Jets dropping bombs and bags of money

Why engineers should lead calls to rebalance defence R&D priorities

New analysis has revealed how much the funding of research into military technology outweighs spending to tackle the roots of conflict, says Stuart Parkinson

Is engineering helping to curb warfare or to make it more likely? In the last few weeks, we have seen high-profile examples that would lead to opposite answers to that question.

On the one hand, a groundbreaking agreement between US and Russian governments has led to Syria signing up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, allowing teams of technical staff to begin implementing a plan to destroy the country's chemical weapons by the middle of next year.

In contrast, in early September the UK once again hosted the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEi) fair, where arms companies from across the world gathered to sell their wares to more than 60 governments. This year again saw the British government inviting representatives from numerous countries with poor human rights records, or currently at war, such as Colombia, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.

Against this background, campaign group Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) published a new report documenting for the first time a detailed breakdown of the UK government's military R&D programmes, based on data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The top R&D programmes between 2008 and 2011 were strike planes including the Typhoon and F-35 Lightning II; attack helicopters, mainly the Future Lynx; long-range submarines, both nuclear and conventionally armed; nuclear warheads; nuclear propulsion systems for submarines; and military drones. R&D spending on nuclear warheads alone was approximately '100m per year.

Analysis of the spending was based on a range of military and academic literature, and concluded that three-quarters of the spending was for 'offensive' military technologies. This R&D will, for example, allow the UK to continue to carry out military campaigns far from its shores well into the future.

One critical aspect of military R&D is that, to help spread the costs, the funder nation sells weapons systems and other military equipment to a range of other countries. Of particular concern are sales to countries with poor human rights records. A parliamentary committee recently strongly criticised the UK government for continuing to approve arms export licenses for such countries.

However, the SGR report also analysed the UK's publicly funded R&D that helps to tackle the roots of conflict. This was carried out by looking at spending which helps to tackle four increasingly important drivers of conflict: competition over resources; global militarisation; climate change; and economic injustices. R&D programmes in these areas included overseas development, sustainable energy sources, international relations, climate change adaptation, and environmental hazards.

The report found that if only direct R&D spending by government departments is considered, military R&D was seven times greater than civilian R&D on tackling the roots of conflict. If indirect public spending was also counted within the civilian spend - through research councils - then the imbalance was less, but the military R&D spending was still twice as big. Research council R&D is only loosely connected to policy decisions on trying to tackle the roots of insecurity; therefore the larger figure is arguably more representative.

This sort of comparison of R&D spending has rarely been carried out before, but it is likely that if it were many other countries would demonstrate a similar imbalance.

The decision not to opt for military action in Syria, and to prioritise efforts to end the war based on disarmament work and negotiations shows that new thinking about security is starting to break through. This could be used to set new priorities for science and engineering. Instead of spending so much developing new weapons systems, we could use our technical professionals to carry out more work on disarmament activities and other ways of tackling the roots of conflict.

Dr Stuart Parkinson is executive director of Scientists for Global Responsibility


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