Article: Covering arms & defence

Guns on the table
The Journalist magazine, December 2005
By Heather Brooke

Journalists’ Toolbox – arms

When a huge arms fair like the Defence Systems and Equipment International Exhibition rolls into town as it did in September, journalists must quickly get to grips with the shadowy world of international arms trade. Comedian Mark Thomas posed as an arms dealer to glimpse the inner workings of the industry, but there are many quicker, cheaper resources available to all journalists covering either an arms fair or how public money is awarded through defence contracts.

Activist groups often conduct useful research and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (020 7281 0297) proved an excellent source for journalists covering the DSEI exhibition at London’s Docklands. The group keeps research files on country, company and issue as well as government statistics and yearbooks. When government failed to release the names of invited countries, CAAT conducted its own research revealing countries such as Saudi Arabia, China and Columbia on the guest list. To do this yourself, contact the embassies and defence attaché offices of foreign countries – they often view such invitations as a source of pride.

National Audit Office reports provide a rare candid view into the financial cost of publicly funded arms contracts. Search the website for the latest publications and reports. The major projects reports, for example, reveal that £50 billion is spent on arms projects that typically come in late and over budget.

Getting the details of these contracts is not always easy. Invitations to tender for public contracts (usually around £100,000) must be advertised in the EU and you can search these on the Tenders Electronic Daily website. Contracts already awarded may be available from the MoD Defence Contracts Bulletin but this site is set up specifically for vendors and suppliers; you’ll notice an important person missing from the list – the public who pays for all these projects!

Contrast the profiteering MoD site with the US Department of Defense, which is required by law to list all contracts above a certain amount on a freely accessible website. You do not need to register, pay money or be an arms company to access any of the data at, which updates contracts daily.

Arms deals seem to make up the bulk of the activity of the Export Credits Guarantee Department, even though, according to CAAT, arms exports comprise just 2-3 per cent of the UK’s total visible export. This shady department is best cracked open with some well-framed freedom of information requests.

For an overview of the arms industry, useful sources are the Stockholm International Peace Institute, which compiles statistics on military expenditure, arms production and transfers of military equipment. The Guardian newspaper also archives all articles on arms trade into an online Special Report.

Finally, don’t ignore the trade press. Jane’s is the best know and publishes such industry standards as Defence Weekly, Defence Industry, and International Defence Review. Aircraft makes up a major part of UK armaments and is covered by Flight International, and Air Forces Monthly.

Leave a Reply