Monday, June 25, 2012

Shock and awe is back: arms dealers set EU technology agenda

We would speak in hushed tones whenever a Rolls-Royce pulled in across from the house where I grew up. It could only mean one thing. Tony O’Reilly, one of Ireland’s richest men, was visiting his aunt, who ran the local post office. To the best of my recollection, the vehicle was pale green. I was too young to understand that O’Reilly had amassed a fortune from newspapers and baked beans. But the stir created by his arrival made me feel I was in close proximity to greatness.

The Rolls-Royce is a symbol of shock and awe. By driving one – or being driven around in one - its owner is asserting a sense of superiority over the rest of us mere mortals. How fitting, then, that the Rolls-Royce corporation is assisting the US military establishment to perfect its tactics of shock and awe (as Donald Rumsfeld called them) and assert its sense of superiority over the rest of the world.

In March, Rolls-Royce announced it had won contracts worth $275 million to provide “service support” for the engines of America’s warplanes, among other things. This followed its provision of “back shop support” to the Typhoon bombers used by the British air force in last year’s offensive against Libya.

Don’t trust the official narrative

Given its stated desire to grow the military side of its business, it might seem odd that Rolls-Royce has helped prepare a new European Commission strategy on “key enabling technologies” for industries of the future. Since I started writing about the EU’s scientific research activities in 2009, the Commission’s representatives have repeatedly told me that they only authorise funding for projects of a civilian nature. I don’t trust them.

Rolls-Royce was one of several firms heavily involved in the arms trade to take part in a “high-level” group that identified the priorities listed in the Commission’s new “strategy”. It focuses largely on nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter at a size so tiny it is measured in nanometres. (A nanometre is one billionth of a metre).

A strong indication that nanotechnology is being used to develop weapons for future wars came after Israel’s 33-day attack on Lebanon in 2006. Shimon Peres, then Israel’s deputy minister, wrote a syndicated opinion piece after the attack in which he seemed to be aroused about the potential killing power of “miniaturised arms” and “remote-controlled robots”. Given how Israel frequently tests its weapons on Palestinian women and children, there is no reason to think it would behave any differently with nanotechnology in its arsenal.

Intel, another corporation taking part in the Commission’s “high level” group, has a major production facility at Kiryat Gat, a site built on Palestinian villages ethnically cleansed when the state of Israel was founded in the late 1940s. This crime scene is today being used for the development of a 22-nanometre processor called Ivy Bridge for the computers of tomorrow. Intel already uses Kiryat Gat for the manufacturing of Atom processors; a brochure available on the corporation’s website promotes these processors as vital to “leading-edge commercial technology for the defence and government agencies”.

Under surveillance

QinetiQ, too, belongs to the Commission’s “high level” group. This company was formed as a result of reforms to an agency run by the British Ministry of Defence in 2001 and has numbered George Tenet, former head of the CIA, among its senior figures. As well as “working closely” with the US army (in the company’s own words), it is providing equipment to British troops fighting a war of aggression in Afghanistan. Last year, QinetiQ gloated at how it was supplying almost 100 Dragon Runner robots to that war effort. While the firm’s announcement emphasised that these small robots can be used to detect landmines and other unexploded devices, it acknowledged they can also be used for surveillance.

It is significant that the Commission’s 27-strong “high-level” group did not contain a solitary individual known to be critical of the arms industry or nanotechnology. This makes a mockery of claims from the EU executive that it is open to dialogue from all sides.

A report that the group has presented to Antonio Tajani, the EU’s industry commissioner, depicts nanotechnology as beneficial to human health and the environment. With potential applications in solar energy, it is sold as “crucial in the battle against climate change”.

It is notable that green activists do not share this faith. The European Environmental Bureau has voiced concerns that about the idea the problems relating to global warming can be solved with a “technological fix”, when social and political changes are needed to address underlying questions of resource exploitation and how energy is generated. The EEB, a broad coalition of campaign groups, has cited studies which indicate that the ecological costs of producing nanomaterials may outweigh any eventual benefits. Their production involves high levels of energy and water use, as well as toxic chemicals and solvents like benzene.

The jury might still be out on the environmental effects of nanotechnology. But it is certain that the way the EU is approaching this issue is anti-democratic. Private companies likely to be recipients of the EU’s research subsidies are invited to set the priorities for this research; alternative perspectives are ignored. The European Commission relies on taxpayers to pay its bills, yet its policy-making has been captured by corporations. And besides, when the arms industry says that small is beautiful, there’s a strong likelihood it’s telling a big lie.

●First published by New Europe, 24-30 June 2012.

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