An insiders view of Farnborough Air Show 2010
Despite all the CSR rhetoric, the British arms industry is profit-driven. Arms deals to states like Saudi Arabia are jealously coveted despite the knowledge that weapons made in Britain facilitate human rights abuses. The arms industry's calendar is punctuated by trade shows, where these deals are done. These include the Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi) trade show in Docklands, the Paris Air Show, the Singapore Air Show and the biannual international airshow at Farnborough, Hampshire.
All of these events are staffed by workers, often temps being paid the minimum wage, from chefs to car park attendants, from event managers to wine waiters. These events could not happen without their labour.
This article was written by two agency workers, Geeta and Harry, who were drafted in to provide catering services for the bizarre mix of day-trippers and arms peddlers at the Farnborough Airshow.
We were the catering army. Our matching black uniforms and forced smiles belied our professional inexperience and disinterest. We were the students, working part time for a temping agency, who set aside our consciences and morals to participate in creating the illusion of Farnborough Air Show 2010, a platform for professional war mongers to buy and sell their wares. We were the complicit hospitality staff diligently facilitating the 'business' taking place at this highly explosive, high security market place. We were the servants, unprofitable, and therefore invisible, to the traders at the Air Show. We were ignored and, in our silence, we witnessed Farnborough's vile underbelly. This is not an excuse but an exploration of how we all have the capacity to contradict our personal ethics and contribute to destructive practices through our work and life.
The site of Farnborough Air Show is an impressive and unnerving spectacle. The trader's sleek chalets are stacked high above one another, creating an immense amphitheatre around the airfield where fighter jets show off. Erected for the week, demolished by the end, the chalets are decorated with potted plants and carpets to override their ephemeral nature and invoke a sense of grandeur, but the scene remains shallow and contrived. ‘By Invitation Only’ is stamped on the entrance of each trader's chalet affirming the privilege of those invited, and politely warning off any curious individuals from enquiring of the business attended to within. Inside, the catering companies have done their utmost to feign sophistication without overly prejudicing their profit margins. The high definition pictures are held up with double-sided tape, the thick quilted table cloths conceal plywood tables, and the fancy crockery rattles as planes take off sending tremors through the flimsy foundations. The disturbing hyper-reality of the Air Show attempts to create a sense of effortless elegance and luxury but is, in fact, made of 3,600 tonnes of temporary structures and takes four months to construct, uneasily covering up an aeronautics industry that is rotten to the core.
The anonymous clients march self-importantly around Farnborough's tasteless site. The entire Air Show aims to accentuate their supposed importance, ignoring the fact that, for the rest of the 51 weeks of the year, these buyers are a mass of uninteresting middle-aged men. The traders at the Air Show celebrate the unappealing homogeneity of their clients, and on the company's private verandas, these insipid but sacred creatures are showered with reheated mass-produced haute cuisine, uncomplimentary cheap wine and decaf diluted coffee..
From these contrived positions of grandeur the clients gawp at RAF Typhoons, C-130J Super Hercules transporters and displays by the Red Devils. Farnborough is a 4-star war zone, where Eurofighters flirtatiously zoom across the sky in gravity, defying loops, and no-one is interested in the devastated destinations of the aircraft. The fatal consequences of the use of these machines are sterilized by Farnborough's pristine commercial veneer; their destructive force is hidden by euphemisms such as 'development' and 'technological innovation'; and the punters are distracted from their own compliance by the free wine.
The sudden over-population of Farnborough by this greedy and gullible clique comes at the expense of normal people. The absence of alternative perspectives or interests acts as the greatest prophylactic against the destabilising effects of rebuttal and scepticism, and makes for a culture of complicity and ignorance.
The Air Show's meticulous setting serves only to obscure the destructive business attended to. As a casual eavesdropper, two types of business-speak immediately presented themselves: the mundane and the cryptic. The former involved the dreary exchange of perfunctory remarks; usually boasts of a successful new venture, or expressions of gratitude for a particular collaboration. Towards the end of the week, the participants of these formalities would stare at each other with glazed eyes, having probably heard a variant of their interlocutors tale only moments before, and repeatedly over the preceding few days.
The cryptic were of a more unsettling type. For the 'business' that was going on was the invidious sort: missiles of this power, guns of that manoeuvrability, tracking systems of such and such deadly precision, all being exchanged for inconceivable amounts of money to anyone without inconceivable wealth. Owing to the general unpleasantness of both the commodities being exhibited and the buyers and sellers in attendance, the business discourse is specifically designed to assuage one's conscience. No self-respecting CEO wants to suffer the ignominy of having their company included in discussions replete with words like 'kill' and 'destroy' (even if their very participation in such an industry requires avarice to trump their scruples). To avoid this awkward deal-destroying chat, their ambassadors deal in transparent euphemisms like 'neutralise', 'target' and 'efficiency'. The flimsiness of these deceits sadly demonstrates how easily people can ignore their own moral waywardness.Objections to business at Farnborough were sadly absent from us, the caterers, too. Instead, our consciences were replaced by eager amateur professionalism, recycled not-quite-black uniforms, and a new obsession with the shine on the cutlery.
So what happened at the Farnborough Air Show 2010?
The official statistics boast: 120,000 trade visitors in 5 days; 11 UK Government ministers; 1,455 exhibitors; 152 aircrafts displayed or flown; £31 billion worth of business.
These alienating numbers, however, do not convey the actual impact of what was aggressively bought and sold between a handful of men for five days in a field in Hampshire. The figures and technological descriptions of the planes avoid any acknowledgement of the destruction their manufacture, purchase and ultimate use have on people. For example, the excitement surrounding the prowess of Lockheed Martin's C-130j Super Hercules, with its automatic flight control system, autothrottle, head-down display, traffic collision avoidance system and ground collision avoidance system, does not invoke the catastrophies this plane causes. The Hercules is the same aircraft that was used by coalition forces in Iraq, which caused around 103,000 civilian casualties in 2003 – yet another vast number that isolates the reader from the reality. Israel has also recently signed a letter of offer and acceptance to acquire a bunch of C-130j's, the same state that systematically destroys Palestinian homes and infrastructure.
Another proud star of Farnborough 2010 was the Eurofighter Typhoon. This aircraft is manufactured by BAE Systems and supplied to the secretive Saudi Arabian regime, which has a record of torture and human rights abuse.
Farnborough Air Show, removed from the glare of the public, offers a safe place for our politicians to dispense their precarious scruples. Vince Cable, our new Business Secretary, was a proud attendee of the Farnborough 2010, declaring what "a great thrill" it was to be at his first Air Show for 50 years and reminiscing about watching the delightful Vulcans, Victors, Hunters and Cornets', whose past killing sprees include the Falkland and Vietnam wars. Cable too is infected by the delusion that the aeronautics industry is the sole insurance for our prosperity and security. Though he once shunned Saudi Arabia's ceremonial visits, and denounced their 'appalling' human rights record, he now revels in being in the same privileged pavilions as his old foe and shares his headlines with Sikorsky (www.sikorsky.com), which was celebrating the sale of the S-70i International Black Hawk to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of the Interior.
As we, the catering staff, trudged onto Farnborough's site at seven in the morning to set up Rolls-Royce's plastic breakfast buffet, we would pass unsettled scenes of soldiers decked in camouflage sprucing up their forecourts and eager salesman polishing their model missiles outside their private chalets. Rolls-Royce's chalet was kept immaculate to convince potential partners of their financial clout and social appeal. It seems that bad taste and cleanliness, and not sound argument and documented efficiency, are foundations on which multi-million dollar deals are being established. Building on their fortunes made in the First World War equipping the allied forces with engines, Rolls-Royce have continued to profit from the war industry, generating £6.5 billion worth of orders in 2009 alone.
John Rose, Rolls Royce's chief executive, was in attendance, referred to by our managers as 'Sir John'. Rose recently signed a £200 million deal to supply the engines for BAE's Hawk jets to India, a deal worth £700 million. David Cameron has been keen to emphasise the greatness of this socially destructive deal by boasting about the 200 jobs it will create. But whilst we are restocking the Indian army's stockpile, India has been busy in Kashmir, violently suppressing protests. In response to the murder of a civilian by an Indian paramilitary, India's home secretary, Gopal Krishna Pillai, replied that apparently they "have shown considerable restraint in killing just one person." Our government's hypocrisy in demonising Pakistan for their supposed support of the Taliban, or criticising Iran's uranium enrichment programme, is repulsive in the face of these jubilant cries of success when war craft are sold for profit to states like India, which has its own dubious human rights record and whose population is mostly stuck in deep poverty.
Rolls-Royce's high position in the aeronautics industry guarantees its place in the higher echelons of UK politics. Sir John sits on a panel advising the government on business, and Oxford Economics consultancy recently affirmed Rolls-Royce's domination of the market with a report alleging that Rolls Royce's exports amount to 0.56 per cent of UK gross domestic product. We have dangerously placed the sustenance of our economy in the care of our aeronautics industry. Not only have we given up on having any economic policy that does not pander to the needs of corporations, but we rely on their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes to educate our kids.
Companies enjoy trumpeting their educational programmes, claiming altruism or the intrinsic value of learning to be their inspiration. However, their ultimate goal is the perpetuation of their technological fluency and the development of the industry's desired workforce. Britain has made itself reliant on CSR marketing campaigns to educate its population and develop its technologies. Rolls-Royce's Science Prize seeks to acknowledge outstanding teaching of maths and science by awarding cash prizes. They recently gave £20,000 to a primary school in Gateshead for building a tunnel to test pupil-designed wind turbines, which only demonstrates how private enterprise is replacing the state in influencing educational practices in the UK. Further, Rolls-Royce has partnered up with the Scout Association and developed the Cub Scout Scientist Badge to develop skills in science and maths.
Science, maths and technology are all vital areas of development for our new 'green economy', but how have we become dependent on the virtuousness of corporations to acknowledge and fund such projects? Corporations such as Rolls-Royce do not fork out all these millions to fund 'good causes' to satisfy their charitable desires but, rather, to expand the UK's reliance on their technological developments. Even the company's website is clear that its CSR programmes are to "equip young people with the skills and abilities our business will require in the future" - not to enrich the learning experience of youngsters. Our technological investment goes into aircraft engines and the rest of society has to wait for the trickle-down effect of the aeronautics development that may or may not inadvertently benefit us in progressive applications. Companies and developers only retrospectively cite these advancements as amongst their primary motivations; in reality they are convenient corollaries.
In our silence, we have given our consensus to the view that, socially and economically, we are dependent on corporations for innovation and investment. We would seemingly nod our heads to the comments of capitalist and government advisor Hermann Hauser, who asserts that "£1 spent on designing a novel kind of aero-engine is worth a lot more [to the UK economy] than £1 spent employing a hairdresser or digging up coal." Of course, the aeronautics industry will never generate 'global peace', or even the security of our own state. The government alleges that defence sales generated £7 billion in 2009 and supports around 55,000 jobs in the UK. These figures are banded around to achieve different effects. Governments glowingly refer to the financial vastness of the industry as a barometer for the jobs and prosperity that their country will accrue. For some, the sums are so unfathomable that it becomes easy to alienate the trade from its unethical grounding and simply dismiss both. For others, the vastness of the wealth being transported increases the regret felt by its misuse.
Is it true then that we have no choice but to rely on the arms industry to arouse inspiration from our engineers and scientists and sustain our manufacturing industry? Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) clarified that the 55,000 arms export jobs make up less than 0.2% of the UK's workforce, and each job has to be subsidised by at least £9,000 a year. Arms exports comprise only 1.5% of all UK exports, and this contribution is compromised by the fact that most of the aircraft's components have to be imported in the first place. The arms industry is reliant on government policy and subsidies, with military spending reaching £13.4 billion. Renewable energy research only receives £1.0 billion. It would not be hard to convert this military spending into a contribution to a real green economy. Because the arms industry is so small in the UK, restructuring would create the opportunity to secure our supposedly green future, which, at its current rate, will be marred with oil and battleships. We need to strengthen our manufacturing industry, which has been weakened by being shipped over seas to destinations with lower wages and weaker health and safety regulations. We must offer the opportunity to our engineers and constructors to contribute to our development in a sustainable way, instead of making aircraft to destroy civilizations. Job-creation opportunities are vast in the housing, transport and health sectors. But instead of investing in public services, the government continues to uphold a limited, highly specialised, expensive and energy-intensive arms industry to maintain its delusional obsession with maintaining its global authority and military clout.
Every evening after work, we would estimate how much was being traded at Farnborough. Our guesstimates of £2-3 million woefully underestimated the £31 billion spending spree that went on at the Air Show. We were aware of our role in facilitating our clients' lucrative and destructive deals, by oiling the greasy wallets of the greedy guests with cheap wine. From within the high security gates, however, none of us had the perspective to comprehend the magnitude of the deals. The police checked IDs and electronic passes, while uniformed bodies authorized our presence and served to erase our personal integrity and values. Away from public scrutiny and questions or challenges from our peers, we created a compact self-sufficient community that was complicit in the buying and selling of arms. We were the same as the ugly dehumanised clients, who overrode their judgements and morals to serve the war industry for a free lunch.