Feature: Inside the Cambridge military-academic complex

In this special investigation, Middle East Solidarity magazine explores how the drive by the Tory government to deepen links with industry and business across the higher education sector, combined with cuts to public funding for research and teaching, is making academic institutions complicit in war and human rights abuses across the Middle East through partnership with arms companies and repressive regimes.

Read the full issue online here
Download a pdf of a poster version of this article here – or pick up your copy from the Demilitarise Cambridge stall at Freshers’ Fair on 2/3 October

Through funding research projects and taking physical and intellectual space on university campuses, large arms companies have an alarming influence on sections of higher education in the UK. While these companies take advantage of academic freedoms and the public-funded research infrastructure in the UK, their products are frequently used to repress those freedoms and destroy public infrastructure in the wider world. They profit from wars which have led to the murder of millions of people and arm governments which arrest, torture and imprison opposition activists.

We can see this complicity in British universities’ continuing links to BAE Systems, despite the UK’s recent arms deal made with Turkey, a country where academics are being silenced and imprisoned for speaking out against the Turkish regime’s treatment of Kurdish communities. We can see continuing complicity in the fact that many of the armaments and technology that university research projects help develop are used specifically for the suppression of anti-regime and pro-democracy protests and to curtail freedoms of speech.

Our first case study, written in collaboration with the Demilitarise Cambridge student group, highlights the University of Cambridge’s links with major arms manufacturers such as BAE Systems and how collaborative research with Israeli technology companies has helped equip armoured vehicles used by Israeli forces engaged in the brutal occupation of Palestinian land. We also report on how students and staff are beginning to organise and agitate against the military-academic complex at the heart of the neoliberal university.
Future issues of the magazine will examine how the Israeli war machine is embedded in UK universities.

The University of Cambridge holds a special relationship with many private and state-run weapons research and manufacturing centres including BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Roke Manor Research (part of the Chemring Group) and the Ministry of Defense (MoD). Research by student activists, journalists and arms trade campaigners such as Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has uncovered how networks of funding, influence and expertise flow in many directions between the university and its partners.
This case study exposes how the university’s web of connections with arms companies is sustained through research funding for joint projects with arms companies and the Ministry of Defence, spin-off companies jointly created by academics and military manufacturers, and finally the intellectual investment by arms companies in recruiting students and academics to work with them directly through funding studentships, bursaries and offering university staff opportunities for consultancy. Neoliberal reforms to the higher education system, forcing institutions to compete with each for students and decreasing amounts of public funding may make the arms companies seem even more enticing as partners and funders. But when military projects take up students’ and academics’ time, energy and skills this helps to perpetuate war and violence, while boosting the profits of corporations which benefit from all this suffering.

Aerial bombardment of Sana’a, Yemen

BAE Systems: a trail of destruction

BAE Systems directly funded research projects at the University of Cambridge worth £1.82m between 2009 and 2017. According to a Freedom of Information request seen by Middle East Solidarity, most of these projects were based in the Departments of Engineering, Physics, Materials Science and Metallurgy, the Institute for Manufacturing and Cambridge University Technical Services Ltd. The company also provides funding to the Centre for Doctoral Training in Graphene Technology. BAE Systems and government spy centre GCHQ were project partners on a grant of £11.5m awarded by EPSRC to the Isaac Newton Institute (of Maths and Science) in 2018. The company is a world-leading arms dealer with UK export licenses to 77 countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. One of the most notorious of its roles was acting as the prime contractor in the al-Yamamah deal signed between Britain and Saudi Arabia in 1988. Britain provided Saudi Arabia with 72 Tornado planes, 30 Hawk trainer jets and 30 other trainer planes.

Since March 2015 at least 10,000 Yemenis have died as a result of Saudi air strikes and 22 million people have been left in need of aid.

The deal was renewed again in 1993, and again in the al-Salah deal signed in 2007 which agreed the sale of 72 Eurofighter Typhoons. These aircraft have played a central role in the Saudi-led assault on Yemen. The Yemen Data Project has recorded 17,000 airstrikes since March 2015, as a result of which at least 10,000 people have died, and 22 million people have been left in need of aid. BAE Systems also supplied Saudi Arabia with 200 Tactica armoured vehicles which used to crush pro-democracy protests in Bahrain in 2011. The company was central to a £100m fighter jet deal between Britain and Turkey, signed in 2017 between Theresa May and Recep Tayyip Erdogan despite ongoing human rights abuses.

Rolls Royce: driving the Saudi war on Yemen

Rolls Royce is ranked the world’s 16th largest arms producer, and the UK’s 2nd. The company produces engines for military aircraft, naval ships and nuclear submarines and sold $4.5bn worth of arms-related equipment in 2016. Rolls Royce directly funded projects at the University of Cambridge worth £14.8m between 2009-2017. In 2014, EPSRC funded a £7.9m “strategic partnership in structural metallic systems for gas turbines” between Rolls Royce and the Department of Materials Science focussing on the areas of aerospace, defence and marine. Rolls Royce has applied for UK export licences for 99 countries and its engines are used in the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft used by Saudi Arabia in its war on Yemen.

Tortech Nano: arming the Israeli occupation

Tortech Nano Fibres Ltd is a collaborative venture between Q-Flo, a spin-off of the University of Cambridge and innovator of nanotechnologies, and Plasan, the Israeli owned manufacturer of vehicle protection and armoured vehicles. Tortech was established in 2010 to “produce carbon nanotube fibre for the enhancement of body armor and composite armour systems for vehicles”. Q-Flo also funded another project worth £59,000 at the university between 2014-15. Israeli armoured vehicles play a crucial role in the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, and in violations of the rights of Israel’s minority Arab population who are subject to frequent demolition of their homes and villages and forced relocation.

Roke Manor: choking off protest

Roke Manor Research is part of the Chemring Group which ranks as the world’s 68th largest arms trader, with 90 percent of its total sales coming from military-related technology. Roke has been linked to the University of Cambridge through the International Technology Alliance, which was set up in 2006 by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) and the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) (part of the UK’s Ministry of Defence). It was funded from May 2006-May 2016 with a value of $135.8m. Roke also provided £65,000 of direct funding for research at the University of Cambridge in the financial year 2014/15. Roke develops “crowd control” products including CS gas grenades which were used by Egyptian security forces during the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

Students and staff protest Israeli attacks on Gaza demonstrators, May 2018

Student campaign targets complicity in war crimes

Not only is the University of Cambridge investing financially in war and assaults on freedom of speech; it is also investing intellectually. Arms companies fund bursary schemes students and are integrated into partnerships for networking and ‘knowledge exchange’ between academia and industry. The department of Materials Science and Metallurgy has an entire research theme focussed on servicing the needs of the arms and security sector. According to the department’s website, applications for research in this area include “steels for gun barrels and armour plating, fibrous materials for personnel and light armoured vehicle protection, and composite panel structures for vehicle and aeronautical use.” Arms dealers are also regularly invited onto campus for careers fairs, freshers fairs and conferences. The Engineering, Science and Technology Event 2017 hosted BAE Systems, Defence Engineering and Science Group (part of the MoD), Roke Manor Research, and Rolls Royce plc.

A recent campaign against the university’s partnership with arms dealers and companies complicit in Israel’s occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestinian lands shows how it is possible to organise a fightback. In May 2018, 40 student groups and dozens of members of staff launched an open letter calling on the university to end its partnership with BAE Systems and Caterpillar Inc. through the Cambridge Service Alliance. This network was founded by the university in 2010 and includes BAE Systems and Caterpillar among its members. BAE Systems provides the targetting displays in F-16 fighter jets used by Israel in its 2014 attack on Gaza. Caterpillar’s bulldozers have been weaponized by the Israeli army, which regularly uses them to carry out illegal demolitions of Palestinian villages and homes. The letter also highlighted BAE’s complicity in war crimes against the Kurdish people, and in Saudi Arabia’s brutal war on Yemen.

Introducing Demilitarise Cambridge

Students from the newly-launched Demilitarise Cambridge campaign explain why they are getting organised against the arms industry.

Cambridge University specifically is historically complicit in the industry of war. We invest in those companies. Our staff produce research for them. Our alumni have founded and worked for them. We host them in conferences and we invite them to our freshers’ and careers fairs. Cambridge University works with arms companies, enabling acts of war and oppression. But this isn’t just something happening “out there”. Many of us students in Cambridge come from parts of the world that suffer the brunt of the global arms industry. We are this university. We need to be defended from the “defence” industry. Kurdish people have been bombarded by Turkey’s BAE fighter jets; Kashmiris live under occupation of the Indian military supplied with British military hardware; Palestinians in Occupied Territories are attacked by British-supplied Israeli armed forces; Yemeni and Bahraini civilians are attacked by Rolls Royce aircraft; Egyptian dissidents are suppressed by munitions and tear-gas provided by Chemring Group. “We” are this university. We need to be defended from the “defence” industry. If this is something you care about, get involved with us. We need to speak, act, and exhaust the power and privilege we have here in Cambridge: we will not enable this industry and its global destruction.

What you can do:

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