1990s >> 1992 >> no-1059-november-1992

Europe’s new war plane

Every worker who isn’t a total abstainer from the news media will have heard about the European Fighter Aircraft (EFA) by now. Do “we” need it? Can “we” afford it? Why do “the Germans” want to pull out? Should the rest go it alone? These are some of the questions being bandied about as the defence ministers of the partner countries pose for the cameras on their way in and out of meetings. Well, what about EFA?

The Gulf War should have killed off the notion that the demise of the Soviet Union has ended the prospect of war. even world war between rival power blocs. The last such rivalry was exceptional in the way it ended, although the minor clashes it spawned killed enough workers. The USA, temporarily the only superpower in the business as only a bloc of countries acting in unison can now challenge it, cannot at present be threatened by missiles capable of hitting New York, as might have been the case prior to 1989. Thus when Jane’s Defence Weekly (21 March) quotes the RAF as having identified a need for a “stealthy long-range penetrator” (this is a type of bomber!), for use against “threats” further from home than was envisaged in Cold War days, the author accepts this without bothering to identify who these new enemies may be.

In fact, while no new power bloc structure has yet emerged to replace the Cold War antagonism, it is not difficult to envisage some possibilities. One would be a revived Russia, perhaps not with the support of the former eastern European satellites, but maybe in league with Middle East states and India, challenging what was basically the Western side in the Cold War. In Russia some capitalists are complaining that the Yeltsin administration has “sold out to the USA”, and may be after revenge for what was after all a humiliating defeat by their American rivals. Whatever happens here it is clear, however, that continuing punitive actions are envisaged against recalcitrant Third World states like Iraq. This thinking appears to be important to the design of EFA and the role envisaged for it.

Arms exports
Russia is in the equation already in another role, as an arms exporter. Previous arms drives have created a large stockpile of weapons, and conversion of factories to other purposes is not the simple cheap operation some imagine. Such a sales drive would put Russia into direct competition with the EFA consortium. Future markets in India and Saudi Arabia have been mooted for EFA, following the successes there with earlier BAe aircraft such as Canberra, Lightning and Tornado. An existing arms stockpile is also a factor in current German thinking, as they took over a sizeable force of MiGs as a result of reunification. Germany is remaining as a partner in the development phase of EFA, and will therefore continue to benefit from the considerable technological development which a new military aircraft involves. Spain, whose continued part in the production phase is also in doubt, has a less advanced aircraft industry and is even keener to see out the development period.

Many of these arguments are being put forward in the “Campaign to save EFA”, currently spearheaded by the MSF trade union, even though they are merely capitalist concerns. We can understand the concern that the workers involved feel at the implications of these events on their employment prospects and their life in general.

Socialists can in general support efforts by workers to stave off threatened sackings, which are by no means always doomed to failure. In fact such action should, when required, be part of the more general effort to defend, and improve where possible, pay and working conditions. The thing about this particular campaign which forces us into a critical position is its begging-bowl attitude, and the class compromise involved in taking on board purely capitalist arguments. This weakness is reinforced by a willingness to cooperate in the unending efficiency drives, “team talks”, business plans and other paraphernalia typical of developed hi-tech capitalist firms striving to keep their place in face of the current slump. In anything other than the very immediate short term, this is no more than feeding the mouth that bites you, and this socialists are totally unable to support.

The latest MSF journal (No.3, 1992) contains the almost obligatory article entitled “Save EFA” on its front page. Much of its argument consists of telling the British and German capitalist class how they should run their own affairs. The German counter-proposal for a smaller, lighter aircraft is dismissed out of hand because of its short operational range, as if that should concern workers. One alternative, that of “buying off the shelf’ which in practice means buying American, the point made is that the only aircraft which would be superior to EFA is the F22, which will not be in service until the year 2000. Again, this is a question which capitalist governments need to consider, but not workers.

Job losses
We can acknowledge that the main concern of MSF is with the job prospects of its members, but it is the way they go about protecting them that is so open to criticism. The whole concept of “saving jobs” by persuading the capitalists to “buy British” rather than a foreign alternative is fatally flawed. The jobs “saved” here represent jobs lost elsewhere with no real chance of a significant overall gain. This can only be achieved if the capitalists can be forced to employ more workers on a project than are required on strict capitalist criteria. This might lead to the Daily Express talking about three men doing two men’s work, but so what? The workers retained will benefit and that is basically the only reason why unions exist at all. What is more, it can be achieved, admittedly only in the more favourable cases, in the same way as pay increases can be negotiated in the face of capitalist opposition. The fact that, despite the present severe slump, the earnings of most of those workers who have remained in work are outpacing inflation shows that the unions are not as helpless as many seem to think. It is true that this is inevitably patchy, that it cannot directly help those out of work or living in the Third World, and is accompanied by the negative features such as labour intensification and more unsocial hours.

Any attempt to protect jobs by trying to influence directly the way employers conduct their business, so that they sell more of their particular products, leads to compromising situations which can only benefit the capitalists in the end. Employers prefer us to waste our time devising alternative strategies for them rather than have us further our own interests. The ‘Save EFA” campaign is actually much worse than making this or that thing with British rather than “foreign” labour. The campaign is one for the building of military aircraft which can be designed for no other purposes than those which will inevitably kill and maim fellow workers abroad and sometimes at home also. Even if going ahead with EFA did mean more jobs, and even if having an extra design, with its concomitant development phases, might mean a few extra people at work for a time, this military aspect is one which socialists cannot and will not support however much we may sympathize with anxieties of the workers involved.

E. C. Edge