Arms Conversion in the 21st Century

From biblical times to modern society, the image of ‘swords into plowshares’ has held a powerful attraction. What better way to demonstrate an end to war’s destructiveness than by refashioning weapons as tools that sustain life? But historical symbolism serves to obscure contemporary realities. Since the end of the Second World War, a seemingly permanent and highly specialised arms industry has been established for which conversion would be both expensive and problematic.

The challenge is to dismantle that capacity and to use the savings from reduced military spending as an investment fund for civil manufacturing. A new security framework that prioritises disarmament and the transition to a zero-carbon economy through an accelerated programme of renewable energy generation, including offshore wind and wave power, can provide a range of skilled work that more than compensates for arms sector redundancies.

In terms of industrial policy, most attention has focussed on the transition at the end of the Second World War, where the task facing the country was extraordinarily challenging. Over three and-a-half million men and women were demobilised and employment in the arms industries fell by a similar amount. But for the vast majority of companies this was a reconversion exercise. Having been temporarily involved in arms manufacture, they went back to pre-war production, using machine tools and other equipment that had been stored away. Industry also benefited from domestic demand as a result of pent-up savings accumulated during the war, so the much-feared recession never materialised.i

This post-war transition serves as a reminder that governments with political will and vision can provide the framework for major economic restructuring, allied to the radicalism of working people resolved never to return to the mass unemployment of the 1930s. But the success of a reconversion programme in the 1940s should not determine policy for the very different industrial realities of the 21st Century. Since the beginning of the Cold War, sustained arms spending by Western governments has seen the development of increasingly specialised manufacturing by large arms corporations in advanced sectors of aerospace, electronics, shipbuilding and engineering.

The crucial difference between arms production and its closest civil equivalents is that military platforms integrate complex systems that are expected to operate under extreme conditions of speed and manouverability, while being able to deliver high-velocity weapons for offensive and defensive purposes. These demands have created long-term relationships between the Ministry of Defence, responsible for detailed specifications, and company managements embedded in the culture of arms manufacture. Over decades this has manifested itself in a military-industrial-complex characterised by long-term planning for industry and supporting infrastructure, such as the one for nuclear weapons that has become the largest capital investment programme ever carried out by the British state.

There have been attempts by trade unionists to challenge this growing economic militarism, none more than the Lucas Aerospace Shop Stewards Plan in the mid 1970s. Faced with redundancies at a time of cutbacks to fighter aircraft orders, shop stewards from various sites around the country developed an alternative plan based on the concept of social utility.

Instead of laying off workers, the combine called on the Labour government and the company to support production of a range of civil goods, including medical equipment, new forms of renewable energy and public transport vehicles, using the range of existing skills and technologies. Despite a strong campaign backed by the wider trade union movement, the government provided only token support, while the Lucas management rejected the plan out of hand.ii

Similarly, a trade union group, the Barrow Alternative Employment Committee (BAEC) made up of representatives from the Vickers shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, argued for an alternative plan to the first generation of Trident nuclear submarines during the late 1980s and early 1990s. They were concerned about the increasing dependency of the yard on submarine manufacture when there had been, traditionally, a much broader base of both civil shipbuilding and engineering.

The plan envisaged Barrow as the location for a new, government-funded marine research centre, with the yard as a manufacturing base for offshore wind and wave power machinery, as well as submersibles for deep-sea exploration. BAEC acknowledged that the government would have to play a crucial role through the transfer of funding from military to civil R&D, and that the timescale would be five-to-ten years for what would be a substantial restructuring. However, with the confirmation of Trident by the Conservative government, any momentum for change was lost.iii

Since the 1990s, the consolidation of a specialised arms sector has continued. A determining feature is the concentration of ownership around giant arms corporations, in the UK’s case the monopoly power of BAE Systems, now the primary systems integrator for nuclear submarines, surface vessels, and fighter aircraft. The company has a significant presence in the United States where its contracts with the Pentagon generate more revenue than through the MoD, as well being a major arms exporter to despicable regimes like Saudi Arabia.

The institutionalisation of the military-industrial-complex is firmly established through a seamless network of influence, such as the revolving door between senior civil servant posts and corporate management. It determines policy for both domestic procurement and arms exports and can also draw in peripheral, but nevertheless, politically useful support from other interest groups like trade union leaders with members in the arms sector, and local politicians representing communities where arms manufacture is located. This combination of manufacturing specialism and embedded power is the contemporary challenge.

Arms conversion has to set aside the symbolism of swords into plowshares and move decisively away from a focus on what would be expensive and futile attempts to convert capacity at specialised arms manufacturers sites. A post-militarist economy should be concerned with the building of new manufacturing capacity for renewable energy as a contribution to both environmental and economic security.

Many people in the peace movement argue that the government has a moral responsibility to find alternative employment for arms workers affected by disarmament proposals, and look to the traditional model of conversion to guarantee production and employment. Recently, because of the debate in the Labour Party and the possibility of Trident’s cancellation, there have been calls to set up a Defence Diversification Agency (DDA) with powers to support any plans put forward for civil work.iv

Although the renewed interest in alternatives to military production is welcome, the proposal represents the worst of both worlds. Its focus remains on a site-based plan for nuclear weapons manufacturing, while the broader strategic framework is one where Labour will increase overall levels of military spending. In effect, any savings from the cancellation of Trident will be transferred to new, conventional equipment. The military-industrial-complex remains embedded at the heart of government and industry, while the DDA will be marginalised, and tasked to work on small-scale, civil R&D projects. If arms manufacturers take up any civil options they will be in the form of a public-relations exercise rather than any real commitment to diversification.

Arms conversion is not about nuclear disarmament, it is about comprehensive disarmament, the long-standing objective of the international community and one at the very heart of the vision that established the United Nations. Significant reductions, through the elimination of nuclear weapons and deep cuts to conventional procurement, will signal a fundamental restructuring where arms production is permanently closed down and the savings transferred to civil investment. For example, a 50% cut in military expenditure over five years would generate savings of at least £35 billion as the basis of a government re-investment fund.

In employment terms, the scale of restructuring is hardly severe. Various estimates on employment figures have been made since the MoD stopped providing statistics in 2009. According to a recent report, there were 115,000 direct jobs in arms production for the MoD and a further 55,000 through arms exports in 2014, making a total of 170,000. This compares to over 500,000 during the mid-1980s. Within that overall figure, 15,000 workers are directly involved in nuclear weapons production. Over a five-year period, where new civil manufacturing capacity was being built, a 50% cut in military expenditure involving the cancellation of Trident and the carrier-based fleet, would require redeployment of 17,000 arms workers each year to the civil sector.v

The specific issue is how to deal with the concentrations of arms employment in a small number of locations, including Barrow-in-Furness, although even here the number of workers has significantly declined since the 1980s, when peak employment reached 14,500, to less than half that on the new generation of Trident submarines.

According to recent projections of employment, increased manufacturing capacity for offshore wind power would generate an estimated 30,000 jobs for each gigawatt of capacity, with compatible skills to those in the arms sector, although there would be some specific design and systems-integration roles that would not be transferable.

Significantly, the report identified regional distributions that indicate increased employment in regions with arms employment concentrations. Wave power is not included in these estimates because it requires further development but the potential contribution to UK is high, with even stronger regional

The political climate for arms conversion has been a hostile one. Offering the prospect of future work against the reality of existing jobs has not been persuasive when set against the experience of de-industrialisation and the loss of skilled manufacturing employment. But the political outlook is shifting, with recognition of the failure of neo-liberal economics, and growing support for active government policies, as with public infrastructure projects to generate employment and encourage further investment.

Significantly, there is now an international dimension and political momentum through the Just Transition movement. Urgent action is needed to address climate change by eliminating all new fossil-fuel investment and transferring government funding to renewable energy programmes. Integral to that process is ensuring skilled workers in communities dependent on traditional sectors like oil exploration and coal mining are transferred to these new industries.vii

Such an international restructuring is unprecedented in peace time and requires a fundamental re-evaluation of the trade unions’ traditional role. Instead of protecting jobs in the old, extractive fossil-fuel economy, they should be key drivers for the new, renewable energy, zero-carbon economy. Working with governments, local communities and their own members, trade unions can enable a successful transition to a new era of skilled, manufacturing work.

Clearly, arms conversion can be seen as the pioneer for a new unionism. From the end of the Second World War, when the government oversaw the successful re-integration of millions of people into a full-employment economy, through the Lucas Plan for socially-useful production drawing on the skills and knowledge of working people, to the calls for offshore wind and wave power manufacturing as an alternative to nuclear weapons production in Barrow, the framework exists for a fundamental transition, not only to a post-carbon economy, but a post-militarist economy.

The UK can be a leading force in this international movement – signalling to the rest of the world that it will be combining disarmament with environmental security based on a radical vision of industrial democracy and socially-useful work.

Steven Schofield

October 2016

i. Peter Southwood, Disarming Military Industries:Turning an Outbreak of Peace into an Enduring Legacy (Macmillan, 1991)

iI. Hilary Wainwright & Dave Elliott, The Lucas Plan – a new Trade Unionism in the making? (Alison & Busby, 1982)

iii. Barrow Alternative Employment Committee, Oceans of Work – The Case for non-military Research, Development and Production at VSEL Barrow (BAEC, 1987)

iv. Frances Perraudin, Corbyn to set out plans for UK nuclear disarmament 70 years after Hiroshima (Guardian, 6/8/2015)

v. Campaign Against the Arms Trade, Arms to Renewables – Work for the Future (CAAT, 2014)

vi. Ibid

vii. Sanjeev Kumar, Integrating the ‘Just Transition’ into2030 Industrial, Climate and Energy Frameworks (Change Partnerships, 2015)