Arms Race

views updated Jun 08 2018

Arms Race OverviewNaval Arms RaceNuclear Arms Race
Arms Race: Overview The term arms race has been used since the 1850s to describe periodic competitions between states to shift (or preserve) the balance of power between them by modernizing their weaponry and increasing the magnitude of various arms stocks. However, it was not until the end of World War I that arms races were viewed as a special pathology of interstate behavior that required explanation. At a loss to account for a war whose duration and horror seemed inexplicable by the logics of political or strategic calculation, both politicians and the public seized upon the idea that arms competitions could assume a deterministic dynamic that made war inevitable. It followed that the best way for states to ensure that conflicts of this sort would not occur in the future was to regulate the building of armaments or, as it is known today, to practice arms control. President Woodrow Wilson fought to include a commitment to arms control in the League of Nations Covenant, and his sentiments received widespread bipartisan support. Even Senator William Borah, an ardent opponent of the League, argued that the postwar naval competition between the United States, Great Britain, and Japan had already begun to take on the characteristics of the prewar Anglo‐German naval race. If not contained, it would lead to a cycle of threats and counterthreats that would eventually spiral upward into war, as fear and mutual hostility increased in proportion to the size of each side's arsenal.

The situation in which a state's attempt to achieve greater security by expanding its arsenals can, at the same time, decrease the security of its rival is known as the “security dilemma.” The increasingly uncontrollable and volatile process of arms growth that can ensue as each state reacts to its rival's arms increases with increased suspiciousness about the rival's motives and an even greater increase of its own is termed the spiral model.

In 1960, Lewis Fry Richardson gave formal expression to this blind action‐reaction vision of an arms race in a mathematical model that remains influential today. His model postulates that the rate of each side's arms increases is a simple function of its rival's increase in the previous period. Depending on the magnitude of each side's response, arms production either manages to achieve a stable rate of growth or accelerates until it can no longer be sustained, at which time war ensues. In keeping with the absence of foresight that animates the security dilemma, Richardson's model is basically deterministic: states react to each other as automatons.

In the 1970s and 1980s, theorists attempted to formulate a richer, psychological account of the spiral model's dynamics. They argued that the real key to the perverse cycle of action and reaction lay in the operation of suboptimal decision‐making biases and heuristics that are fundamental to human cognition. These cognitive limitations lead state leaders (1) to underestimate systematically the extent to which their rival's arms increases are driven by defensive concerns and internal, “pork barrel” politics and to assume that they are motivated exclusively by aggressive aspirations; and (2) to assume that the rival will appreciate the fact that it was forced to increase its military capacity as a defensive necessity. This leads to a psychologically driven propensity to interpret the rival's behavior as indicating growing hostility without showing any corresponding sensitivity to the implications of one's own actions. As a result, both sides' incentive to engage in preemptive or preventative war increases.

In the last twenty years, the emphasis of researchers has shifted from psychological biases to strategic calculation as the principal inspiration for arms races. Investigators looking at the nineteenth‐century naval competitions between the British and the French; the naval competition between the United States, the Japanese, and to a lesser extent the British after World War I; and even the pre–World War I Anglo‐German naval race—archetype of the spiral model—found each to be a calculated competition between a militarily weaker challenger state trying to increase its relative power and another militarily stronger state committed to defending the status quo. This rationalistic view of the arms race dynamic is partly corroborated by the fact that the state leaders involved often speak in terms of maintaining the balance of power and publicly commit themselves to not pursuing an open‐ended building program. For example, in the U.S.‐Japanese naval race of 1916–22, President Wilson emphasized that the U.S. building program would be discontinued as soon as an arms limitation agreement was achieved.

Game theory, with its emphasis on rational expectations and complicated reciprocal effects, is a logical extension of the strategic calculation school, and its stylized models now underlie most theoretical work on arms races. Game theorists play down the role of psychological variables and argue that arms races are most frequently driven by a confluence of three factors: (1) the anarchic nature of the state system; (2) the presence of resources that permit both states to respond to the competitive incentives that it creates; and (3) uncertainty about the resources and motives of the rival state. Arms spirals tend to be seen as the product of severe (but rational) uncertainty regarding the ambitions and actions of the rival state.

Interestingly, given their close relationship with the “dismal science” of economics, game theorists tend to be more optimistic than their counterparts in the psychological or Richardsonian schools. Their most commonly used model, the repeated “Prisoners' Dilemma,” suggests that states in protracted arms races, such as that between the United States and the Soviet Union, will eventually learn about the attributes and motivations of their rival and devise strategies that take advantage of the cooperative benefits offered by arms control. Game theorists even offer strategies by which a state can induce its opponent to slow or terminate an arms race. For example, they recommend demonstrating a resolve to build an amount of arms that effectively cancels out any advantage the opponent would gain, but no more. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to believe that every arms race is driven by the logic of the repeated Prisoners' Dilemma. History suggests that different historical arms races are driven by “games,” or patterns of incentives, and not every type responds to a single strategy.
[See also Arms Control and Disarmament; Strategy: Fundamentals; Disciplinary Views of War: Causes‐of‐War Studies.]


Charles E. Osgood , An Alternative to War or Surrender, 1962.
Lewis F. Richardson , Arms and Insecurity, 1962.
Robert Jervis , Perception and Misperception in International Politics, 1976.
Walter Isard , Arms Races, Arms Control, and Conflict Analysis, 1988.
George W. Downs and and David M. Rocke , Arms Races, Arms Control, and Tacit Bargaining, 1990.
Colin S. Gray , Weapons Don’t Make War, 1993.

George W. Downs

Arms Race: Naval Arms Race Defined as intensive peacetime competition in the design and production of warships, naval arms races aimed at altering the balance of naval power between or among the states involved. All such arms races attempt to exploit changing economic and technological conditions to gain military advantage. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most have sought to undermine the maritime supremacy of Great Britain until the Soviet naval challenge to the U.S. Navy in the 1960s and 1970s.

The ascendancy of the Royal Navy in the early nineteenth century rested upon geographical, social, and economic factors that no adversary could match by programmatic effort: an insular position astride the waters linking Northern Europe to the world's oceans; a population inured to seafaring and shipbuilding, and thus a reliable source of naval manpower (the demands of military seamanship being, in this era, little different from those of maritime commerce); and a system of state finance tailored to ensure that the proceeds of Britain's commercial economy would be available to support the king's ships. The agrarian economies of the European Continent, and the mature technologies of naval warfare in the age of sail, offered scant leverage against such advantages.

In a tactical environment so stable that a well‐maintained warship had a useful fighting life of half a century, the idea of a naval arms race could have no meaning. Even if a rival could contrive to outspend Britain on naval armaments for a period of years—a virtual impossibility for any state in need of a large army—the results would mean little when measured against the totality of such long‐accumulated assets. The Industrial Revolution made naval arms races possible, in the first instance, by radically depreciating those assets. It destabilized a tactical consensus two centuries in the making, and raised the prospect that warships could be rendered obsolete by improvements in ship design or weapons technology. It also narrowed the gap in economic performance that separated Britain from its rivals, and increased the incentives for all advanced countries to maintain strong navies, by heightening the importance of trade and empire as elements of national success.

Observers first applied the metaphor of a “race” to naval arms production in the early 1890s. The principal contestants were thought to be Great Britain and its main rivals in the pursuit of empire, France and Russia—though many other nations, including the United States, embarked on naval building programs during this period. Most did so less from a desire to outbuild prospective rivals than because admiralties everywhere were finally achieving clarity about the optimal characteristics of modern warships. By the middle of the 1880s, thirty years of chaotic technological advance had transformed the battle fleets of the major maritime states into menageries of incongruent types, operating under a doctrine that envisioned fleet action as an impossible combination of disciplined gun duel and ramming mêlée. Uncertainty about virtually every aspect of naval armament and ship design was compounded by sharply rising costs. Construction of larger ships had fallen off everywhere, and disproportionately so in Great Britain, whose frustrations reached a climax in 1886 when the Admiralty suspended orders for new capital ships until their vulnerability to torpedoes could be resolved.

The naval building programs of the 1890s marked an intensification of long‐standing rivalries, driven by rising self‐confidence that in turn rested upon a convergence of technical and doctrinal solutions to a number of long‐standing problems of gun design, ships armor, fleet tactics, and particularly to producing modern battleships. If the results were interpreted, a little too simply, as a “race” among a few prime contestants, it was at least partly owing to the existence of a simple means of keeping score. Britain's Naval Defense Bill, put forward in 1889 in the wake of a study about the requirements for war with France, formally embraced the customary principle that Britain would maintain a navy “at least equal to the strength of any two other countries.” “Strength,” however, was now no longer a matter of informed professional judgment. It was to be measured directly, by counting the number of capital ships “of the newest type and most approved design”—a striking innovation reflecting the new sense of clarity that had descended upon naval affairs. The bill accordingly called for ten such battleships to be built over the next five years, along with forty‐two cruisers and eighteen torpedo gunboats, at a cost that doubled the annual rate of expenditure during the previous decade.

The Naval Defense Bill was intended to discourage Britain's rivals from embarking on building programs of their own. It failed. France announced new construction of similar scale and proportions in 1891 (its first major program since 1872). Russia, having laid down five new battleships between 1886 and 1889 (the first since the 1860s), added two more after 1890.

Britain included an eleventh battleship in its naval estimates for 1891–92, and two more in 1893–94—additions that still left the Royal Navy two ships short of its “two‐power standard.” The gap was finally closed in 1894–95 with the inauguration of a second five‐year plan, calling for 7 new battleships (raised to 12 in 1895–96), 20 cruisers, and over 100 smaller craft. Thereafter, the British lead in capital ships was beyond the combined reach of France and Russia—though both continued to expand their navies for another ten years, until the ententes of 1904 and 1907 brought an end to the colonial rivalries that had given the contest its purpose.

The United States was at first less a participant in the race than an interested observer. It laid down three first‐class battleships (its first) in 1890, though Congress insisted that the range of the ships be limited, so that no taint of imperialism attached to them. War with Spain in 1898 seemed to confirm the importance of a modern fleet, however, and thereafter naval building increased steadily, thanks in part to the strong support of President Theodore Roosevelt. U.S. naval expenditures, which amounted to 7 percent of total federal spending in 1890, consumed 21 percent in 1905. By the eve of World War I, the U.S. fleet was third in the world.

It had been intended that it be second, behind only Great Britain. In the meantime, however, a new and unexpected rival had emerged in the form of the German High Seas Fleet. In contrast to the multilateral building programs of the early 1890s, which in retrospect resemble less a race than a festival of competitive modernization, the German effort was conceived from the start as a kind of marathon, whose distant finish line was defined by a bold and quixotic strategic calculus. To deter Britain from involving itself in a European war, contemporary theories of naval combat held that Germany would need a fleet of capital ships two‐thirds as large—the smallest force deemed capable of winning a defensive fleet action. Beginning in 1898, Germany set out, on the basis of no experience whatsoever as a maritime power, to build such a fleet. Its naval leadership planned to lay down three ships per year for twenty years, with a program of regular replacements thereafter. By 1918, Germany would dispose in perpetuity of a fleet of sixty modern battleships. To keep up, Britain would need to build ninety of its own, a burden that was judged impossible to bear, once the commitments required to sustain the empire were added to it. Other states reacted as well: one of the justifications for the expanded U.S. building program during these years was the need to deter German designs on South America.

The soundness of Germany's approach depended entirely on whether its calculations were correct, and whether they would remain correct for the two decades required to win the race. In the event, neither the economics nor the technology of naval armaments proved sufficiently constant. The building programs of the early 1890s had been helped by cost‐cutting improvements in key shipbuilding components, above all, armor plate. By 1900, however, the cost of capital ship construction was again rising sharply, as naval guns, and the hulls and mountings needed to carry them, grew bigger and heavier. The price of a first‐class battleship increased by about 20 percent between 1900 and 1905, an especially unwelcome development for Germany because, despite its inherent economic strength, its system of state finance remained hostage to social groups averse to the kinds of taxation needed to weather such increases.

These problems were made markedly worse by the launching, in 1906, of the HMS Dreadnought, a super battleship of radically new (and even more expensive) design that rendered all existing battleships obsolete. Compelled, in essence, to start over, and confronted by costs far higher than had originally been foreseen, there was little hope that the 2:3 force ratio required by German strategy could be achieved. In 1909, a German government went down to defeat in the Reichstag because it could not pass the tax reforms necessary to finance the construction of three Dreadnoughts per year. A few months earlier, Britain had declared its intention to build eight (a compromise, as Winston Churchill remarked, between the Conservative demand for six and the Liberal demand for four). Although the race as such did not end, its outcome was increasingly foreseeable. When war came in 1914, Britain had twenty Dreadnoughts, Germany thirteen.

Particularly under President Theodore Roosevelt, the United States joined the naval arms race. U.S. naval expenditures rose from 7 percent of total federal spending in 1890 to 21 percent in 1905. Focusing on battleships, the battle line of the U.S. Fleet had grown to thirty six ships by 1913 and ranked only behind both Britain and Germany in size.

The Great War brought an end to naval arms races. Navies have continued, in myriad ways, to try to outdo each other, but their efforts have never replicated the kind of tit‐for‐tat pattern that prevailed for a quarter century before 1914. A new naval race might easily have broken out in East Asia in the 1920s, involving Britain, the United States, and Japan, but all three nations quickly concluded that the costs would far outweigh gains that recent history suggested would be illusive at best. The result was the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty of 1922, the first successful arms control agreement. More recently, naval arms buildups, like that embarked upon by the Soviet navy in the 1960s and 1970s in challenge to American naval supremacy, have been viewed not as independent phenomena, but as elements of broader military competition—a pattern that is likely to continue as the capabilities of land, sea, and air forces grow increasingly interdependent.
[See also Arms Control and Disarmament: Nonnuclear; Navy, U.S.: 1899–1945; Procurement: Shipbuilding Industry.]


Paul M. Kennedy , The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, 1976.
Andrew Lambert , Battleships in Transition, 1984.
Christopher Hall , Britain, America, and Arms Control, 1921–37, 1987.
Richard W. Fieldhouse , Superpowers at Sea, 1989.
Jon Tetsuro Sumida , In Defence of Naval Supremacy, 1989.
B.J.C. McKercher, ed., Arms Limitation and Disarmament, 1992.
C.I. Hamilton , The Anglo‐French Naval Rivalry, 1840–1870, 1993.
Volker Berghahn , Germany and the Approach of War in 1914, 1993.
George W. Baer , One Hundred Years of Sea Power, 1994.

Daniel Moran

Arms Race: Nuclear Arms Race The United States, with Britain, developed atomic weapons during World War II and used them as a means to force Japan's early surrender. The first (and so far last) use of these weapons in hostilities came in August 1945 with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By then the seeds of the Cold War were being sown as the two superpowers argued about the political reconstruction of postwar Europe. If the United States hoped that the Soviet Union would be sufficiently impressed by the destructive potential of a single bomb to become more conciliatory in its foreign policy, it was soon disappointed. Josef Stalin recognized that troops on the ground would determine the distribution of political influence in Europe and Asia, and he acted accordingly. By the time of Hiroshima he was already well informed about the American nuclear program, from sympathizers working within it, and he pushed forward with a Soviet program.

Suspicions between the two superpowers were too great for significant cooperation to prevent a nuclear arms race. They defeated an American scheme to place nuclear energy under international control (known as the “Baruch Plan”), presented to the United Nations in 1946. As the Cold War intensified, the manufacture of American atomic bombs increased. In August 1949, far earlier than expected, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic device. From then on the United States could not escape the sensation of being in some sort of race, and this sensation influenced all decisions. The course of the nuclear age was no longer simply a matter of Western decision.

The first effect of the new situation was the decision to move from atomic weapons, based on nuclear fission, to hydrogen weapons, based on fusion. There were no obvious limits to the destructive capacity of thermonuclear weapons. Fearful of an inexorable march toward weapons and strategies of mass destruction, many of the most influential atomic scientists opposed their development. President Harry S. Truman overruled them, for now he could not be sure that Stalin would match any American restraint. In the event the first successful Soviet test of an H‐bomb came not long after the first American test.

This did not mean that the Truman administration was convinced that nuclear weapons could play a domineering role in national strategy. Though the United States was on the verge of virtual mass production of nuclear weapons, when the Korean War started in June 1950, stocks were still small and were not used in this conflict. The Truman administration saw nuclear superiority as a diminishing asset, for the Soviet Union would inevitably catch up. For this reason, with the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it set in motion a program of conventional rearmament.

This proved to be too expensive to implement completely. In January 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced what became known as the doctrine of massive retaliation. Dulles did not believe it was either feasible or desirable to develop local forces to counter Communist aggression at any of the many points where it might occur. He therefore argued the need to “depend primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our own choosing,” implying nuclear attacks against Soviet cities.

The basic idea was to counter perceived Soviet advantages in conventional forces with American nuclear superiority, at least so long as it lasted. A couple of years later, Americans had good reason to believe that the period of their superiority was drawing abruptly to a close. Until now the United States had deployed its nuclear weapons on its powerful bomber force, to the point where the commitment of the USAF to the manned bomber had held back the development of long‐range missiles. The Soviet Union had adopted a different approach, putting few resources into bombers and concentrating instead on missiles. In June 1957, it tested the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), but its program gained American attention with the world's first artificial earth satellite, Sputnik 1, launched in October 1957. This punctured American self‐confidence in its technological advantages. For a while there was panic (from which President Dwight D. Eisenhower remained commendably immune) as alarms were raised about an impending “missile gap.” Now the Americans no longer had the luxury of wondering how to exploit their superiority, but the worry of what the Russians might do with theirs. In the event, and despite some embarrassing failures in tests, the American missile program surged ahead of the Russian (which was based on cumbersome designs) so that by the start of the Kennedy administration in 1961, the “gap” was in the other direction, with U.S. superiority.

John F. Kennedy, and his energetic secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, wished to back away from the doctrine of massive retaliation. They were reinforced in this view by their experience of the two most dangerous crises in the nuclear age. For some time the Soviet Union had been putting pressure on the West to abandon the outpost of West Berlin, situated in the East German heartland and a constant source of aggravation, as it was used as an escape route by disaffected East Germans. Kennedy resisted this pressure. In August 1961, a wall was constructed, dividing Berlin. While causing outrage in the West, it also eased the immediate crisis caused by the flow of refugees. The next year the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba led Kennedy to risk war by demanding their removal. After a tense week, the Russians backed down. Both sides were now deeply aware of the dangers of nuclear confrontation.

However, it was not so easy to reduce NATO's dependence on nuclear deterrence. As part of the earlier attempt to match Warsaw Pact conventional strength, West Germany had been allowed to rearm. Germany had no intention of joining NATO in order to provide a battleground, so it required that its territory be defended at the East German border. If this could not be achieved through a conventional defense, then the task would fall to nuclear deterrence. The prospect now loomed of Armageddon being triggered by any Warsaw Pact incursion from East to West Germany. American strategy was torn between an unaffordable conventional defense and an incredible nuclear deterrent.

Eventually a compromise was reached in the form of NATO's doctrine of flexible response. The basic idea was that the alliance should not move immediately to nuclear use but would do so if Soviet aggression could not be stopped by conventional military or political means. Before large‐scale nuclear exchanges would be tried, it was envisaged that “tactical” nuclear weapons would be employed first.

Small nuclear weapons for battlefield use had been introduced during the 1950s and integrated with NATO's general purpose forces. At the time they represented an area of Western superiority, while the Soviet Union caught up with strategic weapons. It was hoped that concentrated enemy invasion forces would provide lucrative targets, but it soon became apparent that the same weapons could also help a Communist offense blast a way through NATO defenses. Nor would they be used “as if” they were merely hyperefficient conventional firepower. Exercises in the mid‐1950s indicated that use on a substantial scale by NATO alone would cause enormous casualties among the population supposedly being defended. Later efforts by weapons' designers to reduce the collateral damage with more “tailored” munitions did not get round this problem. The main consequence would be as likely to start the processes of nuclear escalation a little earlier rather than restrict them to a limited level.

Winning a nuclear war would require disarming the enemy in a surprise, preemptive attack, destroying as much as possible of his means of retaliation on the ground, and intercepting any bombers or missiles that escaped before they reached their targets. The ability to execute such an attack was described as a first‐strike capability; the capacity to absorb such an attack and then retaliate, a second‐strike capability. A first strike would be the most demanding task ever to face a military planner. A first strike would fail if critical targets were not located or were not attacked effectively or if enemy missiles were launched on warning of an impending attack. Defenses might be able to cope with a limited second strike, but they would soon be overwhelmed by anything substantial. At all stages the devastating power of individual nuclear weapons left little room for a margin of error.

The development of the first submarine‐launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in the late 1950s in the American Polaris program effectively defeated the first‐strike concept. Submarines remained difficult to spot, track, and destroy. Even with advances in antisubmarine warfare systems, the increased range of the missiles meant that submarines could choose their patrol areas to maximize the problems faced by any attacker. By the end of the 1960s, the invention of multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs), a technique by which a large number of warheads could be put on top of a single missile, multiplied the problems that would be faced by ballistic‐missile defenses.

The fear that the other side might obtain a first‐strike capability, as much as a push for a national capability, began to drive the arms race. Instead of a competition to accumulate raw destructive power, national capability was now seen to be largely technological in nature, and geared to gaining a decisive strategic advantage. Not only did this lead to constant and expensive innovation in weapons design and force structures; with both sides trying to anticipate each other's next moves, this could lead to them both fearing an imminent surprise attack in a crisis. As it became evident that neither side could achieve a first‐strike capability, it became possible to think in terms of a stable nuclear balance. McNamara described the essential objective for U.S. strategic forces to be an assured destruction capability, which would leave no doubt that the result of a nuclear war would be the elimination of the enemy as a twentieth‐century society. This set limits on the force levels required and the type of forces required. To achieve stability, both sides would need to follow the same approach, creating a condition of mutual assured destruction—which inevitably became known as MAD.

The situation was recognized through the strategic arms limitation talks, which began between the Soviet Union and the United States in November 1969 and produced agreements in May 1972. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) of 1972 froze the number of missiles at current levels—at the time some 1,700 for the United States, but some 2,300 for the Soviet Union, which had been engaged in a major buildup in ICBMs since the mid‐1960s and was beginning to overtake the United States in SLBMs. While these raw numbers did not recognize American technological advantages (and did not include the U.S. bomber fleet), they created a damaging impression that the process favored Moscow. This dogged efforts to conclude a second SALT agreement, and even when one was agreed in 1979, it was never ratified by the U.S. Senate because of a revival in Cold War tensions (and in particular the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). President Ronald Reagan was more ambitious, renaming the negotiations the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START). They did not produce the dramatic cuts he sought until the Cold War was over.

In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev had also signed the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which imposed strict limits on the number of defensive systems either side could deploy (no more than 100 launchers). In 1983, President Reagan appeared prepared to challenge the logic of this treaty when he launched his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), to provide a shield against a nuclear attack. The technological problem he posed was not solved. As important was the president's view of SDI as an alternative to dependence on nuclear deterrence. Would it not be better, he asked, to “protect than to avenge.” Unfortunately, SDI could also appear as an attempt to develop a first‐strike capability and so a likely result was just another round in the arms race.

SDI was another symptom of a growing unease with the condition of mutual assured destruction. For the same reason, there was also an exploration of the possibilities of partial first strikes. One proposal was to aim for the enemy's political and military command and control centers in so‐called decapitation attacks, in the hope that leaderless forces would not launch their weapons. Assuming that such an attack could be executed, there would be risks of leaving the other side leaderless. With whom would it then be possible to negotiate an end to the war?

Another idea was to attack only land‐based missiles in a counterforce attack, in the hope that it would remove the most formidable part of the enemy arsenal with minimal civilian damage. However, such attacks would still cause massive civilian damage and so stimulate a ferocious retaliation. Furthermore, technological developments were improving bombers, cruise missiles, and SLBMs, so that even if ICBMs were lost, powerful and versatile forces would remain. Cruise missiles were pilotless aircraft, the descendants of the German V‐1, suddenly rendered more potent by developments in engine design, miniaturization, and precision guidance.

The currency given to ideas such as these during the 1970s and 1980s in the United States reflected a fear that the Soviet Union had never accepted MAD and was seeking a real nuclear superiority. This was a particular problem given that it was the West that was most dependent upon a credible nuclear strategy, as a means of countering the perceived strength of the Soviet conventional forces facing NATO. Certainly Soviet thinking appeared to be based on the possibility of using the conventional phase of a war in Europe in order to prepare the basis (for example, by destroying NATO nuclear assets) for a decisive nuclear strike. The risk to the Soviet homeland (but not that of other members of the Warsaw Pact) would be limited by seeking an implicit deal by which the territories of both superpowers could be established as sanctuaries. If it looked as if the United States was preparing to strike at the Soviet Union, then Soviet doctrine would argue for a preemptive attack in order to limit the damage.

Soviet ideas for a “winnable” nuclear war were no more practicable than American, but they nonetheless prompted a Western response. The countervailing strategy was designed to deny the Soviet Union confidence that at any point in the ladder of escalation from crisis to all‐out nuclear war, it could expect to so dominate the fighting that it would force NATO to surrender. In line with this, intermediate‐range nuclear forces, including cruise missiles, were introduced into Europe. These stimulated powerful protest movements in Western Europe before their deployment began in 1983. However, not long after this, reformer Mikhail Gorbachev achieved dominance. Alarmed by the expense of the arms race, and anxious to improve relations with the West, Gorbachev in 1987 signed the INF (Intermediate‐range Nuclear Forces) Treaty with President Reagan, which eliminated this whole category of missiles, including Soviet SS‐20 missiles.

Two years later, in 1989, the Cold War was effectively over. By this time, both sides had over 10,000 strategic nuclear warheads. The political conditions were now propitious for more radical arms control. Moreover, with Russia now vulnerable to economic and political chaos, there was an incentive to decommission as many nuclear warheads as possible lest they become prone to accident or unauthorized use. By 1993, the START process was pointing to ceilings of 3,000 to 3,500 for each side. In 1997, further reductions of 1,000 were agreed. But by this time, the collapse in Russia's conventional strength meant that its parliament was reluctant to ratify such large cuts, and its military doctrine was moving to greater reliance upon nuclear threats.

The United States had become the most substantial conventional military power and had no need to resort to nuclear threats. For the same reason, potential enemies saw weapons of mass destruction as one of their few means of neutralizing this power. The United States was still unable to escape from the practice of deterrence.
[See also Cold War: External Course; Cuban Missile Crisis; Deterrence; Nuclear Weapons; SALT Treaties.]


Thomas Schelling , Arms and Influence, 1966.
Alain C. Enthoven and and Wayne K. Smith , How Much Is Enough? Shaping the Defense Program 1961–1969, 1971.
John Newhouse , Cold Dawn: The Story of SALT, 1973.
Patrick Morgan , Deterrence: A Conceptual Analysis, 1977.
Fred Kaplan , The Wizards of Armageddon, 1983.
David Rosenberg , The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945–1960, International Security 7:4, Spring 1983.
Strobe Talbott , Deadly Gambits, 1984.
Gregg Herken , Counsels of War, 1985.
Philip Bobbitt,, Lawrence Freedman,, and and Greg Treverton , U.S. Nuclear Strategy: A Reader, 1989.
Lawrence Freedman , Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, 1989.
Ivo Daalder , The Nature and Practice of Flexible Response: NATO Strategy and Theater Nuclear Forces Since 1967, 1991.
Michael J. Mazarr , Virtual Nuclear Arsenals, Survival, Autumn 1995.
Scott Sagan and and Kenneth Waltz , The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, 1995.

Lawrence Freedman

Arms Race

views updated May 11 2018


Arms race is a term that refers to the intensely competitive and belligerent manner in which the United States and the Soviet Union developed their nuclear weapons systems between 1945 and 1989. When the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs (A-bombs) on Japan to end World War II (19391945), Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin (18791953) immediately assembled a team of physicists to begin work on a Russian A-bomb. Tripling the scientific budget, Stalin made clear that the team was to proceed expeditiously without regard to cost. Four years later, on August 29, 1949, the Soviets astounded the world by detonating their first A-bomb far ahead of schedule. The United States responded by beginning work on a bigger, more powerful bomb known as a hydrogen bomb (H-bomb). Detonated on November 1, 1952, America's first H-bomb exploded with a yield of 10.4 megatons, or a thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. This time it only took the Soviet Union 9 months to catch up, as they tested their first H-bomb on August 12, 1953. Although the Russian bomb was a comparatively small device of 400 kilotons, a sampling of its radioactive cloud produced traces of lithium, an element the United States had not yet technologically harnessed. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (19531961) suggested replacing the escalating Superpower competition with nuclear cooperation, but opponents accused him of being soft on Communism.

In 1954 the Soviets tested the world's first H-bomb dropped from a bomber airplane. Three years later the arms race reached outer space, when the Soviets launched Sputnik. A group of satellites designed to measure the temperature and density of the earth's upper atmosphere, Sputnik was powered by intercontinental ballistic missiles (IBMs) that could reach the American soil in a few hours. Now fearful that it was losing the arms race, the U.S. government began investing heavily in national defense and technology. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established in 1958, the same year that college students were offered millions of dollars in loans and grants to major in science, engineering, and mathematics. The United States also began stockpiling its nuclear arsenal. By 1962 the United States had over 27,000 nuclear weapons, 500 long-range bombers, and 2,500 mid-range bombers that were at a constant state of full military readiness. The year 1962 also marked a turning point in the arms race. In October the Soviets began installing IBM launchers in Cuba, only 1,100 miles away from Washington, D.C. Although the United States already had nuclear warheads pointed at the Soviet Union from Western Europe, a U.S. naval blockade of Cuba and the nation's seeming willingness to go to war over the issue forced the Soviet Union to dismantle the missile launchers and remove them from the western hemisphere.

Having teetered on the brink of annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, fewer people in the United States believed that a nuclear war was winnable. Instead, more Americans became convinced that a policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was the most effective deterrent against either side launching a first strike. For the next 25 years both nations made efforts at arms control through bilateral accords, but fear, mistrust, and cheating on both sides got in the way. It was not until the Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1989 that the arms race between the two countries officially came to an end. The arms race cost Americans approximately $5.5 trillion dollars, and contributed to the federal government's $4 trillion debt in the 1980s, when spending on nuclear weapons systems skyrocketed. At the same time, the collapse of Communist Bloc countries in Eastern Europe has been largely attributed to the Soviet Union's failed efforts to keep its economy afloat while attempting to accelerate development of its own nuclear forces during this period.

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It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring full retaliatory response. . . . I call upon Chairman [Nikita] Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace. . . . He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction.

president john f. kennedy, television address, october 22, 1962


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Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997.

Bailyn, Bernard, David Brion Davis, David Herbert Donald, John L. Thomas, Robert H. Wiebe, and Gordon S. Wood. The Great Republic: A History of the American People. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1981.

Isaacs, Jeremy, and Taylor Downing. Cold War: An Illustrated History, 19451991. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1998.

arms race

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arms race Rivalry between states or blocs of states to achieve supremacy in military strength. The first modern instance was the race between Germany and Britain to build up their navies before World War I. The term refers principally to the race in nuclear weapons between the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Examples of arms races at regional level are that of Israel and the Arab states in the Middle East, which started in the 1950s, and of Iran and Iraq since the 1980s.

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