War: A deadly but profitable business
Lim Teck Ghee 

As the drums of war sound again in our part of the world, it is prudent to weigh the risks and emphasise the devastating effects that will arise with any war. We should also ponder on why wars are waged and who are the stake players that are the main drivers of war.

Perhaps the biggest behind the scene stake player in the waging of war is the military-industrial complex (MIC). More than 50 years ago, the president of the United States, Dwight D Eisenhower, who was himself a military man, in his farewell address to the nation coined the term and warned in very graphic terms:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognise the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.

The US president’s warning seems to have been ignored not only in the United States itself but in many countries around the world.

Today, the arms industry, in Orwellian double-speak known as the defence industry, is a global industry engaged in manufacturing and sales of weapons and military technology; and influencing the course of politics and economics. 


The Military-Industrial Complex

The MIC in any country consists of arms-producing companies, defence contractors, and others buying and selling arms for the armed forces of states. It also consists of a commercial industry involved in the research and development, engineering, production, and servicing of military material, equipment, and facilities. A vital part of the MIC are the ministries and departments of government and the lobby groups (including political) engaged in the buying and selling of weapons, munitions and other military items.

Products include big ticket items such as ships and submarines, missiles, military aircraft, military vehicles, and radar and electronic systems. They also include a whole range of new military munitions including night vision devices, holographic weapon sights, laser rangefinders, laser sights besides the traditional ones of guns, hand grenades and landmines. The shopping list - enhanced by new technologies - offered by arms dealers today is simply mind-blowing. 

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, world military expenditure rose for a second consecutive year to a total of US$1,686 bil (RM7,199 bil) last year – the first consecutive annual increase since 2011 when spending reached its peak of US$1,699 bil.

Although trends and patterns in military expenditure vary considerably between regions, a worrying concern is that spending continues to grow in Asia and Oceania.


Rising military expenditure in Asean

In our part of the world, Asean has been a region of peace for several decades and the principles set out in the organisation’s charter calls for the promotion of regional peace and identity, peaceful settlements of disputes through dialogue and consultation, and the renunciation of aggression.

However, during the past decade we have seen a rapid growth in what is often euphemistically referred to as “defence spending”. Military expenditures are not easily tracked down in national budgets. However, according to one authoritative source - the IHS Global Defence Trade Report - Asean defence imports increased by 71% between 2009 and last year. It is clear that arms suppliers and dealers from major and minor arms manufacturing countries such as the US, the UK, China, France, Italy, Russia, Australia and Brazil have successfully targeted the region

It has been repeatedly stressed by the region’s leaders that there is no arms race in Asean. Why then are countries in the region buying so much military weaponry. One argument is that new spending is needed to modernise ageing and increasingly obsolete military equipment.


Growing tensions

Another, less publicly articulated, is that it is in response to growing tensions in the South China Sea and the rise of China. But perhaps the key factor is the rise of the MIC in all the Asean countries.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that the region which is still a developing one with hundreds of millions in poverty cannot afford spiralling “defence” budgets and military expenditure without its negative effects.

Oscar Arias Sanchez, president of Costa Rica (awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his efforts to end civil wars across Central America through the Esquipulas II Accord) has put it aptly:

When a country decides to invest in arms, rather than in education, housing, the environment, and health services for its people, it is depriving a whole generation of its right to prosperity and happiness. We have produced one firearm for every ten inhabitants of this planet, and yet we have not bothered to end hunger when such a feat is well within our reach. Our international regulations allow almost three-quarters of all global arms sales to pour into the developing world with no binding international guidelines whatsoever. Our regulations do not hold countries accountable for what is done with the weapons they sell, even when the probable use of such weapons is obvious. 

Dr Lim Teck Ghee is a public policy analyst. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 249.