In October 2010, the Tory/Liberal coalition government announced the results of its comprehensive spending review. The majority of the planned cuts are at best harsh, at worst a cynical attempt to keep the rich rich and the poor firmly in their place. However, for people who believe in peace the 8% cut in the defence budget is at least a step in the right direction. One particular aspect of this 8% reduction has been seen as a particular cause for celebration: the cancellation of the proposed £14billion St. Athan Military Academy. The headline of a subsequent CND Cymru press release in response to the cancellation declared
“Relief and Joy at St Athan Military College Cancellation”.But in their haste to declare victory on this issue, there is a danger of allowing a lesser, but still significant, defeat for the campaign, as the government has shown no loss of desire for a military training project in St Athan.
The St. Athan Military Academy was announced to great fanfare in January 2007, billed as by far the biggest single investment in Wales at that time. Politicians fell over themselves to declare that the installation, scheduled to be built on the site of the existing St. Athan RAF base, would create more than 5,000 jobs (debunked) and revolutionise the training of the British armed forces. Naturally, the Welsh Assembly government also leapt at the chance to welcome such a large-scale investment in Wales, estimated at the time to be in the region of £11billion.
Aside from the size and scale of the project, the announcement was also used as an opportunity to show just how much faith the New Labour government was willing to place in controversial Private Finance Initiatives (PFI). PFI involves at its core allowing private firms to front a share of the capital for ostensibly public, government-administered projects, and many commentators have labelled the use of PFI in schools and hospitals as essentially the part-privatisation of public services. It is not difficult to see, with the scale of the investment and the military nature of the project, why the use of PFI at St. Athan would prove to be so contentious. It was, however, the choice of private bedfellow in this particular use of PFI that made it particularly unpalatable for many people.
The government’s PFI partner in this case came in the shape of Metrix UK. Metrix was conceived as a consortium consisting at its core of a partnership between Land Securities (the largest commercial property company in the UK, whose share of the partnership was later taken by catering and site-management company Sodexo), and British ‘defence technology' giant QinetiQ, which counts among its major backers the politically well-connected Carlyle Group. But as with any consortium, aside from the main partners there were many other backers involved, and one in particular would raise most eyebrows, namely the American missile manufacturer Raytheon.
Raytheon is the largest producer of guided missiles on the planet. Militaries around the world boast the pick of Raytheon’s product catalogue among their arsenal, including Israel who used Raytheon hardware to murder 28 civilians in an attack on Qana village, Lebanon during the war of 2006. This led to nine peace activists in Northern Ireland, nicknamed the ‘Raytheon Nine’, to occupy the Raytheon plant operating at the time in Derry. The Nine were charged with terrorism offences, but acquitted in 2008 after the judge dismissed the case. During the trial, the activists publicly accused Raytheon of actively aiding Israel in the persecution of war crimes. Raytheon has also been accused of involvement with cluster bomb technology, the use of which many countries have outlawed and also labelled as a war crime.
There were many angles of opposition to the Military Academy. You don't need to be a peace activist to object to the spending of billions of pounds on one project (the estimated cost rose from £11billion when announced to £14billion at cancellation); or the £50m spent by the MoD to prepare the site for construction; or the £5m spent by the Welsh Assembly in so-called consultation fees in the three years since the project was given the go-ahead. Although the latter two amounts have been wasted, it is a comforting victory of sorts for those with purely financial objections that the project has been pulled.
However, for people who protested against the Academy in Cardiff in 2008, although the cost certainly represents a horrendously misguided use of public money, it is the nature of the project itself and of its corporate backers which provokes most opposition. The idea of British and foreign militaries being trained in the art of death and destruction by the industrial manufacturers of the technology of war is rightly abhorrent to any anti-militarist or pacifists. John Pilger summed it up:
"...a British "School of the Americas" is to be built in Wales, where British soldiers will train killers from all corners of the American empire in the name of 'global security.'"It is because of this that we should pay close attention to the words of the government ministers who announced the axing of the academy. David Cameron stated to MPs:
“This is not the end of the road for training at St Athan”.Defence Secretary Liam Fox went further, saying of St. Athan,
“we still hope to base our future defence training solution there”.Plans for a scaled-down version of the original complex appear to be very much alive, and it would be a disaster if we were so busy celebrating ‘victory’ with the axing of the £14billion plan that, say, a £5billion plan was able to slip through quietly behind our backs. We must not allow a case of ‘we can’t afford it right now but it will happen in some form in the future’ to camouflage itself as ‘it was a horrific idea which should never have been conceived of and will never be allowed to happen.’ The movement to oppose St. Athan Military Academy needs to keep its defences firmly on alert.