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How BAE Systems helped arm half the world: report and key findings

What is this report? BAE Systems, benefiting from global conflicts and threats of war, has seen recent unprecedented profit growth, highlighting the lucrative nature of the arms trade amidst global instability. This 2024 report – “How BAE Systems helped arm half the world” – from Action on Armed Violence investigates BAE Systems’ secretive client list spanning the previous decade, and scrutinises the ethical implications of arming countries with dubious human rights records and unstable political regimes.

Key findings

  • BAE Systems has definite or reported trading relationships with 93 countries around the world – just under half the globe or 48% of all UN member states.
  • This is broken down into:
    • 81 definite relationships with countries (41% of the world); and
    • 12 reported relationships (i.e. media coverage of trade deals), between 2013 and 2023;
  • BAE Systems’ clients include virtually all of the top 40 countries with the highest military expenditure in the world. 18 of BAE’s 81 definite clients are among SIPRI’s top 20 highest military spenders; 36 are in its Top 40 for 2022;
  • Of all the countries demonstrating evidence of having a definite relationship with BAE Systems over the past decade, over half (55%) score lower than 50/100 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI);
  • In the past decade, 17 countries globally have experienced one or more military coup d’états. Of those, nine have reportedly engaged with or bought from BAE Systems (definite or reported) over the past decade, with more than a quarter (5) of these being definitely involved with the UK defence giant;
  • In 13 of the 32 human rights priority countries listed by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), AOAV found BAE Systems has established definite relationships with ten and reported relationships with three in the last decade;
  • 29 of the 81 confirmed countries that BAE Systems have helped arm in the last decade have used explosive weapons that have reportedly harmed civilians since 2013. From such state use, AOAV recorded 6,292 incidents of explosive weapon use, based on reputable English language reporting, and some 44,103 civilians harmed – of which 24,019 were killed.  It is not known to what degree BAE Systems weaponry was involved in each incident.

Introduction

In 2023, BAE Systems declared it had been the arms company’s best-year-yet for new orders. The British weapons giant announced global orders of some £37.7 billion and an operating profit of some £2.6bn. 2024 could be even more profitable. At the time of writing – 16 April 2024 – the company’s share price is up some 24% from six months ago, a rise seemingly fuelled by the war in Gaza and the ominous threats of World War III.

War, it seems, is good for the arms dealer. Between 2013 and 2022, BAE Systems PLC saw more than £194bn in sales, with a cumulative operating profit of £17bn. In other words, if you earned £23,000 a day since the birth of Jesus Christ you would still not earn as much as BAE Systems saw in operating profits in the last decade (not factoring in inflation, of course).

But who did Britain’s largest arms manufacturer sell to in order to generate such immense wealth?

This question, which forms the backbone of this report, is not easy to answer. BAE Systems does not list all its national clients on its website nor in its annual reports. To find an answer on who it sold to, or where its developed weapon systems ended up, required months of interrogating news reports, governmental statements, company accounts and reliable open-source intelligence.

In the end, our team identified 93 countries that appear to be armed by weapons sold or developed by BAE Systems (or companies in which it has joint ventures). This constitutes almost half of the world.

81 of these appear to have a definite  connection with BAE Systems (such as government-announced purchases or BAE Systems’ linked arms reported in-country). 12 have more distant but still reported connections (such as reports of military acquisition through the media). In the report outlined below, we examine what such weapon development, sales and supply means, and ask why British weapons have been sold to countries with poor human rights records, fragile political systems, endemic poverty or corruption, or have been potentially linked to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

The 81 countries with definite links to BAE Systems are: Afghanistan, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Burundi, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Ivory Coast, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mali, Malta, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Singapore, Slovakia, Somalia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam.

Those 12 with reported, but not definite links are: Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Libya, Monaco, Niger, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

BAE Systems’ Chairman, Sir Roger Carr, noted in his 2022 annual report that the arms trade “is an industry that is sometimes misunderstood.” He claims his company is “highly regulated, ethically led, and government-backed” and that the “case against defence” was “dangerous and damaging” to the arms industry’s reputation.

“There are some who believe all arms manufacture is wrong and that the moral dimension should supersede all other arguments,” he wrote. “Their views are to be respected, if not accepted.”

Whilst we are not in any way accusing BAE Systems of anything illegal, AOAV’s report is a small way of putting this arms company’s actions not just within that dimension of morality, but also – by being the first ever attempt to name all the countries its weapons end up in – firmly in the dimension of geography, too.

Dr Iain Overton, Chief Executive, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV)

Legal Disclaimer

This report is published by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), an independent non-governmental organisation based in London that is dedicated to research and advocacy on issues related to armed violence and conflict. 

The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this report are entirely those of AOAV and do not necessarily reflect the views of any entities or individuals acknowledged within. The information contained within this report is provided for informational purposes only and has been compiled from sources believed to be reliable and accurate to the best of AOAV’s knowledge and research capability at the time of publication. Despite our efforts to ensure the accuracy of the report’s contents, AOAV does not guarantee the completeness or correctness of the information presented and cannot be held liable for any errors, omissions, or inaccuracies. 

The findings of this report do not – in any way – claim that BAE Systems is currently operating in a way that would be seen as illegal in any of its business dealings. The report is more aimed at critiquing the global arms trade than BAE Systems in particular and is using BAE Systems as an example – given we are a UK research charity and it is the largest arms manufacturer in the UK. While the report does reference some historic investigations into or allegations against BAE, it does not claim to add to or comment additionally on these. 

When asked for a right to reply, a spokesperson for BAE Systems told AOAV: “As a leading provider of defence and security capabilities with operations in more than 40 countries, we play a key role in enabling legitimate governments to defend their nation and protect their people. Our industry is amongst the most highly regulated of any sector and we comply fully with all relevant export control laws and regulations in the countries in which we operate. We rigorously uphold our responsible trading principles and ethical standards and even if export licences have been approved, we do not proceed if our own strict criteria are not met. All export licence applications are thoroughly assessed, on a case-by-case basis, against internationally-sanctioned criteria and if granted, they are subject to ongoing review.” 

AOAV does not contest this.

On their website, BAE Systems has an Operational Framework which sets out their approach as well as the policies, processes and standards to which they state they adhere. They note that their Code of Conduct and Responsible Trading Principles outline expectations for all their employees and partners. Those interested in the findings of this report are encouraged to read the above, for the sake of balance and clarity.

Given the opacity of the nature of BAE Systems’ exports – the company will not comment on who it sells to – if there are any errors in this report, we encourage people to contact AOAV directly and we will do our best to rectify any confirmed mistakes.

Methodology

This study of BAE Systems’ global enterprise was mostly executed through the use of open-source data. AOAV analysed BAE Systems’ relationship with 197 countries, namely the 193 countries listed by the United Nations as member states, two of its non-member observer states – the Holy See (Vatican City) and Palestine – as well as Taiwan and Kosovo. The research, which was focused on the period from 2013 to the present, identified 81 definite military relationships between BAE Systems and states. There were an additional 12 reported relationships. Military relationships are defined as those in which BAE Systems has – through direct sales, subsidiaries, joint ventures, or as subcontractors – provided services or equipment which appears likely to have bolstered the military capabilities of a State.

Given the world of defence contracts and the application of weaponry defence systems are opaque at best, the definition of military relationships is necessarily broad and stretches from the direct sale of BAE Systems weaponry to a nation state, to occasional cases in which a separate nation state has used BAE Systems equipment in support of and on the territory of another nation state. In some cases, the military hardware was provided by one state in a supportive role to another state. These countries are still included as they are evidence of cases in which BAE Systems was involved in the arming of a state, whether directly or indirectly. AOAV defines arming as including the providing or servicing of technology (hardware and software) with potential military uses.

We have, however, aimed everywhere to be fair and concise. Where there was no clear military connection to the relationship, those countries were omitted. For example, if BAE Systems owned an office or a subsidiary in a country and there was no obvious military connection, this country was not included. If the sale of the technology had no obvious military use, these countries were omitted. AOAV also identified two cases where BAE Systems technology was sold to other companies who then later sold that equipment to other countries; these cases were not included.[1] Of note, the vast majority of relationships identified are through BAE Systems subsidiaries or through the MBDA joint venture, of which BAE Systems is a 37.5% owner.

Of the definite relationships, 58 reportedly involved BAE subsidiaries and 34 involved joint ventures. In two cases, BAE Systems was identified as a subcontractor. In three cases, BAE Systems’ equipment was provided second-hand from one state to another. Amongst the reported relationships, 8 reportedly involved joint ventures and 5 involved subsidiaries.

Overall, we found that 81 countries had a definite relationship with BAE Systems, demonstrated through the clear purchase of BAE Systems military goods, services, or technology. Definite relationships were determined by the strength of evidence. If the purchase, order, delivery or use of BAE Systems manufactured equipment or services were identified by government arms export data sources or published by BAE Systems and its partners, then this was deemed sufficient evidence to include the benefiting nation-state in the definite list. If a relationship was identified by a government official or a BAE Systems employee or partner organisation employee in a reputable news source, then this relationship would be included in the definite list.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade’s (CAAT) UK Export License Database was an important tool in helping identify definite relationships. However, the existence of approved export licences from BAE Systems, its subsidiaries or joint ventures to another country was, in and of itself, not sufficient evidence for that country to be added to the definite list. If the noting of an arms export licence was combined with other important evidence (e.g. BAE owning a subsidiary in that country, having an office there or news reports citing transfers), the country was then added to the definite list.

Any transfers identified on the SIPRI Arms Transfer Database were considered sufficient evidence to move a country onto the definite list. We have chosen SIPRI’s list over CAAT’s list to ensure we are not accused of relying solely on a lobby group’s data – even though that data is robust and reliable. Similarly, relationships identified through the Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies’ research on small arms and light weapons, which was based on information provided by the Bundeswehr Verification Centre, which carries out arms control inspections for the German state, were included in the definite list.

In addition to definite relationships, AOAV identified several reported relationships. Examples of reported relationships include ones cited in reports but for which it was not possible to find more verifiable information, or – as noted – relationships identified only through the CAAT Export License Database but for which no other clear and definite evidence existed.

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