ATK’s WMDs ignite protest over Canadian acquisition


Edina-based ATK, formerly Alliant Tech Systems, has been building its space systems operations for years in an effort to diversify its business as one of the nation’s largest munitions manufacturers. But its expansion efforts aren’t appreciated in Canada, where objections to ATK’s production of land mines, cluster bombs and depleted uranium artillery shells are sparking opposition to the company’s bid to acquire the information systems and geospatial businesses of Canadian firm MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) for $1.325 billion cash.

MDA developed Canadarm, the pride of the Canadian space agency and Canada’s biggest contribution to the international space station. In December, MDA launched RADARSAT, a satellite array intended for collecting Earth-observation data at a cost of $500 million to Canadian taxpayers. Both operations will be included in the sale.

When the CEO of MDA announced that an agreement of acquisition had been made, one MDA engineer immediately resigned over objections to ATK’s production of land mines and cluster bombs. In an interview with the Charleston Gazette, optical engineer Paul Cottle explained that ATK’s controversial weapons prompted his resignation.

I knew [ATK] was nothing I wanted to be involved with. Leaving my job … was an absolute certainty that I knew right away. I’m not anti-war. I’m not against engineers in my position working for the military or working for an arms company. What I am against is working for a company that makes weapons that have been shown to be as to harmful to civilians as to soldiers.

One week later, a second MDA engineer quit his job over the sale. Trevor Williams worked on RADARSAT under the assumption that it was for civilian purposes and arctic observation. The sale to ATK has raised his suspicions that the satellite would be used for American military purposes.
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The Canadian Auto Workers union and a former Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister called for the sale to be blocked on grounds that it violates the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel mines. Canada is a signatory of the agreement, while the United States is not.

“It is unacceptable that the company that developed the Canadarm, with the support of Canadian taxpayers, be sold to an American firm responsible for the production and proliferation of land mines,” said union president Buzz Hargrove. “Canadian taxpayers’ dollars shouldn’t be sent south to a company that has built its successes by producing arms used to maim and kill.”

For its part, ATK says its land mines and cluster bombs now comply with the Ottawa Convention and are built with self-destruct mechanisms with a failure rate that is less than 1 percent. Human Rights Watch suggests that failure rates may still be up to 25 percent and points to the billions of older ordnance still in military stockpiles around the world without safety features.

ATK is a Fortune 1000 company doing $3 billion a year in business in 33 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Jordan, Malaysia, Greece and Turkey. More than two-thirds of ATK’s business comes from the U.S. Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security, with $1.27 billion in contracts in 2005. The company’s Edina headquarters has been the site of weekly protests since 1996. This spring ATK will relocate its headquarters to Eden Prairie, and protesters vow to follow.