The arms industry is dominated by a small number of major corporations that have their headquarters in one country but produce weaponry internationally. They include Lockheed Martin (US), BAE Systems (UK), Boeing (US), Raytheon (US), EADS (Europe) and Finmeccanica (Italy). They are the producers of the aircraft, missiles, warships and vehicles that carry the weapons and “systems” of the armed forces.
The dominance of the US is clear, and stretches far beyond the US-headquartered companies. The pull of US military spending means that European companies, most strikingly BAE Systems, have been buying-up US companies to access that funding. The US now accounts for over half of BAE Systems sales and is the location of more BAE employees than the UK.
Although arms companies are not particularly large by international business standards - BAE, one of the world’s top three arms producers, is ranked 398th in the FT Global 500 - they are incredibly powerful due to their political connections. A complex web of relationships between arms companies and government means that policy-making is distorted in favour of arms company interests.
One of the more tangible manifestations of this web is the ‘revolving door’. This provides a steady stream of government ministers and officials to companies, whose contacts and influence can then be tapped. A particularly offensive example took place in February 2011 when former UK Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, moved to BAE Systems. As Ambassador, he had pressured the Serious Fraud Office to drop its investigation into BAE-Saudi arms deals.
The influence of arms companies is felt, and apparently welcomed, right at the top of government. In the midst of the brutal suppression of protest in the Middle East, Prime Minister David Cameron chose to go ahead with an arms promotion tour of Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar and Omana. He clearly wasn't to be dissuaded by ethical concerns, appropriateness, or even the PR accident-waiting-to-happen.
Aside from ensuring unquestioning support for arms exports, this political influence has led to the UK being committed to heavy expenditure on large items of military equipment, including aircraft carriers, fighter aircraft and Trident. The utility of these is questioned even by some of those within the military.