inventions, owe their existence to DARPA funding. Academics at the University of Melbourne already accept DARPA funding. A team of university neurologists, for example, have developed a brain stentrode — a device that allows “paralysed people to walk with the power of thought without the need for invasive brain surgery”. Sadly, this project was provided with $1 million by DARPA. Foreign Policy magazine predicts that DARPA is interested in this technology because militaries can use it to direct bionic soldiers or remotely pilot airplanes and drones. This is the reality of DARPA funding: technologies that can save people’s lives and livelihoods are often used in military applications, as technologies of death and destruction. As DARPA director Arati Prabhakar states, rather euphemistically, DARPA looks to fund projects that “could have a transformative effect on national security”.

This will not be the end of the University of Melbourne’s coalescence with the military. Recent events indicate that it is only the beginning. This year Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest weapons manufacturer, has opened a research lab in Melbourne with the University of Melbourne and RMIT. It is Lockheed Martin’s first research lab outside the United States. The lab’s opening marks a huge step towards normalising militarised research at two of Melbourne’s largest universities. Meanwhile British weapons manufacturer BAE Systems has developed similar partnerships with the University of Adelaide, University of South Australia and Flinders University. Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems create warplanes, drones, tanks, bombs and missiles. They profit from endless war, and will now be working closely with Australian academics and offering internships and scholarships to university students.

F35-A Lightning II (Lockheed Martin) drops GBU 12 Paveway bomb (Lockheed Martin)

The 36-Year War

I’m a PhD student at the University of Melbourne currently overseas on fieldwork, and I wrote this piece because I’m upset and worried about where Australian universities are headed. My research is (broadly) on the effects of the US-led Coalition’s “war on terror”, specifically how drone attacks and drone surveillance have affected people’s lives and livelihoods. On a day where I’d been speaking with refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, who have been displaced by terrorism and war, I came back to my accommodation to a “Graduate research opportunities” email from the university. I opened it — the keen student I am — and swallowed hard. The first three listings advertised science and technology research for the military. I thought of the Afghan woman and her young daughter who’d taught me how to knit that morning, and I thought of a fellow PhD student in Australia working on weapons development for Lockheed Martin — a company whose Hellfire missiles and GBU 12 Paveway II (500lb) bombs are dropped over Afghanistan.

Deflated and disillusioned, I realised my university will soon be part of the problem, not the solution. One of society’s most important critical and innovative institutions is endangered by its growing ties to the Department of Defence, weapons manufacturers and military funding bodies. What hope does that leave my generation for our future, or are we expected to look forward to another 20 years of war, terrorism, displacement, surveillance, reactionary Islamophobia and anti-immigration rhetoric?