Making a Killing
by Paul Donovan
New Internationalist magazine, September 1997
When I returned from Cambodia in 1992 I was numbed, having
seen so much devastation caused by antipersonnel land mines. The
callousness of mainly Northern governments and their so called
defense industries in supplying such weapons was difficult to
As I learned more about landmines, from the comfort of a London
suburb, I experienced a growing incredulity at the depths to which
arms manufacturers will stoop in order to make profits. It was
difficult to picture what type of human being sat designing antipersonnel
mines in bright colors and weird shapes that attracted children
to pick them up. Though the companies deny such an intention behind
their designs, the blinded and mutilated children in countries
like Afghanistan and Cambodia tell a different story.
Author Erik Prokosch describes the phenomenon of the weapons
designer in his book The Technology of Killing. 'A weapons designer
is not, first and foremost, a killer: he is a statistician, a
metallurgist, an engineer,' says Prokosch. But when this individual
is put into the area of munitions he is transformed and thinks
only in terms of 'lethal area estimates', 'kill probabilities'
and 'effective casualty radius'. He then probably returns to his
home in the suburbs to play with his own children without making
the connection between his day's work and the devastation caused
on the other side of the world. But life for those who employ
the designers is even less complicated: it is all about the bottom
line -- profit.
As the campaign to ban landmines has gathered pace it has
been bizarre to watch the manufacturers of these weapons constantly
shifting position yet always seeming to come out making a handsome
profit at the expense of the poor.
In the early 1980s there was a realignment in much of the
weapons industry whereby a cozy relationship was formed between
manufacturers and politicians, often to the exclusion of military
planners. The effect was that this unholy alliance came to dictate
-- even more than in the past -- what weapons armies would use.
The overriding motivation was profit. The linkage between these
two parties and their primary goal was never more obvious than
in the maneuvering that went on around the review conference of
the UN Inhumane Weapons Convention Protocol II in May 1996. The
position adopted by the Conservative British Government at that
time was a perfect reflection of arms-industry interests. The
British delegation favored a ban on all antipersonnel mines except
the 'smart' variety that were fitted with self-destruct mechanisms.
The position adopted disregarded the opposing view of military
men like Gulf War Commander Sir Peter de la Billiere and General
Sir Hugh Beech but found favor with British companies who had
cornered the market in providing the technology to make the complex
fuses for ' smart mines '. The British company Ferranti is the
leading producer of such technology.
Another aspect of the review conference that showed how the
interests of manufacturers were given a higher priority than those
of victims was the question of definition. An antipersonnel landmine
was defined as a mine 'primarily designed to be exploded by the
presence of a person and that will incapacitate, injure or kill
one or more persons'. The UK Working Group on Landmines argues
that the phrase 'primarily designed' could allow producers to
carry on as usual by claiming their mines' 'primary' purpose was
other than killing people. It remains to be seen whether the Ottawa
Process can avoid such semantic trickery.
It was after the Gulf War that arms manufacturers saw a golden
opportunity to diversify and make money out of clearing up the
mess that their products had caused in the first place. The growing
movement for a ban on landmines has spurred more arms companies
to take up this practice, known as 'double dipping'. While highly
paid PR departments have sought to portray double dipping as a
somehow virtuous and redeeming activity, the commercial advantages
for the transnational arms corporations have often been lost in
the small print. The knowledge that a company that clears mines
but still makes them can gain in the field can be of inestimable
value. In 1988 a company called CMS started developing mines for
the US military but after the Gulf War it moved into the 'after
math (clearance) business'. Today CMS is the largest ordinance-clearing
company in the US and makes $160 million profits annually. Fred
Dibella, CMS Vice President, insists that in Kuwait 'we have not
cleaned up bombs or mines that were of our own manufacture'. However,
CMS is owned by Deutsche Aerospace, whose parent company is the
German company Daimler Benz. Deutsche Aerospace also own Messerschunurr-Bol,
an arms manufacturer, whose products include a new generation
of scatterable mines.
In 1991 the British company Royal Ordnance was quick to get
its nose into the Gulf War trough and won a $90 million contract
to clear landmines. Amongst the munitions found in Kuwait was
the L-9 bar mine that was built by Royal Ordnance in its previous
incarnation as a manufacturer of antipersonnel landmines. At the
same time as Royal Ordnance was winning clearance contracts in
Kuwait and later in Mozambique, its parent company British Aerospace
was busily selling a range of lethal weapons across the world.
The French company Sofremi was formed in 1986 as a partnership
between the French Interior Ministry and four defense contractors
to export weapons. In 1997 the same company won a $111-million
contract to clear mines in Kuwait.
From South Africa comes another proponent of the 'cradle to
grave' services offered by some transnational arms manufacturers.
Mechem is the research and development wing of Denel, the government-owned
arms-manufacturing company. Mechem has won multi-million-dollar
contracts for the clearing of mines in Mozambique and Angola.
Vernon Joynt of Mechem, who has helped design landmines for the
South African Defense Force in the past, has seized the opportunity
and is now a keen advocate of a ban on landmines. For 26 years
Joynt researched and developed landmines and other equipment,
much of which was deployed by South Africa's client groups in
Mozambique and Angola. He has proudly boasted that 'there are
some mines in Angola which no-one will be able to find without
our help'. Mr. Joynt is also one of the UN's most trusted advisors
and well placed to push future technological solutions to the
crisis caused by his and other antipersonnel landmines.
Having established themselves in the 'double dipping' business,
arms companies have now seen another commercial opportunity to
come out of a potential ban and the growing humanitarian demand
for a faster clear-up rate. In the 1990s, they argue, the answer
to faster mine clearance must be in developing advanced technology,
the prerequisite of which is research funding. So while funding
for present demining techniques is pitifully low US and EU funds
are being poured into research involving infra-red technology,
neutron moderators and ground radar. Should the research fail
to find a quick way to clear landmines all will not be lost given
that the findings are bound to have applications for a big transnational
arms company with many subdivisions.
Organizations like the Mines Advisory Group argue that there
is no magic solution to landmine clearance. The only sustainable
answer, they say, is to devote greater resources to training up
more indigenous people to clear mines. The mine-clearance process
is slow and laborious - involving teams of two people working
in strips with a metal detector and prod - but this is still the
only way to ensure 100-per-cent clearance of an area. But of course
there is no profit in such an approach. The companies responsible
for producing the millions of mines littering the world are not
interested in spending money to train native deminers in the simple
technology of clearance. The better solution in profit-seeking
terms is to bring in expats and military personnel to do the work
on lucrative contracts while at the same time stashing away research
funds in the name of a miracle cure.
Unfortunately, governments still appear to be singing to the
companies' tune. At a recent conference in London, the Secretary
of State for International Development in the new British Labor
Government, Clare Short, stressed the need to get the Ministry
of Defense and British technology involved in developing a new
For government and commercial arms companies antipersonnel
mines have for many years been a source of cheap and easy profits.
The grand slaughter of innocents known as the Gulf War was the
zenith for arms manufacturers to see their products in action.
Ever keen to diversify those same manufacturers saw the chance
to make money out of the clear-up. From this perspective the campaign
for a ban was never a threat to these interests - simply another
opportunity. For these companies the added chance to win massive
research grants to chase an illusive solution is simply the icing
on the cake.
Paul Donovan has written regularly for the New Internationist
on landmines and other aspects of the arms trade. He has been
involved with the international campaign for a worldwide ban on
landmines since it began in 1993.