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Oxford’s weapons research revealed

Every day for the past four years, bombs have rained down on Yemen.

Cut off from the outside world by an illegal naval blockade and pummelled with state-of-the-art American and British weaponry, Yemen’s situation is described by the UN as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

The Saudi-led aerial bombardment has targeted key infrastructure, including schools and hospitals. The war has created three million refugees, and the death toll recently passed the grim milestone of 100,000.

This is just war fatalities – last year, Save the Children estimated that the naval blockade had already killed an additional 85,000 children by starvation. The country is currently experiencing an historic outbreak of cholera, while the UN estimates that ten million people, one third of the country’s population, are on the brink of famine.

In 2017, with the blockade and bombing campaign at its height, Pembroke’s Professor Robert Johnson travelled to the UAE, a core member of the Saudi-led coalition. He was there to speak about Oxford’s ‘Changing Character of Conflict Platform’, a predictive tool which is “aimed at enabling decision makers, policymakers and analysts to anticipate the directions of change in conflict to support strategic planning.”

Professor Johnson was speaking to the leadership of the UAE’s military, ‘professional practitioners’ in the parlance of the field. Nestled in the audience was the oil-rich monarchy’s notorious Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Last year, the Sheikh’s daughter Latifa gained international attention for her doomed attempt to flee the country and subsequent disappearance, leaving only a video alleging torture and abuse by her father.

The day consisted of an advisory lecture, followed by a panel discussion and “individual seminar support and facilitation to help officers and policy makers understand the changes taking place in the character of conflict, and how to prepare for them, ensure national resilience and manage public awareness.”

Professor Johnson told Cherwell: “I have consistently condemned war crimes and I detest war. Yet I have been in enough wars to know things are never black and white and that is certainly true in Yemen. I wonder if you will investigate Iran’s crimes? But why don’t you go there and see for yourself?”

An Oxford University spokesperson declined to say whether any other similar briefings had been given to senior members of the UAE or Saudi governments or militaries, or whether the University keeps any records of such engagements. In response to the findings of this investigation, the University spokesperson told Cherwell: “Oxford University research is academically driven, with the ultimate aim of enhancing openly available scholarship and knowledge.

“All of these research projects advance general scientific understanding, with subsequent civilian applications including climate change monitoring, earthquake detection, energy efficiency and humanitarian relief, as well as potential application by the defence sector.”

It was the evening of her son’s wedding, and Amina Al-Shahb, 50, was in her kitchen making last minute preparations for dinner. It had been a long day, with 500 guests coming for lunch and nearly half as many expecting dinner. The afternoon had been filled by the sound of drums and songs, as the guests broke out into traditional Yemini dances.

“I was in the kitchen, which was about ten meters from the scene of the attack,” Amina later told an investigator from Yemini human rights organisation Mwatana. “In the blink of an eye, I saw fire and I heard a powerful explosion. The ground jolted under me. The drums fell silent, replaced by cries for help.”

She recalled the scene outside: “The men who were filling the place with happiness and dance were in scattered pieces of charred flesh. The blood was everywhere.” All eleven drummers and dancers had been killed – investigators who arrived the following day found their broken drums scattered across the scene.

Amina’s story is just one of a catalogue of horrors painstakingly compiled by Mwatana. Investigators found no evidence of any military justification for the airstrike that struck her son’s wedding, killing twenty-one, including eleven children.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE conduct their bombing raids in British planes, using British bombs and with British training. The RAF recently admitted sending personnel to Saudi Arabia to repair bomber jets in between missions. Others are working in the control centre where bombing targets are selected. (The government says they play no role in selecting targets.)

Last month, the UN warned that the UK government could be complicit in war crimes for its role in the conflict. Since 2015, the UK has made eight times as much revenue from arms sales to Saudi Arabia as it has given to Yemen in humanitarian assistance.

In June, these sales were temporarily halted after the court of appeals ruled them unlawful. The UK government is currently appealing the decision, but recently breached the court order three times ‘by accident’.

A handful of corporations have profited enormously from the carnage. One of the chief providers of missiles to the Royal Saudi Air Force is MBDA, a joint venture by arms giants BAE Systems, Airbus and Leonardo. At £105,000, £709,000 and £2,000,000 apiece respectively, MBDA’s Brimstone, Storm Shadow and Meteor missiles have made a killing in Yemen.

Oxford receives millions of pounds in income from the arms sector every year, funding the research which keeps firms competitive and their clients satisfied.

Prior to joining Oxford, Professor David Limebeer co-wrote two papers with Asif Farooq of MBDA on the operation of air-to-surface missile guidance systems. At Oxford, he led the Vehicular Optimal Control Group (VOCG). Although VOCG’s public engagement focuses on the applications of its research to Formula 1 racing, the group’s website acknowledges that its research is also applicable to the development of missile guidance systems. Professor Limebeer did not respond to a request for comment.

Until June of this year, MBDA was partnering with computer scientists in the next-door building on a £961,000 research project examining ways to cut the costs of missile production. The project successfully developed a verification framework which substantially lowered the costs of developing embedded software for the aerospace sector.

In the arms sector, embedded software is utilised chiefly in GPS systems and in missiles, where it typically serves as the bomb’s guidance system. The high costs of developing embedded software have, according to the project’s funding proposal, meant “that aerospace is no-longer able to develop embedded software whilst keeping costs to reasonable levels, dramatically affecting the industry’s ability to innovate.”

The researchers behind the project began advising MBDA on the potential applications of their findings to the company’s products in 2016. Both the University and lead researcher declined to say whether this relationship is still ongoing.

Oxford researchers have also worked on technology relevant to missile propulsion systems. At the Department of Materials, across the road from the Engineering Department, researchers were working on a £763,000 project, known as PEICAP, developing passive filters, combinations of inductors and capacitors widely used in electrical control systems, for turbojet engines.

While PEICAP was focused on civilian aerospace, it was led by Safran, a leading manufacturer of turbojet engines for drones and missiles, including Saudi Arabia’s Storm Shadow air-to-surface missiles. The project included research into capacitors based on ultra-thin glass dielectrics, which can withstand extremely high temperatures and are consumed almost entirely by defence markets.

PEICAP was conducted in partnership Raytheon, who use glass dielectric capacitors in a huge variety of defence products including F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, currently engaged in Yemen, and America’s land-based Minuteman nuclear missiles. Raytheon also uses the component in the Freedom-class littoral combat ship which Saudi Arabia is currently purchasing from the United States – potentially for use in the illegal blockade of Yemen’s ports.

When an MBDA missile falls in Yemen, the chances are that it was dropped by one of Saudi Arabia’s 192 Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets.

Eurofighter, a joint venture by the same corporations which form MBDA (BAE Systems, Airbus and Leonardo), has an additional 48 jets awaiting delivery to the Kingdom, where over 6,000 BAE Systems contractors are currently stationed carrying out vital service tasks for the fleet. As one private British contractor in Saudi Arabia told Channel 4: “If we weren’t there in 7 to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky.”

A spokesperson for BAE Systems told Cherwell: “We provide defence equipment, training and support under government to government agreements between the UK and KSA [Saudi Arabia]. We comply with all relevant export control laws and regulations in the countries in which we operate. Our activities are subject to UK Government approval and oversight.”

The sale of Eurofighter Typhoons to Saudi Arabia, which has earned tens of billions of pounds in revenue for BAE Systems, was facilitated by Wafic Saïd, a major donor to Oxford University.

Saïd is one of Oxford’s largest donors, having contributed £20 million to the Saïd Business School at its founding, and more than £50 million since. In 2003 he was awarded the Sheldon Medal, Oxford University’s highest honour for donors, and presented with a bust of himself in the lobby of the Business School.

The Eurofighter Typhoon has proved vital to Saudi Arabia’s air war in Yemen, which has involved targeting civilians “in a widespread and systematic manner,” according to the UN.

One of the Typhoon’s selling points is its reliability, with advanced engine health monitoring systems ensuring that the jets can conduct their bombing raids with little risk to the pilot. This technology, which is also used for civil aviation, was developed with the help of Professor David Clifton at the Department of Engineering.

The Typhoon’s manufacturers also boast of the aircraft’s ability to be fitted with a wide variety of bombs, missiles and other third-party components in what is known as a ‘Plug ‘n’ Play’ weapons architecture.

In developing this system, defence firm QinetiQ has made extensive use of Failures Divergence Refinement (FDR), a refinement checking software tool whose development at Oxford’s Department of Computer Science has been funded in large part by the US Department of Defence. F

DR has had a huge impact in the field of weapons integration. For example, the Royal Navy’s adoption of Tomahawk missiles on its submarines (later used to bomb Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen), “depended crucially” on FDR.

Another selling point is the Typhoon’s advanced on-board computer system, which enables increased autonomous flying. According to manufacturer BAE Systems: “The flight computers fly the aircraft taking inputs from the pilot, freeing the pilot to focus on being the master tactician and principal decision maker.”

The company was recently awarded a $3.1 million contract from the US military to develop artificial intelligence for use in air mission planning. The Oxford’s Centre for Doctoral Training in Autonomous Intelligent Machines and Systems (AIMS), based at the Department of Engineering Science, has received an undisclosed amount from BAE Systems since 2014, as well as arms firms Honeywell and QinetiQ. The company additionally funded a five-year research grant for controlled autonomous systems, which resulted in models expected to be useful for the control of autonomous vehicles.

A spokesperson for BAE Systems told Cherwell: “As a world leader in advanced engineering and technology, we collaborate with academia to develop new technologies through strategic partnerships with prestigious universities in the UK. Our university partnerships help to boost the UK’s defence industrial skills base by supporting the next generation of engineers and scientists.”

Oxford’s involvement in the military-industrial complex is extensive but far from unique. In 2007, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade and Oxford’s own Fellowship for Reconciliation, based on Paradise Street, published their investigation into academic research for the arms industry, Study War No More.

The report examined 26 universities across the UK, and uncovered more than 1,900 military projects worth over £725 million. Oxford came in third place, behind Loughborough and Cambridge.

The projects outlined here are just a small fraction of Oxford’s total work for the sector. Many research projects funded by the arms industry, in particular Rolls Royce, will be used for both civilian and defence purposes. Since 2015, Oxford has received at least £7.6 million in funding from Rolls Royce.

Oxford keeps no public database of military projects. This data was compiled manually from Freedom of Information requests, government databases, corporate press releases and departmental websites.

The UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia were declared unlawful in June due to the “clear risk” of such weapons being used in “serious violation of international humanitarian law”. Oxford has yet to reckon with its role in profiting from this grave breach of human rights.

NEXT PAGE: Oxford’s research into drone swarms and nuclear weapons

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