The Military Dimensions of Science and Technology (May 2004)

Notes for a lecture given by Stuart Parkinson, SGR, at Lancaster University Engineering Dept, 26 May 2004

Background on UK military

  • UK military spending per head 6th highest in world (£25 billion/ year) (Smith, 2003)
  • UK arms exports 4th highest in world (Smith, 2003) (or 2nd according to other statistics)
  • Recipients of UK arms include countries with bad human rights records eg China, Saudi Arabia, Columbia (CAAT, 2003)
  • UK one of 5 official nuclear weapons states - currently deploys approx. 200 nuclear missiles on Trident submarines
  • UK home to several large military corporations

UK military and science and technology

  • UK 2nd highest funder of military Research & Development (R&D) after USA (Smith, 2003)
  • 2003 spending on R&D is approx £2.7 billion
  • UK specialists in military aircraft and ships; guided weapons; and other mechanical, electrical and communications equipment for military purposes

Ministry of Defence (MoD)

  • MoD's Defence Procurement Agency spends £6 billion a year on buying military technology
  • MoD spending on R&D in 2003 is £2.6 billion - 33% of UK Government R&D budget. This is a rise since Sept 11th attacks. (OST, 2003a)
  • 40% of Government R&D staff work for MoD (12,000 staff) (OST, 2003b)
  • Main research arm is Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL)
  • Advisory panels on science and technology issues include National Defence Aerospace and Systems Panel (NDASP) - supported by 9 National Advisory Committees, Defence Scientific Advisory Council (DSAC), National Defence Industries Council (NDIC). All have significant industry representation (many from BAE Systems).
  • Graph of UK Government-funded R&D 2000-01 (OST, 2003b) - see Appendix

UK Weapons of Mass Destruction

  • Atomic Weapons Establishment, Aldermaston
    • maintains UK nuclear weapons
    • currently expanding with new supercomputer, new laser facility, new hydrodynamics lab (AWE, 2003) - next generation of nuclear weapons?
  • Porton Down
    • only ‘defensive’ research under terms of Chemical Weapons and Biological Weapons Conventions - but thin line between defensive and offensive work

Military industry

UK home to…

  • BAE Systems - world’s 2nd largest arms company (BAE Systems, 2003)
    • annual sales in 130 countries (many with bad human rights and environmental records) of over £12 billion each year
    • designs and manufactures military aircraft, ships and submarines; guided weapons; radar; space systems; surveillance equipment; military simulation systems
    • some R&D applied to dual-use (military and civil) technology (see below)
    • extensive influence through lobbying association Society of British Aerospace Companies (SBAC)
  • Rolls-Royce Defence (Rolls Royce, 2003)
    • annual sales of £1.4 billion, approx one-fifth of Rolls-Royce as a whole
    • main products are engines for military aircraft & ships
    • some R&D applied to dual-use (military and civil) technology (see below)
  • QinetiQ
    • defence research and consultancy firm formed out of the privatisation of Government agency, DERA (Defence Evaluation Research Agency)
  • World arms market is expanding following Sept 11th attacks, especially in USA
  • Graph of UK Business-funded R&D 2000-01 (OST, 2003b) - see Appendix

Military & universities

  • MoD funds R&D in universities, both directly (through Joint Grants Scheme) and through contractors (DSTL and QinetiQ) - many details are unavailable. "The MoD does not hold centrally information about the number of sub-contracts placed by our contractors with either academia or industry."
  • New and expanding collaborations between universities, Government bodies (including MoD, DTI and/or Research Councils) and defence corporations
    • Defence Technology Centres (DTCs). Three Centres have been set up since 2000. Each covers a broad area of research with possible civil applications. The first three areas covered are data handling, human factors integration and electromagnetic remote sensing. MoD funding up to £5 million a year for 5 years.
    • Towers of Excellence (ToEs). More specialised than DTCs, and driven more by an industry agenda (aim: to produce 'world-beating projects'), eg guided missile systems, electro-optic sensors.
    • Defence and Aerospace Research Partnerships (DARPS). Specialised projects similar to ToEs arising from Government Foresight programme, eg rotorcraft aerodynamics, advanced metallic airframes.
  • Also industry-university collaborations with military component
    • Rolls Royce University Technology Centres (UTCs)
    • Boeing Sheffield Centre
    • Many sponsorships for training and teaching

Universities involved…


  • Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Cranfield, De Montfort (Leicester), Imperial College London, Southampton, Surrey


  • including Cranfield, Imperial College London


  • including Cambridge, York


  • Birmingham, Cambridge, Cranfield, Imperial College London, Loughborough, Nottingham, Oxford, Sheffield, Southampton, Strathclyde, Sussex, Swansea, York.


  1. National defence

  2. Economic benefit from exports

  3. Provides employment

1. National defence

While the UK armed forces clearly can and do have a role in defending the country from attack, they also have a large-scale offensive capability, ie

  • nearly 200 nuclear long-range weapons (Trident)
  • medium and long range missiles, aircraft, ships
  • general capability to fight large conflicts overseas

Such a capability:

  • contributes to an international arms race
  • leads to a greater emphasis on solving international disputes through the use of force, rather than negotiation

UK is major exporter of arms and military equipment to many countries

  • this also contributes to an international arms race, potentially causing recipient countries to divert resources away from important public programmes (eg health, education) to pay for the arms - a particularly serious problem in poorer countries
  • despite UK and EU restrictions on arms exports, arms still go to countries with bad human rights records, while other banned countries use loopholes to get arms (see eg CAAT, 2004)

2. Economic benefit from exports

  • UK arms exports worth approx. £5 billion per year (DESO, 2004) - large income!
  • But each arms export job subsidised by approx. £8,500 (CAAT, 2002; ORG & Saferworld, 2001) - most subsidised industry apart from agriculture - meaning net income is rather lower
  • York University study concluded that cutting UK arms exports by 50% would lead to a one-off cost of between £40 and £100 million (Chalmers et al, 2001) - but the study omits some indirect subsidies, so the cost of such a cut in arms exports may be close to zero.
  • The military argues that there are 'spin-off' technologies from the science and engineering they fund which are good for the economy/ society. The evidence for this is limited. Military technology often requires substantial investment to convert it for civil use, which industry can be reluctant to spend if military markets are more lucrative, eg Ferranti, Vickers (Mort & Spinardi, 2004). Even if the major investment is forthcoming, the close connection with military applications means weapons proliferation is a constant headache (eg nuclear power, chemical pesticides). Attempts such as the UK's Dual-Use Technology Centres have been plagued by conflicting priorities. It would be more efficient to invest directly in civil science and technology.

3. Provides employment

  • Employment in UK arms industry is 345,000 (1% of total employment); 90,000 of these jobs are export related (0.3%) - ie very small percentage (Goudie, 2002)
  • Many of the science and technology skills used by the military could be used in other sectors (eg transport, energy, construction)
  • Centre for Defence Information estimates that per billion dollars, procurement of military technology produces 25,000 jobs, compared to 30,000 jobs in public transport; 36,000 in housing; or 47,000 in health care (Harigel, 1997).

The bigger picture

  • The military focuses on trying to provide security through the threat of force against a perceived enemy. But a focus on the threat of force can undermine diplomatic and other attempts at peaceful solutions, making war more likely. War is very destructive and should be avoided! For example, 270,000 people worldwide were killed directly in wars in 1999 (WHO, 2000). Around 3 times that number die indirectly due to famine etc caused by the conflict. It is estimated that 80% - 90% of casualties in most modern wars are civilian.
  • MoD currently only spends 6% of its budget on conflict prevention (Conscience, 2004), while promoting arms exports which can and do inflame international tension. It needs to switch its priorities.
  • The definition of 'security' needs to be understood more broadly. The roots of conflict lie in problems such as poverty, environmental damage, and ethnic differences. Devoting many more resources to addressing problems in these areas would provide greater security overall. One hopeful sign is the UK Government's setting up of a Global Conflict Prevention Pool which funds projects aimed at stopping conflicts by non-military means.

Should concerned scientists and engineers act to change the current situation?


  • Could work for the military and try to encourage change from within - difficult as military is very hierarchical and secretive
  • Could work for the military, but only on disarmament projects (eg landmine clearance)
  • Could refuse to work on any project that directly manufacture weapons
  • Could refuse to work on all military work until UK adopts ‘Non-Offensive Defence’ policy
  • Could look for work on, eg, clean technologies; technologies for poverty eradication


  • UK is a major military power
  • UK military involvement in science and technology is huge and spans most if not all disciplines
  • UK military argues that it is beneficial in terms of national defence, economics and employment
  • Critics argue that
  • the UK military fuels international problems through production and export of military technology leading to greater likelihood of conflict; and
  • civil sectors offer similar or better economic and employment benefits.


Thanks especially to Dr Chris Langley for gathering much of the evidence quoted in these notes.


Many of the references are given below. Complete references will be available in the final report of the project ‘Understanding the military influence on science, engineering and technology’, which is due to be published in late 2004. (Web links correct as of May 2004.)

AWE (2003) Annual Report 2002. Atomic Weapons Establishment, Aldermaston.

BAE Systems (2003)

CAAT (2002) Arms trade economics - subsidies factsheet. Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

CAAT (2003) DSEi 2003: International arms market. Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

CAAT (2004) Fanning the flames: how UK arms sales fuel conflict. Campaign Against the Arms Trade, London.

Conscience (2004) Answer to a Parliamentary question tabled by Adam Price MP: reported in Conscience Update, 123, Winter.

Chalmers M., Davies N.V., Hartley K., Wilkinson C. (2001) The Economic Costs and Benefits of UK Defence Exports. Centre for Defence Economics, University of York.

DESO (2004) Why export defence goods and services? Defence Export Services Organisation.

Goudie I. (2002) The employment consequences of a ban on arms exports. Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

Harigel G.G. (1997) The impact of the military-industrial complex on society. In: Schroeer D. and Pascolini A (ed) The Weapons Legacy of the Cold War. Ashgate, Aldershot.

Mort M and Spinardi G (2004) Defence and the decline of UK mechanical engineering: the case of Vickers in Barrow. Business History, no 46, p1-22.

ORG & Saferworld (2001) The Subsidy Trap. Oxford Research Group and Saferworld.

OST (2003a) 'The Forward Look 2003: Government-funded science, engineering and technology'. Office of Science and Technology, London.

OST (2003b) Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) statistics. Office of Science and Technology, London.

Rolls-Royce (2003)

Smith, D. (2003) The Atlas of War and Peace. Earthscan.

WHO (2000). The World Health Report 2000. World Health Organisation.

Appendix - Graphs

Source: OST (2003b)