Weapons Industry Research Paper

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The fusion of militarism and industrialism was made possible by the Industrial Revolution. In the early industrializing nations of Europe and North America, military leaders harnessed new sources of energy to facilitate transportation (e.g., steam-powered trains and ships) and new means of communication (e.g., the telegraph). This did not require a distinctly militarized industrial sector, only the ability to commandeer commercial goods to feed, clothe, and transport significantly larger military forces. Industrialism also gave rise to the invention of uniquely military end-items and the emergence of large industrial concerns, including defense firms and state-owned armories and shipyards, to produce them. In the twentieth century, this refinement of military goods would give rise to defense firms and the military-industrial complexes (van Creveld 1989).

The fusion of industrialism and militarism facilitated colonialism and conquest. European empires expanded dramatically in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and settler nations such as the United States, Australia, and South Africa completed the conquest of entire continents. Even as they conquered and displaced indigenous peoples, nations such as the United States did not become “warrior” societies. Rather, based on technological advantages afforded by industrialism, European powers and settler nations enjoyed distinct military advantages, often against much larger military forces. To compete on the international stage, military and political leaders in Germany, Japan, and Russia induced industrial development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These top-down industrialization programs, driven by military priorities, were among the least democratic totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.

During World Wars I (1914-1918) and II (19391945), the industrial capacity of leading economic powers was harnessed to perpetrate an unprecedented slaughter of soldiers and civilians. This industrialization of warfare transformed the battlefield and military organization. Equally important was the social transformation. The mass industrial wars of the twentieth century demanded total mobilization of the armed forces and the economy. In the United States, the iconic Rosie the Riveter called attention to the large number of women contributing to the war effort during World War II, many of whom had not previously worked outside the home. A similar trend unfolded among the industrialized nations fighting industrialized wars. Although the World War II mobilization temporarily redefined the roles of men and women in factories and offices, gender segregation persisted during the war and was reasserted at the war’s end (on the U.S. case, see Milkman 1987). These mass industrial wars also transformed the risks and casualties among civilians. Improved record keeping and social control allowed states to identify, transport, incarcerate, and in some cases, slaughter millions of civilians (the Holocaust being a spectacular example). For these wars, industrial targets in densely populated areas became prominent targets. World War II was especially lethal (Kolko 1994): Large portions of London and several Soviet cities were decimated by German attacks; Dresden and Tokyo were consumed in firestorms and Berlin reduced to rubble; and two Japanese cities (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) were destroyed by atomic bombs.

The Weapons Industry In The Cold War Era

In the course of the cold war (1948-1989), the United States and the Soviet Union built and maintained large weapons industries. The sustained fusion of industrialism and militarism in the postwar United States prompted President Eisenhower to warn the nation and the world about the dangers of the military-industrial complex (Eisenhower 1961). As Eisenhower had warned, the weapons industry distorted technological development and diverted scarce human and physical resources.

During the cold war, a “wall of separation” grew between the defense and civilian sectors of the economy (Markusen and Yudken 1992). Defense-oriented firms and diversified corporations that garnered defense contracts were among the fastest growing and most profitable firms. For the Soviet Union, overinvestment in the military was exacerbated by the war in Afghanistan and costly military and diplomatic commitments around the globe. These chronic fiscal strains contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union—and with this collapse a dramatic reduction in the size and the scope of the military-industrial complex in successor states. In the twenty-first century, the U.S. arsenal is increasingly reliant on state-of-the-art science and technology. In addition to nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons are also produced through sophisticated scientific processes. Even “conventional” forces are being transformed by new sensing, computing, and communication devices being assembled to create an electronic battlefield. Space may become militarized as well. If satellites capable of destroying moving missiles or stationary targets are deployed, highly automated weapons far removed from earth would be at the center of the war and would pose the greatest threat to human life.

Contemporary Dynamics And Threats Posed By The Weapons Industry

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war raised hopes that the military-industrial complex would be dismantled. In the early 1990s, global military expenditures and arms sales fell as expected. But a resurgence in military spending began in the late 1990s, with the nations of the Middle East figuring prominently. The United States has also increased defense spending since the mid-1990s, to $475 billion in 2005 ($30 billion higher than in 1988). In 2005, the United States accounted for 48 percent of all military spending in the world, an unprecedented level of concentration (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute 2006a).

The resurgence of the military-industrial complex goes beyond the spike in arms production and sales. The changing organizational structure of the military-industrial complex is an equally important—perhaps more important—aspect of this resurgence. When defense spending declined in the 1990s, leading defense firms did not “beat swords into ploughshares.” They redoubled efforts in the shrinking defense market. A round of mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations occurred: The number of firms declined because of these mergers, and the surviving firms were much larger (see Markusen and Costigan 1999). Whereas the top five firms accounted for 22 percent of the world’s arms sales in 1990, their share doubled (44%) by 2003. With the top five firms accounting for most of the increase, the top twenty firms commanded 57 percent in 1990, and their share of arm sales jumped to 74 percent by 2003 (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute 2006b). Not only are arms sales concentrated in fewer firms, but these firms are concentrated in the United States and a handful of nations.

The increased privatization of national security is also a cause for concern. Private firms have provided construction, logistics support, and so forth to military organizations for centuries. But the growth in the size and range of activities has been notable. The concentration of arms sales in a handful of enormous transnational corporations also concentrates scientific and technical expertise. Governments are growing reliant on corporations (often distant corporations) to plan and coordinate essential national security functions. In addition, corporate mercenaries have played a direct role in toppling governments and in the prisoner abuse committed by the United States during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (Isenberg 2004). These mercenaries and the corporations employing them rarely face criminal charges. They not only operate with impunity but also shield the government employing them from democratic scrutiny. In a world in which five firms control more than 40 percent of all arms sales and the top twenty firms account for nearly 75 percent, many governments have lost a measure of control over defense policies. The increased reliance on mercenaries further reduces democratic control and oversight.

Citizens forced to make sacrifices, serve in mass armies, and experience directly the horror of war often question the necessity of fighting. But citizens insulated from the horrors of war often cheer on technological marvels that kill thousands of people and destroy distant cities. Citizens of powerful nations often fail to empathize with the suffering caused by the highly scientific and distant slaughter perpetrated in their name. This callousness is reinforced by the role of major arms-producing corporations. These corporations sell military goods and defense planning to governments around the globe; they also supply mercenaries to fight on the battlefield and interrogate prisoners. By ceding so much control to the insulated corporations of the weapons industry, governments are more distant from their own people and contribute to removing military policies from public scrutiny and democratic oversight. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, our challenge is to restore democratic oversight in a realm dominated by enormous corporations and government bureaucracies.


  1. Eisenhower, Dwight. [1961] 1992. President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address to the Nation. In The Military-Industrial Complex: Eisenhower’s Warning Three Decades Later, eds. Gregg Walker, David Bella, and Steven Sprecher, 361–368. New York: Peter Lang.
  2. Hooks, Gregory. 1991. Forging the Military-Industrial Complex: World War II’s Battle of the Potomac. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
  3. Isenberg, David. 2004. Profit Comes with a Price. Asia Times On-line, May 19. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/FE19Ak01.html
  4. Kolko, Gabriel. 1994. Century of War: Politics, Conflicts, and Society Since 1914. New York: New Press.
  5. Markusen, Ann, and Sean Costigan, eds. 1999. Arming the Future: A Defense Industry for the 21st Century. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press.
  6. Markusen, Ann, and Joel Yudken. 1992. Dismantling the Cold War Economy. New York: Basic Books.
  7. Milkman, Ruth. 1987. Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex During World War II. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  8. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). 2006a. SIPRI Yearbook 2006: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security. New York: Oxford University Press.
  9. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).2006b. Concentration Ratios.
  10. http://www.sipri.org/contents/milap/milex/aprod/concentration_ratios.html.
  11. Van Creveld, Martin. 1989. Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present. New York: Free Press.

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