By William D. Hartung
Weapons contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman don’t like us to talk about the fact that their products are used to kill people in conflicts all over the world. They prefer to be seen as patriotic companies that help defend us from terrorists and give our troops the tools they need to protect us and themselves. In some cases, they don’t even want to be known for their main activity.
For example, press releases from Lockheed Martin often describe it simply as a “high technology company,” without mentioning what kind of technology they produce — missiles and bombs, armored vehicles, combat aircraft, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and much, much more.
Or take Northrop Grumman. According to its web site, “Northrop Grumman is a leading global security company providing innovative systems, products, and solutions to government and commercial customers worldwide.”
This effort to sanitize weapons manufacture and trafficking is widespread. The Pentagon has its very own weapons brokering agency, but you wouldn’t know it from the name — the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA). Weapons exports are routinely referred to as “defense trade,” and arming and training U.S. allies is referred to as “building partner capacity.”
As a first step towards understanding what arms makers are really doing with our tax dollars, we need to strip away this antiseptic language and call these companies what they are: war profiteers, benefiting financially even as their products are used to kill civilians and undermine democracies worldwide.
Occasionally a weapons company executive will slip up and expose their true priorities. For example, in a call with investors around the time that the Iran nuclear deal was coming to fruition, an analyst from Deutsche Bank asked if the deal would hurt Lockheed Martin’s bottom line by reducing conflict in the Middle East. Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson’s response was that there was still “a lot of volatility, a lot of things that are happening” in both the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions that would make them “growth areas” for Lockheed Martin.
In other words, war is good for business, but you would never know it if you only read the propaganda of the major weapons companies.
U.S. Weapons at War
The reality, of course, is that weapons produced by companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and General Dynamics cause untold suffering.
For example, by a conservative estimate, since 2001 the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan — waged in significant part with U.S.-supplied bombs, combat aircraft, drones, and armored vehicles — have resulted in the deaths of over 370,000 people, including at least 200,000 civilians.
Or look at the war in Yemen, where U.S.-armed allies like Saudi Arabia have killed thousands of civilians in an indiscriminate bombing campaign, millions of people are on the brink of famine due to a blockade enforced with U.S. arms, and hundreds of thousands of people have contracted cholera in part due to the bombing of civilian infrastructure by the Saudi-led interventionary force.
Most of the damage in Yemen has been done with U.S.-supplied weapons — Boeing F-15s and attack helicopters, Raytheon and Boeing guided bombs, Lockheed Martin Hellfire missiles, and General Dynamics tanks, all backed up by U.S. refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft and maintenance of Saudi weapons by U.S. forces and contractors.
What U.S. weapons are doing in Yemen is not “security cooperation” or “building partner capacity,” it is enabling what Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) says “look like war crimes.”
A Permanent War Footing
War is good for business, indeed, as is the fact that the United States is on a permanent war footing even in countries where it does not have large numbers of troops fighting in high profile conflicts.
The United States is currently involved at one level or another in seven wars — in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. And that doesn’t even count places like the Philippines, where U.S. Special Forces regularly rotate through as advisors.
In addition, in one of the most under-reported war stories of all, the United States does military training and military exercises, stations weapons, and accompanies forces in combat in dozens of African countries every year. When four U.S. Special Forces personnel were killed in Niger recently, it was the first most members of Congress, much less the public, heard about the U.S. role there. In fact, the U.S. has 800 troops in Niger, plus one drone base and another under construction. There are U.S. troops regularly deployed to Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Uganda, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan, among other African nations.
If the United States weren’t on a war footing, the big weapons makers wouldn’t be raking in billions of our tax dollars year, after year, after year. They may want to be called “defense” companies offering “innovative solutions to security problems.” But we need to call them what they are: war profiteers.
The Pentagon Budget as Corporate Welfare
The myth that the hawks and the Pentagon would like you to believe is that the bulk of the military budget goes to support the troops, and many people believe that.
But as I noted in a recent piece at TomDispatch, it ends up that the biggest beneficiaries of Pentagon spending are corporations.
Last year, when the Pentagon got $600 billion-plus, one of the highest levels since World War II, about half of that amount — $304 billion — went straight out the door to corporations. And a third of that amount — $100 billion — went to the top 5 contractors — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics.
Once they get the money, the contractors spend a lot of it on themselves, not on defending the country. The CEO’s of the top five firms that I just mentioned pulled own $100 million in compensation last year. And their fellow executives and board members received hundreds of millions more. Since most of these firms get the bulk of their revenue from the U.S. government, taxpayers are essentially paying for these obscene salaries at the same time that millions of Americans are going hungry and have no health care.
It’s not just salaries — weapons company revenues and stock values have jumped under Trump as well, under the expectation that near record levels of Pentagon spending will go even higher.
And if Trump and the hawks in Congress have their way, things will get even worse — Trump wants to add $54 billion to the Pentagon budget, and some Congressional leaders want to add tens of billions MORE than Trump is asking for.
We need to fight back against that, not only because it will fuel more war but because those increases, if they happen, will come dollar for dollar from spending on diplomacy and domestic needs, from the State Department and the EPA to health care, nutrition, housing, and transportation. These needs are already woefully underfunded, and the Trump budget would make things much worse.
And the weapons makers will be shoulder to shoulder with Trump lobbying for those obscene budget priorities.
Profiting from the War at Home
Weapons companies benefit from more than just the Pentagon and foreign wars — they benefit from the war at home as well.
They get grants from the Department of Homeland Security to provide military-grade weapons to local police departments, even as the Pentagon gives similar weapons to these departments that are “surplus” to their needs.
They get paid for drones and electronic surveillance systems that are used to militarize the border.
They have contracts with the CIA and NSA to process surveillance data on foreign nationals AND U.S. citizens
And Lockheed Martin manages a 55-million-person fingerprint data base for the FBI.
Corporate patriots or war profiteers? You decide.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.