The secret is finally out. With the help of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade and my research, the target of Uttlesford District Council’s investment in the arms industry became clear: a new headquarters for the aerospace and defence division of US corporation Moog. If you oppose this investment, you can sign the petition on the council’s website.
According to its own publicly available investment committee minutes, Uttlesford is the funding partner for the bespoke HQ, research facility and warehouse in Tewkesbury. It is borrowing £35mn to help the arms manufacturer, which produces components especially for weapons systems and military vehicles, build the complex in return for an annual rental income, delivering a fairly unimpressive annual yield of 4.3%.
The public have many questions about the investment. Uttlesford is refusing to communicate with anyone on this investment or any of the others it has amassed through £250mn of borrowing over the past year. So, I have put together a list of frequently asked questions and answered them.
Why do you have an ethical problem with the council investing in this property, when it isn’t investing in the actual company?
The council is putting up the money the arms company needs to build the facility. It is a funding partner. The developer’s option on the land was set to expire at the end of January and Uttlesford agreed just days before expiry to stump up the cash. It raises the question why the arms company and developer could not have borrowed from a bank or found another investor. So, the council is a crucial business partner in this arrangement and as such is investing directly in the arms industry. Council finances will be partly tied to income from an arms producer.
But most of Moog’s business is not in defence. How can you call it an arms company?
According to Moog’s recent financial performance, defence is its biggest source of revenue, making up 42% of its sales and amounting to just over US$1.2 billion in the last financial year.
Isn’t most of what it builds just components, not actual guns and bombs?
The company’s website states “Moog is recognized by military forces around the world for its industry-leading solutions, which include counter-unmanned aerial systems (C-UAS), fast ammunition handling, precise missile steering, weapon stores management, turreted weapon systems and quiet undersea actuation.” Its products are crucial components in the production of arms and deployment systems. Among Moog’s list of military systems is turreted weapons systems, multi-access control, conversion and upgrades, naval systems, and surveillance and intervention. It is also involved in nuclear arms proliferation, developing launch vehicle and strategic missile controls for the Minuteman III (US) and Trident (D5) (US & UK) missiles.
But Moog also produces some applications used in civilian sectors such as renewables energy and medical technology, so it’s not all bad.
Most arms companies also have products used in civilian sectors as there are transferable skills and technologies that allow diversification, but the core of its activity is military. Just because a company produces nice things does not excuse its role in a supply chain for an arms trade that is responsible for tremendous suffering across the world. Siemens is a long-standing engineering firm specialising in electricity generation. It was crucial to designing and manufacturing the gyroscopes engineered for use in V2 rockets, enabling Germany to bomb London in the Blitz – as a result, the British bombed Siemens’ factories and ended the Nazi carnage.
What’s wrong with the arms industry? We need defence. Aren’t you just being anti-defence?
All governments rely on a standing, well-equipped military to defend themselves. This is not the primary ethical concern in this deal. The arms trade is the source of ethical controversy. It is often a corrupt business that fuels conflict and supports human rights abusing regimes. Most major producers, including the UK, are responsible for perpetuating major wars and repression. Arms traded include fighter aircraft, helicopters and warships with guided missiles, radar and electronic warfare systems, tanks, armoured vehicles, machine guns and rifles. Moog’s specialist products supply all these areas. The British arms trade is a major supplier to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, thereby directly assisting these governments in carrying out atrocities against civilians and causing a famine that is killing one Yemeni child every 10 minutes. These governments have also armed jihadists in the Syrian Civil War and are involved in the Libyan Civil War. As a result, in June 2019 the Court of Appeal ruled that arms sales to Saudi Arabia are illegal due to crimes against humanity, putting it on a par with the Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia during the 1990s. The government has refused to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite overwhelming evidence of violations of International Humanitarian Law in Yemen.
How is Moog supplying these dictatorships?
Between 2008-15 (subsequent FOI requests for later years were refused), Moog applied for numerous export licences for sales to Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Turkey and the UAE, among countries with problematic human rights records and/or involved in conflict. The overwhelming majority of export licence applications are approved. For example, Moog applied for a number of ML6 (military vehicles and components) licences in 2015 to Saudi Arabia; no ML6 licences for Saudi were refused that year. The refusal to publish export licences since 2015 makes it very difficult to be certain what Moog is currently exporting to Saudi Arabia, but as a growing supplier of components and subsystems to primary contractors that manufacture military aircraft and weapons systems it is certain that its equipment is used by the Saudi military as it pushes Yemen back into the Stone Age.
How do you know that the building will be used for these purposes and not just its military activities?
No-one knows for certain what the building will be used for, including the council. Moog says in its press release that the facility will be used to produce control products for military and commercial aerospace programmes. It adds that “Moog sees the expansion as an integral part of its commitment to long-term development and manufacturing in the UK.” Among Moog’s aerospace activities are sustainment services for F-15 combat aircraft. Saudi Arabia has the third largest F-15 fleet in the world. Saudi and coalition aircraft have carried out thousands of air strikes in Yemen, nearly one-third of which have hit civilian sites including hospitals, weddings, and water-desalination plants. In August 2018, a Saudi warplane bombed a school bus in northern Yemen, killing 51 people, 40 of them children. The coalition blamed “mistakes in compliance to the rules of engagement.” It is possible that the Uttlesford-owned headquarters will host activities that contribute to these crimes against humanity.
Why should we be bothered with what happens in foreign countries? There’s nothing Uttlesford can do about it.
Aside from the ethical issue of assisting an arms company whose products are used by a violent totalitarian regime, conflicts that the arms trade is fuelling across the Middle East is a threat to our domestic security. Perpetual instability creates the basis for the rise of violent extremist groups. Like its regional adversary Iran, Saudi Arabia is a major supporter of extremist Islamist networks and jihadist groups. The official ideology of the Saudi state, which is propagated through government missionary organisations, is a very extreme form of Islam called Wahhabism (also known as Salafism), which advocates the death penalty for homosexuals and atheists, makes women second-class citizens, and is murderously intolerant of Jews and Christians. This ideology has inspired Al-Qaeda and ISIS – see my book on the “Evolution and Rise of Contemporary Jihadism”. Uttlesford should not be putting money into assisting an arms company that profits from an extremist regime whose ideology and actions pose a direct threat to British citizens.
The council is facing a deficit due to central government cuts, so it has to get commercial income to pay for public services. Why not invest in property?
It does not have to invest in an arms company headquarters in Tewkesbury. There are thousands of other investment opportunities, some of which will earn more money for the council. The local community is hit by massive job losses caused by the collapse in aviation during the pandemic. There’s a desperate need to diversify the local economy. The council could invest in the fast-growing renewable energy sector, which is the future for electricity generation. For example, Warrington Borough Council has invested £60mn in a solar energy farm with net earnings of £150mn over 30 years. With capacity of 60MW of solar generation and a 27MW battery, it provides the electricity needs of more than 11,000 households. If Uttlesford invested in such a scheme, it would make a lot more money than the Moog HQ investment and go a long way towards achieving its objectives of net zero carbon emissions. It could be based in our district, which has plenty of land available.
Wouldn’t the council’s own policies stop it from investing in this company?
The council has not adopted an ethical investment policy – or an investment protocol. It has borrowed £300mn to invest in commercial real estate up and down the country. Ethical investment policies by other councils would block this investment. A ban on investment in the arms industry is standard practice among councils and state-owned investors worldwide, due to the ethical objections of large numbers of people they are accountable to. If the council were to adopt an ethical policy, it would have to sell this property. For example, Norwich City Council’s investment policy states:
The choice of investment will take into account ethical considerations relating to the vendors of the property in addition to the intended use of the property and its current or future tenants. The council will not engage with sellers or tenants who may present a significant reputational risk.
When a commercial property investment opportunity presents itself, the council will undertake an initial screening to assess whether the following activities are involved:
- armaments and nuclear weapons production or sale
- escort services
- environmentally damaging practices and
- the manufacture of tobacco products.
How did my councillor vote on this investment?
25 councillors voted for the investment, of which 21 are members of the Residents for Uttlesford Party, three are Independents and one is Conservative. Eight voted against, including five Liberal Democrats, two Greens and a member of Residents for Uttlesford. Four abstained, including three Conservatives and the council’s current chairman, who is Independent and only votes if there is a tied vote. The names of individual councillors are below. You can find your ward representative on the UDC website.