The secretive world of Australia’s arms exports

In late January, the new US administration under Joe Biden announced a freeze on some arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It was a belated, partial but welcome move in response to the Gulf states’ role in the devastating war in Yemen, including airstrikes that have killed thousands of civilians and other abuses that United Nations investigators say may amount to war crimes.

In the same month, it was revealed that Australia continued to approve the export of military items to Saudi Arabia and the UAE throughout 2020 – the latest among dozens of such export permits approved over recent years, despite the voluminous evidence of Western arms and ammunition being employed in the Yemen conflict.

While Italy, Germany, Belgium and several other countries have implemented weapons bans or suspensions on the Saudi-led coalition, Australia has stayed silent. This troubling reticence is indicative of an arms export policy that is as lucrative as it is opaque, with precise details about what weapons and other military items are being sold, who they are being sold to and for what purpose, shielded from public scrutiny.

What scant information does emerge, often prised from government through freedom of information requests, continues to raise serious questions about whether Australian arms are fuelling conflict or being employed in the service of repression and abuses.

The volume of Australia’s arms exports has grown markedly since the Federal Government unveiled a new defence export strategy in early 2018, with the goal of becoming one of the world’s top ten weapons exporting countries. In 2019-20, the estimated value of Australian defence export permits was $5.2 billion, up from $1.5 billion in 2017-18.

Australian-made weapons are now enthusiastically spruiked through government initiatives such as the ‘Australian Defence Sales Catalogue’, the 2020 edition of which showcases arms and ammunition, drones, armoured vehicles, electronic warfare systems and other military inventory from some 170 defence firms.

Among recent recipients are a string of countries variously experiencing chronic insecurity, armed conflict, displacement and violence. In 2019, for example, Australia granted arms export permits for Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. All five countries were recently identified by the International Rescue Committee as among those at greatest risk of new or deteriorating humanitarian crises in 2021.

Belarus, whose long-time autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko cracked down on protesters after a disputed election last year, received Australian small arms in 2019.

While the government maintains that all exports are provided in accordance with control provisions that include ‘consideration of human rights, national security, regional security, foreign policy, and international obligations,’ the secrecy surrounding them makes it impossible to have confidence that robust protections are being upheld. As Suzanne Varrall wrote last year, Australia has not produced detailed annual reports on weapons exports since 2004. Current official data only breaks down end users by region, not by individual country.

Even where military or dual-use items are provided in accordance with export controls, the risk remains that, without oversight, the weapons may be misused or sold on to other actors. In November, the Armenian National Committee of Australia (ANCA) revealed that an Australian-made component had been found in an Azerbaijani drone employed in the six-week war with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijan’s use of drones, purchased from Turkey and Israel, was seen as crucial to their military success.

The Australian company who manufactured the part – a transponder clearly labelled ‘Made in Australia’ and listing the company’s name and Queensland address – responded to ANCA with a letter explaining that it had not sold the component to Azerbaijan or Turkey. The company pointed out that there was a large second-hand market for aircraft parts and that they retain ‘no knowledge of the ownership of our parts after we sell them unless they are returned to us for repairs.’

This episode points to the need for more rigorous follow up about how such goods and technologies are used after being exported overseas. Australia is not alone: components manufactured by firms based in the UK, US, and Canada were also reportedly found in several drones downed by Armenian forces.

The rise in Australian arms sales abroad coincides with huge defence spending at home. Australia is currently one of the world’s largest arms importers in monetary terms and has forecast a $270 billion investment in defence capabilities over the next decade, including the development of hypersonic missiles and offensive cyber capabilities.

It’s little wonder, then, that the sharks of the international arms industry are circling here. Research published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in December found that Australia hosts 38 business entities connected to the 15 largest arms companies, the second-highest number worldwide behind only the United Kingdom.

Easing many of these firms’ path toward securing lucrative government contracts is the parade of former cabinet ministers and parliamentarians who have joined their ranks post-parliament.

Former defence minister Christopher Pyne is now a board member of NIOA, an arms and ammunition supplier, as well as of XTEK, which makes ballistic armour, sniper rifles and unmanned aircraft. Another former defence minister, Brendan Nelson, left his role as director of the Australian War Memorial to become president of Boeing Australia in February 2020.

Former Labor senators Kate Lundy and David Feeney are board members with Electro Optic Systems (EOS) and NIOA, respectively. Former deputy prime minister and Labor leader Kim Beazley joined the board of Lockheed Martin Australia in 2016 and was replaced by former Liberal minister, Amanda Vanstone, in 2018. It’s a list that traverses both sides of politics, and perhaps demonstrates why any trenchant critique of Australia’s arms exports is absent from within the major political parties.

In July last year, prime minister Scott Morrison spoke of a post-pandemic world that would be ‘poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly.’ For the arms industry, and its facilitators in government, Morrison’s comments may have sounded more like a business opportunity than a grim warning.

David Hopkins

David Hopkins is a researcher focused on social justice living in Melbourne.

More by David Hopkins ›

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  1. Terrorists come in various shades and colours

    Legal or illegal. On top of this to count on such income for a developed nation is really sad , and doesn’t envisage any good . Who 0lays with fire gets burned. And to rely on fossil fuels also as the main source of income , I cannot describe what I feel for such a world.. without legal prejudice. The media is simply unrepentant about this

  2. I am concerned that Australia through the Defense Department is facilitating the supply of offensive military weaponry to countries with a bad record of human relations . The weaponry is not necessarily manufactured in Australia , with support to local industry , but seems to be by facilitation of import and subsequent export to countries which could not achieve direct purchase . This matter was raised in the press many months ago , but has been lost in passing time . This facilitation does not create employment or boost the local economy , excepting the few firms doing the dealing . The trade should be stopped by refusing Approval for transhipment of imported arms in the paper train .

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