We’re only a few days into the new decade and it’s somehow already a bigger dumpster fire than the last. On January 2nd, President Trump decided to order what one expert called “the most important decapitation strike America has ever launched." This one took out not some nameless terrorist in a distant land or a group of civilians who happened to get in the way, but Major General Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the mastermind of its military operations across the Middle East.
Among the thousands of ignored American drone strikes since the 9/11 attacks, this was not one of them. In the wake of the assassination, we’ve seen: the Iraqi parliament vote to expel American forces from their country; all the Democratic presidential candidates make statements condemning the strike; thousands of protestors around the world take to the streets; and both chambers of Congress introduce resolutions aimed at curbing the president’s expanding war powers. Even though there is still so much we don’t know, one thing is for sure. Everything we thought we knew about drone warfare -- and America’s wars more broadly -- is about to be thrown out the window.
When I first started writing this piece, I was simply reflecting on a decade of U.S. drone warfare and the problems it had spawned. But when this world-altering news broke, I immediately started thinking about how I got here, as well as how my country could continue to recklessly breed chaos and destruction throughout the Greater Middle East.
New decades afford us a chance to take a good, hard look at what transpired in the years past. Until that strike in Iraq occurred, it seemed like every time I opened Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram in the new year, I was inundated with sentimental reflections about how far we’ve come in the last 10 years and where we’re going next. And I get it. I really do. It’s the beginning of a new decade and nostalgia is in the air.
In fact, over the holiday season, I found myself with time on my hands and that same sort of sentimentality creeping up on me. So I decided to indulge myself by looking through old journals of mine. One entry in particular caught my attention. In 2010, when I was still an idealistic high school student in Tennessee, I wrote about the democracy movement I saw rising in the Middle East (what we came to know as “the Arab Spring”) and how hopeful it made me that global peace might be achieved in my lifetime. I wrote about my desire not only to see the world but to help make it a better place.
Rereading that entry 10 years later, a few thoughts came to mind. First, I was amused by my unwavering optimism and how sure I was that everything would work out okay. Although I’d like to think that I still see glasses as at least half-full, the never-endingly destructive feedback loop of American foreign policy has certainly left me a more jaded twenty-something.
Then I was suddenly impressed by how close I’d actually come to living the life that the 16-year-old me once imagined. Of course, I haven’t yet seen the entire world (though it’s on my bucket list) or managed to bring about world peace (a girl’s gotta sleep, ya know). Still, working to bring attention to undercovered issues like drone warfare seems like a reasonable first step to have taken.
With the world veering into unprecedented territory, I realized that it was time for me to take off those rose-colored glasses, reflect on what our world really looked like 10 years ago and how oblivious I was to so many of the darker parts of it.
If you remember, as 2009 ended, President Barack Obama went to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. While accepting the award, he made a moving speech about war and peace. Noting the absurdity of receiving the prize while still “the commander-in-chief of a nation in the midst of two wars,” he laid out his ideas on how to build a just and lasting world of peace. At the same time, he defended his continued use of military force in the Middle East, arguing that “the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace,” even if we “must also think clearly about how we fight” war.
Looking back, there’s no doubt about the eloquence of his words, which fit well with my 16-year-old dreams. Unfortunately -- for him, for me, and for the world -- he didn’t take his own advice. Instead of preserving the peace, he quickly embraced the latest instruments of war, like drones, and so helped usher in a new era of warfare that, as the latest drone strike in Baghdad makes clear, is likely to haunt us for decades to come.
A large part of Obama’s speech was dedicated to America’s adherence to the laws of war and the importance of protecting civilians when using force. As he put it,
“Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct... And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.”
For those not familiar with those “laws,” the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols specifically protect people in areas of armed conflict who are not taking part in the hostilities (civilians, health workers, and aid workers in particular) and those who are no longer participating in the hostilities, including the wounded, the sick, and prisoners of war.
Unsurprisingly, nowhere in Obama’s 36-minute speech did he mention that he had already authorized more drone strikes than his predecessor, George W. Bush, approved during his entire presidency. Nor did he mention that those strikes had already killed dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians in countries ranging from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Yemen and Somalia.
On January 23, 2009, for instance, just three days after Obama’s inauguration, a CIA drone strike in Pakistan ripped through a house filled with friends and family sitting down to dinner. Nine civilians were killed. As Faheem Qureshi, a teenager who barely survived the attack, told the Guardian, “I am the living example of what drones are... They have affected Waziristan [the district of Pakistan where he lived] as they have affected my personal life. I had all the hopes and potential and now I am doing nothing.” More than a decade later, Faheem has still not been given an explanation for what happened to his family, even though the president was told almost immediately that a mistake had been made and innocent civilians had been killed.
Six months later, a U.S. drone strike took out a mid-ranking Taliban commander in Pakistan. At his funeral, attended by 5,000 people, another drone fired missiles into the crowd in an attempt to kill Baitullah Mehsud, the founder of the Pakistani wing of the Taliban. Forty-five civilians would die, but not Mehsud who was targeted seven times before eventually being killed on August 5, 2009. The drone pursuit of him would leave at least 164 dead, including eight-year-old Noor Syed who was playing in a house near one of Mehsud’s suspected hideouts when a piece of shrapnel hit him.
Throughout Obama’s presidency events like these occurred with alarming frequency. A pregnant woman in Yemen died while driving with her children. A 4-year-old girl was left without an eye, nose, or lower lip in a rural province of Afghanistan. Rescue workers in Pakistan were killed while trying to retrieve bodies after an airstrike. Even American military personnel weren’t spared. In 2011, for instance, Marine Staff Sergeant Jeremy Smith and Navy corpsman Benjamin Rast were unintentionally killed near Sangin, Afghanistan, by a drone strike while on their way to rescue Marines pinned down by Taliban gunfire. According to outside monitoring groups, by the end of his second term, President Obama had authorized 528 strikes with a death toll reaching somewhere between 380 and 801 civilians in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen alone. And that’s believed to be a conservative estimate.
The “Precision” of Drone Warfare
In 2013, when discussing the high number of civilian casualties from drone strikes, the president defended them by claiming that “conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones and are likely to cause more civilian casualties and more local outrage.” That same year, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared, “You can far more easily limit collateral damage with a drone than you can with a bomb, even a precision-guided munition, off an airplane.” Or, as former CIA Director Leon Panetta put it, “I think this is one of the most precise weapons that we have in our arsenal.”
If it sounded too good to be true, that’s because it was and still is.
When political scientists Micah Zenko and Amelia Wolf did a careful analysis of this claim for the Council on Foreign Relations, they found that “the White House is deeply misleading about the precision of drone strikes. They are, in fact, roughly thirty times more likely to result in a civilian fatality than an airstrike by a manned aircraft.” A deeper dive into the technology used for military drones showed that it’s prone to significant error. After analyzing documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act related to drones, previously unpublished court documents, dozens of engineering and technical studies, and contract data, CorpWatch’s Pratap Chatterjee and Christian Stork came to a similar conclusion: “Planning for drone operations was handicapped by a fog of numbers and raw data derived from flawed technology marketed by contractors, the military, and the intelligence agencies.”
The false notion that drones are more precise and effective -- and so less dangerous -- to civilians gained special, if grim, traction in the Obama era. During the Trump presidency, it would only become more of a given. In the years since Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, in fact, the U.S. military has only expanded its use of artificial intelligence, or AI, in warfare in order, as the Pentagon’s chief information officer Dana Deasy puts it, to maintain America’s “strategic position and prevail on future battlefields.”
Unfortunately, as my colleague Emily Manna and I have pointed out, this is a development that’s anything but relegated to those “future battlefields.” The military is already hard at work making its existing weapons systems, including drones, ever more autonomous. This process is sure to accelerate, even if the American public will hear little about it, thanks to the secrecy surrounding the application of AI and the fact that private companies with no commitment to public accountability are deeply involved in creating the technology.
Under the circumstances, one thing is predictable: ever more civilians are going to die in America’s wars.
Drone War Escalates Under Trump
Almost as alarming as the rate of civilian casualties from drone and other air strikes in the Obama years was the lack of information provided about them. The American public couldn't find out how many civilians had actually been killed, whether their government compensated those who were harmed or not, or even the legal rationale for such strikes. Sometimes, it was impossible to tell whether drones were even behind them. Most of what could be known about the U.S. drone program, in fact, including the CIA’s role in it, how its “targets” were tracked, or even what those in targeted countries thought about such strikes, came from leaked information and independent reporting. On rare occasions when the drone program was officially acknowledged, statements made about it usually turned out to be lies.
Through executive orders just before he left office, President Obama finally put in place modest reforms to make the drone program more transparent and accountable. His key order outlined a process of review and investigation that had to be set in motion anytime reports of civilian casualties from drone strikes came in. Information from all available sources, including non-military or government organizations, was to be taken into account and the government was required to acknowledge responsibility for civilian deaths and injuries while providing redress to the victims and their families. Finally, the director of national intelligence was to release estimates of the number of combatants and civilians killed by military drone strikes since 2009. Another executive order required future presidents to release similar information annually. Although the numbers still proved dubious and many questions remained about, among other things, the CIA civilian casualty count, at least the pendulum finally seemed to be swinging in the right direction.
No such luck. Soon after President Trump took office, his administration began to quietly dismantle the safeguards Obama had just created. His administration would subsequently expand the battlefields on which drones would be used, ease combat rules in Somalia intended to protect civilians, rescind most aspects of Obama’s executive orders, and stop publishing civilian casualty data entirely, while telling the public even less about the program. Not surprisingly, drone strikes across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa would rise and a lot more civilians would start dying from them. None of this was exactly shocking from a commander-in-chief who had once asked a CIA official why he didn’t kill a terrorist target’s family during a drone strike.
In his Nobel Prize speech, Obama claimed that the reason the United States adhered to certain rules of conduct in war like protecting civilians was because “that’s what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is the source of our strength.” In the first half of last year, U.S. and Afghan air and drone strikes killed more civilians than the Taliban for the first time ever. Those strikes hit wedding parties, farmers, pregnant women, and small children. In Somalia, drone strikes decimated entire communities, destroying not only lives, but crops, homes, and livelihoods. And as the new decade began, President Trump not only carried out a drone strike so drastic and rare that many experts believed it was a straightforward act of (and declaration of) war, but also threatened to bomb non-military targets (“cultural” sites), a move which is generally considered a war crime under international law.
In its recklessness and brutality, Trump’s escalating drone war should remind us all of just how dangerous it is when a president claims the legal authority to kill in secret and no one can stop him. Maybe this decade we’ll learn our lesson.
This article was republished with permission from TomDispatch.
Two years ago on Feb. 24, 2022, the world watched as Russian tanks rolled into the outskirts of Kyiv and missiles struck the capital city.
Contrary to initial predictions, Kyiv never fell, but the country today remains embroiled in conflict. The front line holds in the southeastern region of the country, with contested areas largely focused on the Russian-speaking Donbas and port cities around the Black Sea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, having recognized the Russian-occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent days before the invasion, has from the beginning declared the war a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. His goals have alternated, however, between existential — bringing all of Ukraine into the influence of Russia — and strategic — laying claim to only those Russian-speaking areas in the east and south of the country.
It is in the latter that Russia has been much more successful. Yet after two winters of brutal fighting and hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides, as of the end of 2023 Russia only laid claim to 18% of Ukraine’s territory, as compared to 7% on the eve of the war and 27% in the weeks after the invasion.
Meanwhile, the West’s coffers have been opened — and, as some say, drained — to help Ukraine’s government, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, defend itself against Moscow.
Regardless, Ukraine’s military forces have been wholly depleted as they compete with a much more resourced and populous Russia. While Ukraine’s military campaign was able to take advantage of Russian tactical mistakes in the first year, its much-heralded counteroffensive in 2023 failed to provide the boost needed not only to rid the country of the Russian occupation, but also to put Kyiv in the best position to call for terms.
If anything, as Quincy Institute experts Anatol Lieven and George Beebe point out in their new brief, “there is now little realistic prospect of further Ukrainian territorial gains on the battlefield, and there is a significant risk that Ukraine might exhaust its manpower and munitions and lay itself open to a devastating Russian counterattack.”
The only and best solution, they say, is to drive all sides to the negotiating table before Ukraine is destroyed.
The narrative of the war — how it began, where it is today — is well documented. On the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, RS thought it might be instructive to look at the numbers — weapons, aid, polling, population, and more — that illustrate the cost and the contours of the conflict over 24 months, and counting.
The U.S. Congress has allocated a total of $113 billion in funding related to the war. The vast majority of this money went directly to defending Ukraine ($45.2 billion in military aid) and keeping its government and society functioning ($46 billion in economic and humanitarian aid). Other funds went to rearming allies ($4.7 billion) and expanding U.S. military operations in Europe ($15.2 billion).
After two years of war, that funding has dried up. The Biden administration, which once shipped two or three new weapons packages each month, has not sent Ukraine a major arms shipment since Dec. 27, 2023. As Congress struggles to pass an additional $60 billion in Ukraine-related funding, observers increasingly believe that aid package may have been the last.
The Pentagon has sent at least 3,097,000 rounds of artillery to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. Most of those (2,000,000) have been 155 mm shells, the standard size used by the U.S. and its NATO allies. For perspective, that’s about 95,000 tons of 155 mm ammunition alone.
Despite ramping up military manufacturing, the U.S. still only produces about 340,000 155 mm shells per year, meaning that Ukraine has been firing rounds at three times the rate of American production.
Washington has also given Kyiv 76 tanks, including 31 Abrams tanks and 45 Soviet-era T-72Bs. Ukraine has received 3,631 American armored vehicles of various types, from infantry fighting vehicles to personnel carriers and medical trucks.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has made use of 39 American-made HIMARS, a mobile rocket launcher that has become famous for its utility in the war. As for smaller arms, the U.S. has sent at least 400,000,000 grenades and bullets in the past 24 months.
The war has killed at least 10,378 civilians and injured an additional 19,632, according to the UN. More than three in four non-combatant casualties occurred in areas held by the Ukrainian government, indicating that Moscow is responsible for the lion’s share of civilian harm.
When it comes to military casualties, good data still remains hard to come by and estimates are sometimes wildly different. Neither Russia nor Ukraine have offered detailed, public indications of the war’s impact on their soldiers.
The U.S. estimated in August that 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers had died and an additional 100,000 to 120,000 had been injured, putting the number of total casualties at over 170,000. Russia, for its part, claimed in November that 383,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed or wounded.
On the other side, the United Kingdom estimates that Russia has suffered at least 320,000 casualties, with 50,000 deaths among Russian soldiers and 20,000 deaths among Wagner Group mercenaries. Washington said in December that Moscow had suffered 315,000 casualties, though American officials did not provide a breakdown of deaths and injuries.
The United Nations estimates that the Ukrainian population (the entire country within internationally recognized borders), which totaled 43.5 million people in 2021, dropped to 39.7 million in 2022 as war swept through the country’s east. This trend continued into 2023, as the population dropped to 36.7 million — the lowest level since Ukraine became independent in 1990.
As of January, 6.3 million Ukrainians have become refugees abroad, with another 3.7 million displaced internally. As the frontlines have settled, Ukraine’s population has slowly started to grow again, reaching 37.9 million in early 2024. Meanwhile, demographer Elena Libanova estimates that only 28 million of those people live within areas currently under Ukrainian government control (outside of Crimea and the Donbas).
Two new polls that came out within the last week illustrate the complexities of Americans’ feelings toward the war in Ukraine and the U.S. role in it.
First, a Pew poll published February 16 found that a large majority of Americans (74%) see the war between Russia and Ukraine as somewhat (30%) or very important (43%) to U.S. interests. And another survey, from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft, found that Americans broadly support a U.S.-led negotiated end to the conflict.
But the past few months in Washington have been largely focused on U.S. aid to Ukraine, specifically whether Congress will pass President Biden’s request for roughly $60 billion for Kyiv’s fight against Russia.
According to Pew, in March 2022, 74% of Americans said U.S. aid to Ukraine was “just right” or “not enough.” In December 2023, that same survey found that just 47% said the same. The biggest change came from Republicans: 49% said in March, 2022 that U.S. aid was “not enough,” while just 13% said the same in December.
Meanwhile, Gallup found in August 2022 that 74% of Americans said U.S. aid to Ukraine was “about right” (36%) or “not enough” (38%). Those numbers came down slightly in Gallup’s latest track on this question in October, 2023, with 58% saying U.S. aid was about right (33%) or not enough (25%).
There have been several attempts to bring nations together to outline talks to end the war. Russia and Ukraine engaged in five rounds of talks in Belarus and Turkey shortly after the invasion, but the talks collapsed amid allegations of Russian war crimes and Western pressure on Kyiv to keep fighting.
Since then, the belligerents have spoken directly about secondary issues, like Black Sea shipping and prisoner swaps. Ukraine, meanwhile, laid out a “10-point peace plan” that has formed the basis for five international summits, none of which included Russia. These took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, in June 2023; in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in August 2023; in Malta in October, 2023; in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December 2023; and Davos, Switzerland, in January of this year.
Since the start of the war, Congress has passed four aid packages for Ukraine, totaling $113 billion. While none of the four packages were identical and aid for Ukraine was sometimes bundled with other spending, the trends for support for Kyiv in Congress are similar to those we see in polling, particularly among congressional Republicans.
The 2022 supplemental, which became law in May 2022 and provided Ukraine with $39.34 billion in aid passed the House 368-57 and the Senate by a vote of 86-11. By September 2023, when the House voted on the Ukraine Security Assistance and Oversight Supplemental Appropriations Act, which provided Kyiv with $300 million in security assistance, it passed by a vote of 311-117, with a majority of Republican members opposing the legislation.
On February 12 of this year, the Senate voted 70-29 to pass a national security supplemental, which would provide approximately $60 billion in aid for Kyiv alongside money for Israel and partners in the Indo-Pacific. The bill has not yet been voted on in the House.
Ben Armbruster, Blaise Malley, Connor Echols and Kelley Vlahos contributed reporting. Graphics by Khody Akhavi.
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A woman lays flowers at the monument to the victims of political repressions following the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Moscow, Russia February 16, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer
President Biden was entirely correct in the first part of his judgment on the death of Alexei Navalny: “Putin is responsible, whether he ordered it, or he is responsible for the circumstances he put that man in.” Even if Navalny eventually died of “natural causes,” his previous poisoning, and the circumstances of his imprisonment, must obviously be considered as critical factors in his death.
For his tremendous courage in returning to Russia after his medical treatment in the West — knowing well the dangers that he faced — the memory of Navalny should be held in great honor. He joins the immense list of Russians who have died for their beliefs at the hands of the state. Public expressions of anger and disgust at the manner of his death are justified and correct.
The problem comes with the other part of Biden’s statement, that “[Navalny’s death] is a reflection of who [Putin] is. And it just cannot be tolerated.” If he had said “approved,” “justified,” or “defended,” that would have been absolutely right. But “tolerated”? What can Biden do in response, that he has not done already?
The U.S. president has promised major new sanctions intended to “cut Russia off from the world economy” — but that requires Washington to control the world economy. Economic sanctions against Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine have failed, and even strengthened the Russian economy and the state’s grip on it. They cannot be significantly extended, because this would damage and infuriate countries that are dependent on Russian energy exports, including India, a key U.S. partner. As to sanctions against Russian individuals part of or linked to the Russian regime, there are already thousands of them, and they have had no effect whatsoever.
Statements like Biden’s are both pointless and dangerous. For the spoken or unspoken implication is that it is impossible to deal with Putin. But like it or not, Putin is the president of Russia. To all appearances, he will remain so for a considerable time to come, and will hand over to a successor of his own choosing. The Biden administration has said that it wants Ukrainian victory (whatever that now means), but it has also said that it believes that the war will end in negotiations, and following the failure of last year’s Ukrainian offensive, is now reported to be moving in this direction.
Who does Biden think that he will negotiate with, if not Putin? Seeking talks on an end to the Ukraine war does not imply approval of Putin’s crimes or his invasion of Ukraine, any more than the Eisenhower administration’s negotiation of an end to the Korean War implied approval of the North Korean regime and its invasion of South Korea.
By its own account, the Biden administration has supposedly made the promotion of democracy around the world a central part of its diplomacy, with the clear implication that only democratic governments that respect human rights are truly legitimate. Actual U.S. diplomacy does not work like this and never has; not because of American imperialist or capitalist wickedness, but because the world does not work like this.
Nobody should be required to like or admire the governments of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Mohammed Bin Salman or Narendra Modi (though we might well wish that U.S. officials had been less effusive in their praise of them). Like Putin, they are however the heads of their countries’ governments, and likely to remain so. You deal with Saudi Arabia and India — and you have to deal with Saudi Arabia and India — you deal with MBS and Modi.
The other thing to be wary of in the outpouring of outrage at the death of Navalny, is that this is already being used to build a strategy of greatly increased Western official support for the Russian opposition. Many (not all) people and groups in the Russian liberal opposition are personally and politically admirable. Some, like Navalny, have shown tremendous courage. To say this is quite different from believing that they are ever likely to form the government of Russia, and that the U.S. should base its policy towards Russia on the hope that this will be so.
The sad truth is that the Ukraine war has placed the Russian liberal opposition in a politically impossible position. Having been largely chased into exile by Putin, they are dependent on Western support. This means however that their principled opposition to the Russian invasion can be portrayed by the Russian government — and is seen by many ordinary Russians — as treason in time of war. As with the Iranian, Chinese, and other oppositions, official support from Washington only allows the ruling regimes to paint the name “traitor” in brighter colors.
A combination (differing from individual to individual) of idealism, dependence on the West and hatred of Putin means that instead of advocating a compromise peace in Ukraine, many Russian oppositionists have — willingly or unwillingly — identified themselves with Ukrainian and Western positions that explicitly demand complete Russian defeat.
And while not many Russians wanted the war, not many Russians want to see Russia defeated. As I have remarked before, even many Americans who strongly opposed the war in Vietnam were outraged when Jane Fonda went to Hanoi. If she stood a chance of being elected to any office in the U.S. before that trip, she certainly didn’t afterwards.
Any hope of rebuilding liberalism in Russia (and indeed Ukraine, albeit to a much lesser extent) therefore requires an end to the war. For some degree of authoritarianism is a natural accompaniment to every war, and regimes all over the world have exploited this to increase their own power. Equally importantly, mass support for Putin is critically dependent on the general belief that the West intends not just to defeat Russia but to cripple it as a state, and that to prevent this it is essential to support the government.
For the moment at least, this has eclipsed previously widespread resentments —which Navalny channeled — at regime corruption. No amount of Western or Russian opposition propaganda can change this Russian picture. Peace might, if it is given a chance.
For the third year in a row, globally, the number of investors in nuclear weapons producers has fallen but the overall amount invested in these companies has increased, largely thanks to some of the biggest investment banks and funds in the U.S.
“As for the U.S., while there is, like past years, indeed a dominance, and total financing from U.S.-based institutions has increased, the total number of U.S. investors has dropped for the third year in a row (similar to our global findings), and we hope to see this number will continue to fall in the coming years,” Alejandar Munoz, the report’s primary author, told Responsible Statecraft.
In 2023, the top 10 share and bondholders of nuclear weapons producing companies are all American firms. The firms — Vanguard, Capital Group, State Street, BlackRock, Wellington Management, Fidelity Investments, Newport Group, Geode Capital Holdings, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley — held $327 billion in investments in nuclear weapons producing companies in 2023, an $18 billion increase from 2022.
These companies are also profiting from the enormous government contracts they receive for developing and modernizing nuclear weapons.
“All nuclear-armed states are currently modernizing their nuclear weapon systems,” says the annual “Don’t Bank on the Bomb” report from PAX and ICAN. “In 2022, the nine nuclear-armed states together spent $82.9 billion on their nuclear weapons arsenals, an increase of $2.5 billion compared to the previous year, and with the United States spending more than all other nuclear powers combined.”
American weapons companies are some of the biggest recipients of contracts for nuclear weapons. Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics are “the biggest nuclear weapons profiteers,” according to the report. Combined, the two American weapons manufacturers have outstanding nuclear weapons related contracts with a combined potential value of at least $44.9 billion.
Those enormous government contracts for nuclear weapons, alongside contracts for conventional weapons, have helped make nuclear weapons producers an attractive investment for American investment banks and funds.
“Altogether, 287 financial institutions were identified for having substantial financing or investment relations with 24 companies involved in nuclear weapon production,” says the report. “$477 billion was held in bonds and shares, and $343 billion was provided in loans and underwriting.”
The report notes that while the total amount invested in nuclear weapons has increased, the number of investors has fallen and trends toward firms in countries with nuclear weapons.
ICAN and PAX suggest that concentration may be a result of prohibitions on nuclear weapons development for signatories to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), a 93 signatory treaty committing to the ultimate goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The report says:
The TPNW comprehensively prohibits the development, manufacturing, testing, possession, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance with those acts. For companies that build the key components needed to maintain and expand countries’ nuclear arsenals, access to private funding is crucial. As such, the banks, pension funds, asset managers and other financiers that continue to invest in or grant credit to these companies allow for the production of inhumane and indiscriminate weapons to proceed. By divesting from their business relationships with these companies, financial institutions can reduce available capital for nuclear weapon related activities and thereby be instrumental in supporting the fulfilment of the TPNW’s objectives.
Susi Snyder, managing director of the Don’t Bank on the Bomb Project, told Responsible Statecraft that even U.S. banks, like Pittsburgh based PNC Bank, are facing shareholder pressure to divest from nuclear weapons and that the tide may be shifting as shareholders in U.S. companies grow increasingly sensitive to investments in nuclear weapons.
“For three years shareholder resolutions have been put forward at PNC bank raising concerns that their investments in nuclear weapon producers are a violation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and that they are not in line with the bank's overall human rights policy guidelines,” she said.