1 year into Russia's war: 8 geopolitical shockwaves 01 - 2023 - Item 7 from 8
Q&A: How do defence companies influence the war in Ukraine?
Series Conflict and Fragility

Q&A: How do defence companies influence the war in Ukraine?

08 Feb 2023 - 15:25
Photo : Assembly areas for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Lockheed Martin Corp's factory in Texas in 2011. Reuters

Russia’s war on Ukraine sends shockwaves across Europe and the wider world. This Clingendael Spectator Q&A series explores the wider geopolitical consequences with key analysts from across the globe. In the seventh episode, William Hartung (Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft) discusses the role of military firms. Does Russia’s invasion lead to a possible rise of the military-industrial complex1  in the West?


Question 1: You recently argued that “it’s long past time that we stopped allowing special interest lobbying and corporate profits stand in the way of a more sensible nuclear policy”2 . Is the United States’ nuclear – and perhaps foreign and security – policy really dictated by major defence firms?

There are two main drivers of American nuclear policy: outdated strategic thinking and special interest politics. The strategic part involves overvaluing nuclear weapons; especially dangerous systems like intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that are on hair-trigger alert and increase the risk of a nuclear conflict.

The special interest aspect has to do with contractors, the Pentagon, and their allies in Congress blocking common sense measures to reduce the size of the nuclear arsenal or even to study alternatives because of financial interests – be it profits for companies or jobs and revenue in key states and districts. We need to break the economic stranglehold on nuclear policy development if we are ever to reduce, or ultimately eliminate, global nuclear arsenals.

Question 2: In the US both the political Left and Right back military support for Ukraine in its war with Russia. Could you explain this bipartisan consensus?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an act of aggression with devastating consequences for the people of Ukraine. Even though there is bipartisan consensus on military support for Ukraine, the proponents of arming Ukraine have different perspectives on the arc of the conflict.

At one end are advocates for giving Ukraine everything it asks for to enable it to drive Russia out of all of Ukraine. Another view suggests that a total military victory is unfortunately not possible; in order to avoid escalation to a direct confrontation between Russia and the US or NATO – or a long, grinding war – there needs to be a diplomatic track aimed at ending the war, even if the time is not ripe for a settlement at this precise moment.

Question 3: Is the American military-industrial complex an obstacle to bring the Ukraine war to an end?

For the most part the military-industrial complex (MIC) is along for the ride. If there was an opening to end the Ukraine war diplomatically, the MIC would not likely be able to stop it from happening.

However, military firms are exploiting the Ukraine war to boost their bottom lines, not only from direct arms supplies to the country but also by pressing for a permanent increase in Pentagon spending and the size of the arms industry that goes far beyond anything needed to support Ukraine in defending itself from Russia. If they are successful, these added funds will come at the expense of other urgent needs, from funding diplomacy to addressing climate change and from preventing future pandemics to reducing global poverty an inequality.

Question 4: What is the role of the military-industrial complex in (Western) Europe? Are the same dynamics at play there as in the US?

I think the role of the military-industrial complex in Europe is similar to that in the US: profiting from the war but not causing or shaping larger policies on Ukraine. Yet, they are poised to benefit from the atmosphere created by the Ukraine conflict, including the large proposed increases in military spending in places like Germany and Poland, and they will no doubt push for maximum rearmament, which serves their economic interests.

Question 5: The term ‘military-industrial complex’ was coined by US president Dwight Eisenhower in 1961.3  Is the influence of the military establishment here to stay, or are there ways to diminish its impact?

The military-industrial complex is larger than it was in Eisenhower’s day, as evidenced by the size of firms like Lockheed Martin, which in one recent year (2020) received more government funding than the entire US Department of State. The goal should be to reduce the power of the MIC so it is just another lobby – promoting its interests, but not winning every political battle, and not being a major factor in determining total Pentagon spending or overall American defence strategy.

Doing so will involve curbing the MIC’s political power – from campaign contributions to reducing the influence of the revolving door of officials back and forth between the US government and the arms industry – and reducing its economic power by promoting other forms of employment for areas that now depend on the Pentagon for a significant numbers of jobs. It will also involve a change in the general public’s understanding of what makes us safe. We can protect ourselves and our allies while spending less on the Pentagon and more on addressing other major risks to our lives and livelihoods.

  • 1“The expression military–industrial complex (MIC) describes the relationship between a country's military and the defence industry that supplies it, seen together as a vested interest which influences public policy. The term is most often used in reference to the system behind the armed forces of the United States, where the relationship is most prevalent due to close links among defence contractors, the Pentagon, and politicians. The expression gained popularity after a warning of the relationship's detrimental effects, in the farewell address of President Dwight D. Eisenhower on January 17, 1961.” (Source: Wikipedia)
  • 2William D. Hartung, ‘Profiteers of Armageddon’, Inkstick, October 12th, 2021.
  • 3President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Farewell Address (1961)’, National Archives.
William D. Hartung
Senior Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft