“It’s very profitable to prepare for omnicide,” Daniel Ellsberg, famed whistleblower and anti-nuclear weapons activist, said in a recent interview. “Northrop Grumman and Boeing and Lockheed and General Dynamics make a lot of money out of preparing for such a war. The congressmen get campaign contributions, they get votes in their district and almost every state for preparing for that.”
But don’t just take it from Ellsberg. At an investor conference in 2019, a managing director from the investment bank Cowen Inc. queried Raytheon’s CEO on this subject. “We’re about to exit the INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty] with Russia,” said the Cowen executive. Did this mean, he asked, whether “we will really get a defense budget that will really benefit Raytheon?” Raytheon’s CEO happily responded that he was “pretty optimistic” about where things were headed.
A new report from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons released Monday examines in detail just who’s getting all the radioactive cash and why. ICAN received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 in recognition for its work “to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”
There are currently nine countries that possess nuclear weapons: the United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. ICAN calculated that they collectively spent $72.6 billion in 2020 on nukes.
The U.S. was responsible for just over half of this doomsday payout, at $37.4 billion. According to the Congressional Budget Office, U.S. nuclear spending is anticipated to soon increase sharply due to plans for technological upgrades, rising to $41.2 billion next year and totaling $634 billion during the 10 years from 2021-2030.
“There’s always more [nuclear spending] out there … even more still lurking in the shadows.”
China came in second in 2020 at an estimated $10.1 billion. Russia was third at $8 billion. Notably, in a year when the world economy was flattened by the coronavirus pandemic, nuclear spending continued on an upward trajectory without a hiccup.
Despite these hefty numbers, they’re probably an underestimate. “There’s always more [nuclear spending] out there … even more still lurking in the shadows,” said Susi Snyder, co-author of the report and managing director of the project Don’t Bank on the Bomb. Snyder points out that “governments, especially U.S., U.K., [and] France are always demanding ‘transparency’ … yet they do not hold themselves to the standards they demand of others.”
A great deal of U.S. nuclear spending consists of profitable contracts with private corporations. The four companies Ellsberg said were raking in cash “preparing for war” indeed received the most money in 2020:
These enormous contracts create obvious incentives for these companies to lobby for more government expenditures on Armageddon, and they assiduously do so. Indeed, lobbying unquestionably is the most profitable investment these companies make. According to ICAN’s report, for every $1 they spent on lobbying, they received $239 in nuclear weapon contracts.
The specifics are notable here. Northrop reported $13.3 million in lobbying expenses in 2020. Last year it was formally awarded the enormous initial contract to develop a new intercontinental ballistic missile system called the “Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.” It will inevitably receive the contract for the entire program, estimated to be worth $85 billion over its life. In discussion on the GBSD, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition stated that he didn’t see the pandemic affecting nuclear spending.
There is also much more to lobbying than that which goes by the name. In the 2006 documentary “Why We Fight,” journalist Gwynne Dyer explained that President Dwight Eisenhower considered the military-industrial complex actually to have three components: the military, defense corporations, and Congress. But now, Dyer said, there’s a fourth: think tanks, which generally push their funders’ policies under a thin veneer of scholarship.
According to the report, companies profiting from nuclear weapons contributed $5-10 million to think tanks in 2020. Northrop alone spent at least $2 million funding nine of them, including the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, the Center for a New American Security, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
However, ICAN did not produce the report for passive consumption or as an inducement to despair. Instead, it is part of a sophisticated strategy to eventually make nuclear weapons as taboo worldwide as chemical and biological weapons are now.
ICAN was a key force behind the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted in 2017 at the United Nations. It makes illegal any activities related to nuclear weapons and has been signed by 86 countries and ratified by 54. It entered into force this past January.
None of the nuclear powers are signatories. Yet they need not be for the treaty to create a noose around those countries and their companies that should tighten over time. For instance, Airbus produces missiles for France’s nuclear weapons arsenal. But it is headquartered in the Netherlands, so if that country ratified the TPNW, it could no longer do so.
This financial threat has now attracted the attention of the stockholders of these nuclear corporations. Snyder notes that a 2020 Northrop shareholders resolution stated that the company “has at least $68.3 billion in outstanding nuclear weapons contracts, which are now illegal under international law,” and it received 22 percent support. A similar Lockheed resolution got over 30 percent support. The KBC Group, the 15th-largest bank in Europe, has announced that it will not fund any nuclear weapon-related activity because of the TPNW.
Success here will obviously require a long-term campaign and increased activism across the world. But the trajectory is headed in the right direction. “The days of spending with impunity on WMD,” believes Snyder, “are numbered.”