One thing unites war-mongering countries: the amount they profit from selling death. In 2021, the 100 largest arms companies worldwide generated $592 billion in sales, including firms from the US, Europe, China, and Russia.
In response to this eye-watering industry of armed violence, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) set out to analyse the marketing techniques used by some of the world’s largest arms manufacturers.
By examining the websites of 25 of the world’s largest weapons producers (see box below for details), we identified a number of strategies used to put a positive spin by these arms companies and their armament products, side-stepping the harder – but basic – truth that such weapons are primarily used to kill and maim other humans.
Such marketing sleight-of-hands include techniques such as framing product-sales in terms of national security (evident in 48% of the 25 websites scrutinised) and job creation (28%), but also promote green-sustainability (52%) and diversity (40%). Others build an image of their company as a force for good through advertising their support of humanitarian and development projects as well as other contributions to human rights (28%).
Out of the 25 companies profiled, seven were European, six American, five Russian, three Chinese, three Israeli, and one was Japanese. The techniques employed vary among countries, with those companies based in Europe and the US often using a more diverse range of marketing techniques, while companies based in Russia and China employing fewer such approaches on their websites, choosing instead to display their products in a straightforward, matter-of-fact light.
Across the board, weapons and military equipment are described on armament websites as ‘defence products.’ This emboldens the sense that such weapons are primarily used in a protective capacity. Furthermore, 48% of the 25 companies profiled overtly linked their products with national security or protection of citizens. BAE Systems, for example, frequently claims that their “advanced defence technology protects people and national security.”
Some companies go one step further, distancing themselves from war and claiming instead that they are a force for peace. The Russian company Almaz-Antey’s homepage declares that a “Peaceful sky is our profession.” A video of a missile launch plays in the background, covering the sky in smoke and flame.
European company Airbus goes even further, claiming the security their military products provide “is a prerequisite of peace, the rule of law, political stability, democracy, environmental sustainability, human rights, economic development and prosperity, and scientific progress.”
There is little, it seems, that Airbus’s weapons cannot fix.
Of note, both Airbus and BAE Systems have strong ties to Saudi Arabia, and in particular to their military campaign in Yemen. BAE’s Typhoon and Tornado aircraft, and Airbus’ Eurofighter Typhoon, have all been central to Saudi attacks on a wide range of targets in Yemen, and there is strong evidence these attacks comprise repeated breaches of international humanitarian law. This does not mean the companies that sold the weapons are, under the law, as held equally responsible, but – as Arabian activist Ameen Nemer said at the 2019 BAE AGM – “for people in Saudi Arabia and Yemen it is impossible to separate the people who sell the weapons from the ones that use them.”
Overall, explosive weapon use by Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-led coalition accounts for 60% (11,290) of all 18,810 civilian casualties of explosive weapons recorded by AOAV in Yemen since 2010. Civilians account for 76% of the 14,852 recorded casualties caused by Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-led coalition since then, and include at least 862 children.
At least 15 people, including children, were killed when a Saudi-led coalition airstrike hit a home in the southwestern city of Taiz, Yemen, April 9, 2018. By Felton Davis, licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Saudi air strikes have killed and injured at least 10,247 civilians in Yemen since 2010 – 54% of all civilian casualties recorded in Yemen in that time. The majority of Saudi air strikes were reported in urban residential areas (187 recorded incidents), where 2,432 civilians were reported killed and injured by these attacks. 1,130 civilians were reported harmed in Saudi air strikes on markets, 890 by strikes on public buildings, 709 in armed bases, and 510 in villages. We are called to wonder who exactly BAE Systems and Airbus weapons are protecting, whose human rights are being defended, and whose security and development is being assured.
The arms industry has long responded to those who suggest weapons companies should be closed down with the claim that it supports job creation and economic development. Though arms companies’ websites suggest that they are now prioritising other narratives, over a quarter of those profiled continue to place stress on the number of jobs they create. American company Lockheed Martin claims to serve “as a powerful catalyst for economic and job growth.”
Lockheed Martin is among the three US contractors, along with General Dynamics and Raytheon, against whom a group of Yemeni nationals has filed a lawsuit. They are being accused of “aiding and abetting war crimes and extrajudicial killings” by supplying arms to the Saudi-led coalition.
The US-backed Saudi coalition bombed a school in Yemen, killing mostly children, April 8, 2019. By Felton Davis, licensed under CC BY 2.0.
The plaintiffs are representing the victims of two bombings: in October 2015, an airstrike targeting a wedding celebration killed 43 people, including 13 women and 16 children; and one year later, 100 people were killed when a US-manufactured GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb hit a funeral. Less catalyst, it seems, and more catastrophic.
Russian and UK arms company websites prominently feature job creation for youth. Companies such as SPLAV, Almaz-Antey, BAE Systems and General Dynamics UK showcase efforts to provide opportunities and incentives to get young people into military technology jobs.
AOAV has recorded 15,012 children killed and injured by manufactured explosive weapons around the world over the past decade (2013-2022).
Though it is difficult to calculate military emissions due to a lack of transparency, it has been estimated that the world’s militaries produce around 6% of global emissions. Research has found that arms production and the military supply chain play a major part in this.
Yet, despite this fact, arms companies are still using sustainability as a marketing tool.
Although Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) and Carbon Reduction Plan (CRP) reporting is mandatory in some jurisdictions, over half (52%) of the profiled arms companies use their sustainability initiatives for marketability. This was most common among US and European companies, while none of the Russian companies profiled, and only one of the three Chinese companies profiled, used sustainability as a marketing strategy.
The extent to which companies use this as a tactic varies from promoting the fact they are being more environmentally-conscious and working to reduce carbon emissions, to claiming that their products are part of the solution and will help states reach net-zero. The French company Naval Group, which produces torpedoes and claims to serve the operations of over 50 navies, states that it is “actively participating in the collective effort to preserve the planet”.
There are a number of motives behind such greenwashing. European companies worry about exclusion from sustainable investment funds if they don’t promote sustainability. Some appear, then, to view climate change as a marketing opportunity, marketing ‘green’ weapons as new products.
For instance, the Japanese company Mitsubishi Heavy Industries promotes its mission to “contribute to the realisation of net zero for the whole of society.” It goes on to explain how the company will not only achieve carbon neutrality by 2024, but develop new products and technologies that help others to reduce their carbon emissions.
However, claims that the arms industry might transform from one of the largest carbon-emitting industries in the world into a force for environmental good seem a stretch, and the Conflict and Environment Observatory has pointed out the issues that arise from assertions that a “zero-carbon” military aerospace is achievable.
Diversity marketing is now a familiar corporate strategy that weapons companies have also embraced, with 40% of profiled companies adopting this technique, rising to 59% when Chinese and Russian companies are excluded.
A lot of diversity marketing involves publicising efforts to get more women into STEM. Six companies advertise that they work in partnership with initiatives such as ‘Girls Who Code’ or ‘Women in Defence.’ A number of companies also use International Women’s Day to publish features about women employees. Gender equality for Elbit Systems (the largest supplier of drones for the Israeli army) involved getting 200 Haredi women engineers to take part in developing the Hermes 900 – a drone that has been used in airstrikes on civilians in Gaza.
The irony is hard to miss: just as these manufacturers claim their employment practices are inclusive and non-discriminatory, so too are their weapons, too frequently used in attacks which fail to abide by International Humanitarian Law’s principle of distinction, prohibiting indiscriminate attacks that fail to distinguish between military and civilian targets. Over the past decade (2013-2022), 63% (12,001) of explosive attacks from manufactured explosive weapons recorded by AOAV were reported in populated areas – areas where 92% (111,788) of casualties from manufactured explosive weapons were civilians, including at least 11,651 children and 5,982 women.
A few companies branch out from increasing the number of women employees to note that a diverse workforce also includes people with disabilities and LGBTQ+. Rolls Royce, for instance, boasts about its inclusion in Stonewall’s top 100 employers list, while BAE Systems and Leonardo have been known to tweet in support of Pride.
Such marketing techniques have been called out by LGBTQ+ activists for ‘pinkwashing’ the image of companies that they argue are complicit in human rights abuses. Organisers of UK pride events have been criticised for allowing BAE Systems to participate in the parades when, the critics say, the company sells billions of pounds worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia who have a lamentable gay rights record.
Lastly, 28% of companies claim to be a force for good, involving themselves in community development and humanitarian projects.
China North Industries Group – the one Chinese company that promotes its ‘social responsibility’ focus – states that it “adheres to support the construction of harmonious society and overseas public welfare undertakings,” including donating to primary schools in Laos.
Airbus has a foundation that provides aircraft and satellite imagery to humanitarian relief teams, while Boeing is especially fervent about its support of various projects, including investing in a translation app for humanitarians and refugees and spending $6 million on global humanitarian relief and recovery efforts. It also mentions – as do General Dynamics Corp and Elbit Systems – how much employees donate and volunteer their time.
Twenty people were killed in an air strike by a Saudi-led military coalition in southwestern Yemen, April 20, 2018. By Felton Davis, licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Though these initiatives may in themselves do some good in the world, they also give the strong impression that these companies (and their employees) have a guilty conscience.
In the first half of 2023, of the 3,793 migrants detected crossing the English channel in small boats, 63% (2,380) came from countries which were among the fifteen globally worst impacted for civilian casualties from the use of explosive weapons in 2022. Similarly, of the 336,267 asylum applications received by the Home Office between 2013 and 2022, 31% (105,727) come from the 10 countries worse impacted for civilian casualties from explosive weapon use in that time. Those 10 countries represent 5% of the total 196 countries from which asylum seekers originated, fleeing ongoing violence but also fleeing the long-lasting and deeply impactful reverberating consequences of the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities. Countries like Yemen have seen their infrastructure and social and economic resilience decimated by decades of conflict. In investing in support for refugees and recovery efforts, Boeing and other companies therefore seem to be applying plasters to humanitarian crises in which they have played a leading role.
AOAV’s analysis of marketing techniques used by some of the world’s largest arms manufacturers reveals a disturbing pattern of deception and manipulation. These companies engage in a range of tactics to present their deadly products in a positive light, evading the basic truth that these weapons are designed to kill and maim other human beings. From framing product sales as a matter of national security to promoting green sustainability and diversity, they attempt to create a veneer of responsibility and altruism.
However, behind the carefully crafted narratives lies a stark reality. The arms industry’s devastating impact on civilian populations cannot be ignored. Conflicts fueled by these weapons have resulted in immense human suffering, with civilians bearing the brunt of the violence. Countries like Yemen have seen their infrastructure, social fabric, and economic stability shattered by decades of armed conflicts.
As Iain Overton, the Executive Director of AOAV, says: “One thing unites war-mongering countries: the amount they profit from selling death. In 2021, the 100 largest arms companies worldwide generated $592 billion in sales, including firms from the US, Europe, China, and Russia.”
It is time to confront the true cost of the arms trade and the complicity of these companies in perpetuating violence and human rights abuses. The international community must hold them accountable and demand transparency in their actions. Governments, investors, and consumers alike have a role to play in dismantling the machinery of death and steering towards a world where peace, human rights, and sustainability take precedence over profit. Only then can we begin to build a future free from the shadows of war and violence.
|Country (HQ)||Weapons company|
|Russia||SPLAV||SPLAV manufactures multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) which are sold to over 50 countries, and have been linked to civilian deaths in Ukraine.|
|United Shipbuilding Corporation||Russia’s largest shipbuilding company, they provide warships and submarines to the Russian Navy.|
|Tactical Missiles Corporation||The company manufactures a range of missile systems, including air-to-air missiles, anti-ship missiles, and guided bombs, with which it supplies the Russian army.|
|United Aircraft Corporation||Russia’s largest weapons company in 2021, they produce fighter jets, strategic missile carriers and bombers.|
|Almaz-Antey||They provide the Russian army with anti-aircraft weaponry, including surface-to-air-missiles. Some of these, such as the S-300, were repurposed to attack ground targets (including civilians) in Ukraine.|
|Europe||Airbus||Their military products include military aircraft and unmanned aerial systems. They supply drones and surveillance systems for border control. Airbus is also one of the companies behind the Eurofighter Typhoon, which has been sold to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.|
|UK||BAE Systems||The UK’s largest weapons company, with sales exceeding £17 bn to Saudi Arabia since the start of the war in Yemen.|
|Leonardo UK||One of the biggest suppliers of military equipment to the UK MoD, their attack helicopters have been used in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq. They also supply border control technology, and participated in the development of the Eurofighter Typhoon, along with Airbus and BAE Systems.|
|Rolls Royce||The company manufactures military aircraft, naval engines, and power supplies for military vehicles and nuclear submarines. Their market includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman.|
|US/UK||General Dynamics Corp/UK||Their range of weapons include firearms, military vehicles, and missiles. They are a major supplier for the US army, and are included in a lawsuit brought against three manufacturers, who are accused of aiding extrajudicial killings by selling weapons to the Saudi-led coalition.|
|Germany||Rheinmetall||One of the world’s biggest producers of artillery and tank shells. They also manufacture military trucks, laser weapons systems, and technologies for other military equipment.|
|France||Naval Group||They manufacture naval military equipment, including warships and ballistic nuclear submarines. Their customers include India and Saudi Arabia.|
|Thales||One of the shareholders of Naval Group, Thales is France’s largest weapons manufacturer, with products including electronic warfare systems, drones, assault rifles and mortar systems. Their tracking systems have been used in Yemen.|
|United States||Lockheed Martin||Lockheed Martin was the world’s largest weapons company in 2022. Their military products include missiles, MLRS, tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. The company has supplied weapons to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.|
|Raytheon||Raytheon is the world’s second largest weapons company, mostly producing missile systems and electronic warfare systems. Their sales initially took a hit due to sanctions on Russia, but they have since profited immensely from the war in Ukraine. Their bombs have also been linked to civilian deaths in Yemen.|
|Boeing||Another US company among the world’s top three largest weapons producers, their arms sales largely comprise missile systems and nuclear warheads. Their precision-guided munitions have been used in Yemen and are marketed as ‘combat-proven.’|
|Leidos||An IT and engineering company, Leidos merged with Lockheed Martin’s IT sector in 2016, becoming the largest military IT service provider. They also manufacture hypersonic weapons and missile systems.|
|Northrop Grumman Corp||Northrop Grumman’s military products include everything from guns, ammunition and missiles, to hypersonic and laser weapons.|
|China||China North Industries Group Corp (NORINCO)||NORINCO is China’s largest weapons manufacturer. They supply the Chinese military with tanks, missiles, chemicals, electronics and guns. They have also been accused of selling illegal firearms in the US, anti-protest gear to Venezuela, and missiles to Iran. They reportedly sold rifles and weapons parts to Russia last year.|
|Aviation Industry Corp of China||They produce military aircraft, including fighter-bombers, drones, and electronic-warfare aircraft. They reportedly supply Russia with parts for the SU-35 fighter jets – compatible with the FAB-250 and FAB-500 bombs that have been dropped on populated areas in Ukraine.|
|China State Shipbuilding Corporation||One of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world, they provide warships and auxiliary vessels for the Chinese Navy as well as globally.|
|Israel||Elbit Systems||Israel’s largest weapons company, they produce military products for air, land and sea-use, including armed drones, border surveillance technology, and ammunition. They have offices and factories worldwide, including in the UK. Many of their weapons are marketed as ‘combat-proven,’ having been used in Occupied Palestine.|
|RAFAEL||Established in 1948, RAFAEL is Israel’s second largest weapons company. They are most famous for the Iron Dome, but also manufacture a range of land, air and naval weapons, including missiles, ‘lethality optimisation’ for armoured vehicles, sensor-to-shooter systems, and laser weaponry. They have close relationships with the UAE, UK, India and USA.|
|Israel Aerospace Industries||Their aerial weapons systems include loitering munitions and guided projectiles, while they have worked with the Israeli army to launch an advanced intelligence gathering satellite. Despite their name, IAI also provide naval and land attack weapons for the Israeli army and elsewhere.|
|Japan||Mitsubishi Heavy Industries||Japan’s biggest weapons manufacturer, they ranked 24th in the world in 2022. Their military products include warships, submarines, fighter jets, and guided weapons systems, over 50% of which they export worldwide.|
Did you find this story interesting? Please support AOAV's work and donate.