arms race


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arms race

the competition between NATION STATES to attain a position of military superiority over adversaries. In its contemporary usage the concept has been applied especially to the competition between the US and the USSR. This has taken the form of a dramatic increase in the size of nuclear arsenals and an intensification of weapons development. Each technological advance by one side has produced an attempt by the other side to build superior weapons, which the initial mover has then to attempt to further improve upon. The pattern can be characterized as one of action-reaction. An early statistical study of arms races in these terms was made by L. F. Richardson, The Statistics ofDeadly Quarrels (1960).

Although arms races between major powers have attracted most attention, they also occur between minor powers (e.g. between the Arab states and Israel), where their outcome may more often lead to war than those between major powers. A major consequence of the arms race between the US and the USSR has been economic ‘waste’. Although it was once suggested that its economic effect may have been to sustain a post-World War economic boom (see MILITARY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX), more recently it has been proposed that it has acted as a brake on the economic prosperity of nation-states with the largest military commitments (e.g. the slower growth and relative economic weakness of Britain and the US compared with Germany or Japan). Undoubtedly, excessive military commitments have had this effect in the USSR, leading some commentators to suggest that the COLD WAR has been won by the Western powers as a consequence of this burden. See also NUCLEAR DETERRENCE, BALANCE OF POWER.