Arms Trade: Fighting the Wrong Battles

A new report shows just how skewed government security policy is, explains Mike Phipps

The UK government spends about £46.6 billion a year on the military, according to a new report produced by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. This compares to an estimated £17 billion spent on tackling the climate emergency.

The UK’s military budget is now firmly on the rise, with a 10% real-terms increase since 2015, and more increases planned. The sums the government has in mind for long-term equipment expenditure are eye-watering. Its ten-year Defence Equipment Plan proposes to spend £186 billion between 2018-19 and 2027-28. However, this budget is exceeded by the projected cost of the various major armaments programmes planned, which is expected to reach £193 billion.

Governments often talk about security being their first duty. But a focus on sustainable, human security would reinterpret this to ensure the security of people in the UK from the threats they actually face, which are overwhelmingly not susceptible to military “solutions”.

By far the most urgent threat to people’s security, including in the UK, is climate change, which is already causing catastrophic damage and loss of life. Yet, while the government accepts a target of reducing the UK’s net carbon emissions to zero by 2050 (which many see as too slow), it has not backed this up with the policies and resources needed to achieve it. The government’s own Committee on Climate Change warns that the UK is missing almost all its targets for carbon reduction.

Climate change is barely mentioned in the government’s latest Strategic Defence and Security Review. Where it is, it is often framed in terms of the impact on national security, and approached with ‘hard’ security responses, such as militarised borders to deal with mass migration.

Much of the current insecurity in the world has been fuelled by Britain’s previous military activity. The illegal war in Iraq played a major role in destabilising the Middle East, leading to a long-running insurgency and the rise of Daesh, which helped escalate the Syrian conflict. Western intervention in Libya accelerated the collapse of the Libyan state and the spread of arms from Libya across North Africa and the Middle East. The UK and the US are the prime armers of the brutal Saudi war in Yemen and have also supported – politically and through arms sales – the repressive response by many regimes in the region to uprisings. For example, UK-made armoured vehicles were used by Saudi Arabia in crushing the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain.

UK defence policy increasingly fails to meet the real challenges to human security. Speaking at a fringe meeting at Labour Party Conference in 2019, Oliver Lewis, a former top civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, declared that the defence industries were the biggest single threat to national security, so badly had they skewed government spending priorities.

The report concludes that a fundamental reassessment is needed, moving Britain “towards a vision of sustainable security that is holistic, people-centred, interdependent, and focused on the root causes of insecurity, especially the climate crisis.”


‘Fighting The Wrong Battles – How Obsession With Military Power Diverts Resources From The Climate Crisis’ by Dr Sam Perlo-Freeman, available at