Reputation laundering: weapons companies infiltrating schools to promote education

Nov 30, 2020

Lockheed missile blows up a bus full of Yemeni children; in Australia Lockheed Martin gains kudos by sponsoring the National Youth Science Forum. BAE Systems sponsors underprivileged kids in Australia while being complicit in the killing of thousands of needy children in Yemen. All you see in industry marketing pitches is euphemism, with nary a mention of the word “weapons”.

The UK’s largest weapons-maker, BAE, is working inside Saudi Arabia supporting Saudi-United Arab Emirates military operations in Yemen, a war that has killed or injured tens of thousands of civilians, including thousands of children.

Meanwhile in Australia, BAE sponsors The Smith Family’s STEM education program for under-privileged children.

Flagrant hypocrisy? Welcome to the weapons business.

Then there’s Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest weapons-maker, also raking in billions from the Yemen war. A Lockheed missile blew up a bus full of Yemeni school children in 2018, killing at least 29 kids and injuring dozens more. Back in Australia, Lockheed was cultivating kudos with kids as major sponsor of the National Youth Science Forum, a registered charity.

US missile-making giant Raytheon also continues to supply the Saudi-UAE coalition, despite evidence of numerous attacks with Raytheon missiles that targeted and killed civilians, including children. No mention of that in Australia. Instead, Aussie school kids had fun hanging out with the young Australian snowboarding paralympian Raytheon hired to front the launch of its Maths Alive! STEM program.

The French company supplying Australia’s new submarines, Naval Group, is at the centre of multiple corruption scandals globally, some of which involved murder. That hasn’t stopped Naval promoting itself as a model future employer, with the help of Port Adelaide footy heroes, to 90,174 kids in 329 South Australian schools since 2017.

And let’s not forget the list of sponsors of the Australian War Memorial, Legacy, Invictus Games and Soldier On, which include numerous weapons-making corporations.

There’s a name for this cynical behaviour: reputation laundering. And nearly every weapons company is doing it.

Promoted as innovators

The world’s weapons producers have taken with gusto to promoting themselves as innovators in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Military industry has adopted the STEM mantra to target children and young people as future employees, usually with the willing partnership of respected educational institutions. Many, if not most, Australian universities now have joint agreements, strategic partnerships or some other form of collaboration with the weapons industry.

The sales pitch is, join us for an exciting and challenging high-tech career in science. This enthusiastic support of STEM serves two purposes: reputation laundering is one, the other is as a recruitment drive. STEM provides a socially acceptable way to promote the weapons industry to children, and parents, as a potential employer.

There’s nothing wrong with promoting STEM education, or seeking new employees. The issue is the way these companies are now targeting children as young as primary school age, with the full support of government. (eg. The MD of weapons-maker Saab Technologies is on the South Australian education board.) The problem is the spin and glamour applied to increased militarism, with pertinent information omitted from the marketing. Warfare isn’t mentioned, for starters.

There’s nothing about how the kids will use their STEM education to enhance the ‘lethality’ of their employer’s products. Or about a future where employees have eliminated the need for human involvement in the ‘kill chain’ by creating autonomous robotic devices to make those decisions. (This is not science fiction, these research and development programs are already under way.) Working on nuclear weapons isn’t discussed, either.

You won’t find the underlying arms manufacturing realities in the STEM marketing by weapons giants. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find the word “weapons” at all.

A world of euphemism

Instead, you’ll enter a world of euphemism: “high end technology company”, “leading systems integrator”, “security and aerospace company”, “defence technology and innovation company”. It’s also a fair bet you’re reading weapons company marketing if you see the phrase “solving complex problems”. Especially if there’s mention of working to make the world safer and more secure.

The following are a few examples of many in which multinational weapons corporations are co-opting organisations of good purpose in Australia.

BAE and The Smith Family

BAE operates inside Saudi Arabia, training Saudi pilots, maintaining Saudi’s BAE-supplied fighter jets, and supervising Saudi soldiers as they load bombs onto the planes. Indiscriminate bombing, a well-known feature of the Yemen war, has killed or injured tens of thousands of civilians, including children.

BAE has earned £15 billion from sales to the Saudis since 2015 when the Yemen war started. A BAE maintenance employee was quoted last year saying, “If we weren’t there, in 7 to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky.”

BAE’s role in helping the Saudis prolong the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen has been pointed out more than once to The Smith Family since news broke of its sponsorship by BAE. Understandably, The Smith Family has responded defensively along the lines that critics are trying to steal an education from needy Australian children.

But what about the tens of thousands of needy children starved, maimed, and killed on the other side of the world? BAE Systems has given The Smith Family a mere $100,000 –  about 0.3% of The Smith Family’s $36.3 million in non-government fundraising income.

Cheap reputational PR for a company that has gained tens of billions of dollars in defence contracts in Australia, while facilitating war crimes elsewhere.

Raytheon and Maths Alive!

Raytheon has marketed this program to children across America, the Middle East and Australia. Raytheon’s intention? To reach children at an early age and create a “healthy pipeline” from primary education, through secondary, to tertiary studies, to secure its future workforce.

The then Assistant Minister for Defence David Fawcett lent his support to the 2018 Australian launch of Maths Alive!, telling media: “I welcome the ongoing commitment by Raytheon to engage young Australians by helping them visualise what a career in science or engineering might look like.”

Lockheed Martin and National Youth Science Forum

The National Youth Science Forum was created by Rotary, which remains involved. The forum, now run by a board chaired by former senator Kate Lundy, has several programs, the flagship program being for Year 12 students interested in science.

Each year about 600 students complete the program, which exposes students to various career pathways in science. Since Lockheed started as major sponsor in 2015, students visit Lockheed Martin laboratories and speak with Lockheed staff as part of the program. (Watch a short video here from Lockheed’s website with some students.)

The National Youth Science Forum’s website does not mention Lockheed’s dominant influence as the world’s No. 1 weapons manufacturer or its significant role in producing nuclear weapons. Lockheed’s role in civil sectors is covered, however this work constitutes a minor aspect of its business. The most recent information from Stockholm International Peace Research says 88% of Lockheed’s revenue comes from arms sales.

Lockheed Martin and the Gallipoli Sponsorship Fund

This year Lockheed Martin became the first corporate partner of the Gallipoli Scholarship Fund. This partnership includes the new $120,000 Lockheed Martin Australia Bursary for the educational benefit of descendants of Australian veterans.

One of the aims of the Gallipoli Scholarship Fund is to contribute “to the future security of our nation and our national values of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law”.

Nuclear weapons will become illegal under international law in January 2021 when the new UN treaty prohibiting them comes into force. The world’s nine nuclear-armed countries haven’t signed it – nor their hangers-on, including Australia – so it won’t apply to them. But two-thirds of the world’s countries (including New Zealand) did vote to bring the treaty into being, banning the world’s worst weapons of mass destruction, and setting a new global norm.

Professor Ramesh Thakur, Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at the Australian National University, has said, “The ban treaty embodies the collective moral revulsion of the international community.”

The awkward truth is that the Gallipoli Scholarship Fund’s new corporate partner, Lockheed Martin, is one of the largest nuclear-weapons-producing companies on the planet. Lockheed is all set to provide its 12 bursaries from now through to the end of 2023.

Such are the ethical dilemmas these weapons corporations create for organisations doing good work that are in need of funding.

Morally indefensible positions

Such sponsorships might appear less self-serving if weapons companies behaved consistently, and stopped supplying weapons to war criminals. Claiming they are just doing the bidding of the US or UK governments in supplying the Saudis, as these companies have, is not a morally defensible position, particularly in the face of evidence of ongoing war crimes in Yemen.

Similarly, claims that they are committed to serving the national interest might be more believable if they ceased bribing and scamming their way into the next arms deal, or concocting endless ways to extend and inflate government contracts and invoices for their own corporate financial benefit, blatantly siphoning funds from the public purse.

Disclosure: Michelle Fahy was employed part-time by the Medical Association for Prevention of War for 10 months from May 2018 and worked on its campaign to end weapons company sponsorship of the Australian War Memorial and Questacon.

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