Arms race redux

Arms race redux

The logic of the second arms race is that, drones aside, seldom will this equipment be used one against the other. Instead this equipment is designed, created, then re-designed and re-created so that the new group of Superpowers can engage one with the other in a contest of developing the latest state-of-the-art equipment and perpetually try to outdo one-another. The logic of the second arms race thus strikes a remarkable parallel with the Cold War period.

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By Matthew Parish

I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can … its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.

Dwight D. Eisenhower.

History has always been full of arms races. This is a consequence of the theory of comparative advantage between states. That theory predicts not only that states are in competition with one-another for geopolitical status, influence and resources, but that the metric of their success in such competitions is not absolute but rather measured via a quantum by which one state exceeds the status, influence and resources of its peers. To put matters simply, if the geopolitical strength of a state may be measured on a scale of 0 to 10, then it is better for state A to be in status 5 when its competitor state B is in status 2, than that that A is in status 10 when B is in status 9. In the global competition and conflict for geopolitical influence, it is more important that one stands leagues ahead of one’s opponents than that both a state and its opponents are doing reasonably well together. The theory of comparative advantage between states is a “beggar thy neighbour” approach to international relations, and this is what drives arms races.

Why are relations between states like this? That is because they live in a state of perpetual anarchy, where each can threaten the other. Because there is no global policeman to intervene into the event of conflict (at least in principle), each state is incentivised to create a gap between its rival in military capacity to forestall the event of war. This is what leads to arms races. If the other tribe has sticks we had must have spears. If the other army has cavalry we must acquire them. If the other army has rifles we must acquire more. Likewise machine guns, naval vessels, aircraft and radar. The world has always been full of arms races, and (perhaps) it always will be. Nevertheless the phrase “arms race” has conventionally been used to describe the period of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The distinctive feature of this arms race was that the arms that the two sides were racing to use would never be used (indeed they could never be used), because their use would result in the destruction of both sides and indeed surely of the whole of humanity. Therefore one might wonder what they were racing to achieve, in their competition to produce the capacity to destroy the world ever more times over.

Nevertheless the first arms race, as we shall call it, had its own perverse logic: in devoting the greater part of their military budgets to weapons they would never use, the superpowers kept their relative positions on a scale of military capacity so relatively close that they could never go to war – at least not directly; they could only fight proxy wars under circumstances of successfully-resolved prisoners’ dilemmas. These were circumstances such that they both agreed not to provide their proxies with world-destroying nuclear weapons lest they might actually use them or, almost as bad, copy them and hence undermine the only real advantage of being engaged in such an arms race – that one is one of only a very small number of members of the group engaged in it, and hence nobody else can invade or threaten you. In this sense, the first arms race was distinctive; it was a race to create arms that the sides would not use. As a passing observation, if there were ever a case for the creation of global government to prevent escalation of such perversely wasteful behaviour, then it existed in during the first arms race. The case for creating a central institution that could credibly hold the parties common undertakings not to do such ostensibly irrational things as build competing arsenals of nuclear weapons that could destroy the entire world many times over was surely as strong as it ever had been in history. But no such government was created. The United Nations never so evolved. This would suggest either that following the development of nuclear weapons, states rationally consider that they can manage arms races without recourse to global government; or that the transaction costs of creating a global government are too high for one ever to be formed notwithstanding the prospective rationality of such an institution if it ever could be formed.

The counter-insurgency era of military development also created a perverse pattern of behaviour. After the end of the Cold War, it became transparent that the two Superpowers, now reduced to one by virtue of the Soviet Union’s dismemberment and economic enfeeblement, no longer had an incentive to create ever larger numbers of nuclear weapons that could travel at ever tinier fractions of a moment’s notice at ever increasing multiples of the speed of sound to render dead ever more millions of people. Indeed the nature of military budget and spending changed radically. Now war was no longer cold, it could be hot again and hence military budgets would be re-aligned towards the pursuit of hot war. Many Cold War proxy wars came to an end, and they were replaced with a series of conflicts that had been suppressed because one Superpower or the other did not want there to be conflict in that region – or because Communist governing structures collapsed to reveal latent ethnic animosities or conflict for resources. Hence the United States, the sole remaining Superpower, could and did go around participating hotly. US troops were on the ground in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and in due course all over the world. To engage in counter-insurgency operations (a code-word for a massive military force seeking to overwhelm a modest military force in the territory of a modest military force), military spending would be redirected towards conventional weapons expenditure and the nuclear missile silos would rust gently in their retirement.

History did not end, and inevitably Superpowers were to return. Indeed this time there would be more than two of them. Moreover they would copy the United States during the post-Cold War period, and they would all start to engage in counter-insurgency movements which were, after all, another way of acting as colonial powers or engaging in proxy wars: things which superpowers have always liked to do throughout history. This new era naturally required extended military expenditure: the memoranda from the experts within the military-industrial complexes insisted upon it. But counter-insurgency operations did not need vastly larger numerical numbers of troops: nobody wanted another Vietnam. Hence funds were redirected towards technological improvements in conventional warfare. Thence started what we will now call the second arms race: exponential build-ups by the Superpowers of instruments of conventional warfare that would never actually be used to their fullest capacity (that is to say, in all-out war with other Superpowers). Only the Superpowers could engage in such build-ups of conventional weapons of technological sophistication. But, as with the first arms race, Superpowers knew and know they have the capacity to destroy one-another and hence themselves completely, and therefore they will not go to war using to the maximum extent all the arms they accumulate in the course of their race. At least so, on behalf of humanity, it is hoped.

At the heart of each arms race is a paradox, because arms races are irresolvable (or unresolved) prisoners’ dilemmas. The paradox is that as each Superpower creates an ever-better fighter jet, stealth comber, drone or autonomous robot gun turret, the other Superpowers feel themselves obliged to continue the race and the technological drive to continue development of ever-increasingly sophisticated weapons continues. Yet these weapons are being developed for use in contexts in which their capacities will never be 100% required. That is because counter-insurgency operations for the most part require far more limited technological capacity. To engage in asymmetric warfare in underdeveloped parts of the world does not require the latest conventional weapons inventions. The enemy is riding in a pick-up truck and hiding interim explosive devices by the sides of roads. Some degree of relative technological sophistication may be useful in fighting such opponents; but the relative advantages of massive overwhelming technological superiority are reversely exponential. The technology required safely to destroy a pick-up truck travelling at 30 km per hour down a dusty desert road has existed for decades. In pouring ever-increasing amounts of money into ingenious new technological methods of performing this relatively straightforward military operation, the Superpowers are not in fact aiming their proverbial drones at those proverbial pick-up trucks. They are aiming their new-fangled technology at one-other. They are pointing weapons at one-another that they will never use.

The purpose of nuclear weapons is not to fire them at people, but to point them at people. The same is at least partially true of the latest rounds of increasingly soaring technological advancement in the development of conventional weaponry. Because it mirrors the Cold War in this way, we call this the second arms race. History will probably always be full of arms races. But these two arms races are singled out for identification as “the first” and “the second”, because they are arms races of weapons that will not be used substantially (in the sense of being employed at their full capacities). Instead they are used as deterrents against warfare. In this sense they are arguably worth every penny, even though they appear palpably entirely wasteful. What is the point of spending huge amounts of money developing weapons one will not fully use? The answer is that the costs in blood and treasure of doing so are far better than the equivalents of actually having wars. These things give the military-industrial complexes of our times something to do: to compete with one-another over technology, rather than go to war (at least with one-another, which is the most important thing to be avoided).

Consider the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, the latest US single-seat, single-engine stealth multirole fighter introduced into service in 2015 by the US Marine Corps. The programme cost is US$1.508 trillion, including US$55.1 billion for research and development, US$319 billion for procurement and US$1,123 billion for operations, maintenance and sustainment. In exchange for their funds, US taxpayers acquire a fleet of over 300 fighter aircraft with a maximum speed of 1,060 knots, 800 knots with stealth capacity (i.e. effective invisibility to radar). The F-35 has a four-barrel 220-round cannon with stealth features. Two outer hard points carry pylons for AIM-9X sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles. The fighter aircraft can also carry the AGM-158 JASSM low observable stand-off air-launched cruise missile with a 1,000-pound armour-piercing warhead, each one of which costs up to US$1.4 million. That is a lot of money to destroy a second-hand pick-up truck in the Syrian desert that might be worth US$10,000. The F-35 may also carry GBU-59 enhanced Paveway II Mk81 250 pound enhanced dual-mode GPS and laser-guided bomb (unit cost unknown but several hundreds of thousands of US dollars); the so-called “naval strike missile”, a solid-fuel rocket booster micro turbo TRI-40 turbojet high subsonic sea skimming GPS terrain reference navigation infrared homing missile to be used against naval targets and land-based vehicles (unit cost in excess of US$1 million); a solid-state fibre laser under development by Lockheed that would use a variable spectral beam against targets; and a so-called high-speed strike weapon, under development by Boeing (such as a variant of the Boeing X-51 Waverider, a hypersonic scramjet aircraft for flight at Mach 5 that takes advantage of compression lift produced by its own shock waves). In a nod to the first cold war, the F-35 is also being developed to carry B61 low to intermediate-yield thermonuclear gravity bombs. Unfortunately the F-35, with a maximum flight speed of a mere Mach 1.6, will be unable to match the Minuteman-II LGM-30 ground-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, developed in the 1960’s, that can travel at Mach 23 (that is to say, some seven minutes between the United States and Moscow) and hence can reach any spot on earth an awful lot more quickly than a fighter plane. So it is not clear why anyone is bothering to spend the time and money to equip the F-35 with the capacity to carry nuclear bombs: except, of course, that it is hard to justify the production cost of the F-35 if its purpose is not in substantial part mobile nuclear deterrence.

Not to be outdone, Russia has developed the Mikoyan MIG-35 multirole 4++ generation super fighter, with a maximum speed of 1,500 knots. Carrying the Phazotron Zhuk-AE actively electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, that seeks to defeat the measures of stealth aircraft such as the F-35 to avoid radar detection, the MIG-35 will be capable of carrying the Kh-36 Grom-1 cruise missile, a tactical air-to-surface missile capable of travelling at Mach 2.2 and with a high-energy (HE) fragmentation cluster armour-piercing warhead of up to 550 pounds. The MIG -35 will carry the FGA-35 radar type, with a detection range of 250 km that can track up to 30 targets at any time, firing simultaneously at six air targets or four ground targets. Laser weaponry is also being designed for adoption on the aircraft. The MIG-35 is adaptable to carry cruise missiles and other weaponry manufactured internationally, so it offers itself as of more universal appeal than the F-35. The MIG-35 carries the RD-33OVT engine variant with two thrust-vectoring nozzles, that can thrust in two directions or planes simultaneously. That stands in contrast with other contemporary thrust-vectoring aircraft such as the Sukhoi Su-30MKI and the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, that have nozzles vectoring in only plane. In principle, the existence of two thrust-vectoring nozzles might allow an aircraft to land upside-down on the the sloping side of a mountain.

One ought not to detain oneself with aircraft that actually have pilots. The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (or Predator B) is an unmanned aerial vehicle used by the United States of Air Force with an endurance of up to 42 hours: something that no manned aircraft could hope to match. It is capable of carrying up to 500 pound laser-guided bombs and AGM-114 Hellfire Air to Surface missiles. It has an operational altitude of 50,000 feet, which makes it useful for long-term loitering operations: it can just fly around in circles until the target comes into sight, whereupon it dispenses its payload. Again not to be outdone, it is believed that the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) has developed a drone for military purposes, although the details of its use are obscure and have not been made public.

There are many other areas in which features of the second arms race can be divined. These include military exoskeletons for infantry troops; automated-fire machine guns (i.e. cannons that automatically detect targets and fire at them without human intervention being necessary), the idea being that they can be used at particularly controversial frontiers such as that between North and South Korea, and also in principle to be used on vessels to knock out incoming missiles; advanced torpedoes and other ship-launched munitions; increasingly sophisticated aircraft carriers; state-of the art tanks; small arms and munitions of increasing sophistication and variety; the list could go on indefinitely. Although there are no reliable figures for global expenditure upon military technology, it is obvious from the above that anticipated expenditure in the second arms race must at the very least be in the region of several trillions of dollars.

The logic of the second arms race is that, drones aside (contemporary drones are actually relatively slow, low-quality combat aircraft yet still perfectly adequate to knock out the proverbial Syrian pickup truck), seldom will this equipment be used one against the other. Firstly, it might get destroyed if actually used in combat where both sides are using equipment of the same sophistication; and it is so incredibly expensive that it must not be destroyed because the budget to replace the destroyed military equipment may not easily be available. Instead this equipment is designed, created, then re-designed and re-created so that the new group of Superpowers can engage one with the other in a contest of developing the latest state-of-the-art equipment and perpetually try to outdo one-another. The logic of the second arms race thus strikes a remarkable parallel with the Cold War period, in which the United States and the Soviet Union continued to develop ever more nuclear missiles and ever-increasingly ingenious ways of delivering those payloads (whether they be through bombers, submarines, silo-launched missiles or otherwise), long after each of the two sides had sufficient nuclear weapons to destroy both the other side and all of their allies. There always remained a continuing gap between one side and the other in military capacity, and that gap always had to be closed. Hence there was a sense of perpetual competition that in the disorderly logic of defence policy did a fairly good job of keeping the peace – at least relative to what had gone before during World War Two. That is what is happening in the development of evermore sophisticated aerial fighters, munitions, missiles, ships, tanks and everything else.

Yet there are some caveats to the foregoing logic. Firstly, the military-industrial complexes that compete to create all these new-fangled technological weapons will at some point inevitably insist upon using them. Secondly, and relatedly, the development of a second arms race, like the first, may result in disutility displacement rather than disutility elimination. In other words, Superpowers may not go to war with one-another any longer, but they may go back to fighting proxy wars so as to satisfy their military branches’ lust for conflict and hence to remind their governments that continued taxpayer funding for the military remains a regrettable necessity. This leads us back into counter-insurgency operations, that will inevitably use the ever more sophisticated technology that has been developed in the interim as part of the second arms race. So the newly sophisticated technology will still be used, to an extent.

In part, this is because international humanitarian law, itself representative in an admittedly inchoate sense of international public opinion, has developed to prescribe that the moral and legal standards by which the fighting of wars is to be undertaken are set by reference to the means available. Hence if technology permits precision bombing, then carpet bombing will become unacceptable. Therefore there is a moral entrenchment – a one-way ratchet – in which moral philosophy keeps up with technological development. The new arms race is in large part a race towards precision, because the international and domestic laws of war, as well as contemporary media coverage, mean that there can be no more Dresdens. The political costs of deaths are higher than ever, and hence the new weaponry must minimise deaths both on the part of innocent victims and also on the part of the powers using the weapons (which is the logic of drones – if one crashes or is destroyed then nobody dies, and hence the political cost of a failed airborne sortie is a fraction of that for a manned aircraft).

Another reason to use the weapons of the new arms race in proxy wars is to test them. There is no other way of using such weapons as are being relentlessly invented. And it is not an arms race unless you can establish whether your weapons are better than those of your opponents. Publishing manuals about how good they are is insufficient for this purpose; your weapons must be put on display. Russia’s recent use of technology in the Syrian war, including deployment of submarine-launched ballistic missiles from the Caspian Sea to hit targets in Syria hundreds of kilometres away, can barely be explained in any other terms. An incidental advantage of testing and displaying new technology in proxy wars is to advertise one’s military equipment to prospective purchasers.

There is another potential, and perhaps surprising, advantage to the new arms race. Although all this new technology may cost (a lot of) money, it may represent a saving in terms of kilogrammes of munition on target. In other words, precision military technology may save money because there it does not need to be used in such great quantities. During the bombing of Dresden, there was an ostensible military need to flatten the city because precision bombing barely existed. Flattening cities was the only method of effective bombing; the option of focusing one’s bombs upon facilities that would degrade the enemy militarily without imposing enormous civilian casualties was not a technological option. There may also be an advantage in terms of the size of standing armies that need to be recruited, maintained and paid for. The new British state-of-the-art aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth II, may cost GBP3 billion. But the number of crew needed to operate her is fewer than 700 for a vessel that can operate some 50 aircraft, compared to some 3,200 crew to operate the USS Carl Vinson, a US aircraft carrier constructed in the late 1970’s with a capacity of some 90 aircraft. In part, technological advancement leads to efficiencies in personnel use as well as In equipment, by reason of automation. It is, after all, costly to recruit military personnel expected to engage in missions such as spending months at sea on a vessel that inevitably involve substantial hardship. In purely numerical terms, the British navy is at its smallest historical size. There is no need for so many standing troops anymore.

Counter-insurgency theory may to a degree have represented an abnormality, because it developed during a period in which there was only one Superpower. Therefore arms races, which history has always been replete with, became unnecessary in the sense that there was nobody for the United States to have a race with. Nevertheless counter-insurgency theory may be reflective of a mistaken philosophy, in the sense that if any Superpower makes a strategic error in entering another country’s territory to initiate a civil conflict or participate in a pre-existing one, then there is no manual or other level of skill one can use to deflate the strategic error one has made. If a Superpower invades a non-Superpower to replace its minority government with a majoritarian one, and then finds to its dismay that the act of doing this results in national and regional instability that locks the nation into a seemingly interminable war in a country in which the Superpower has no long-term strategic interest, then no level of theorising about counter-insurgency is going to help the Superpower out of the problem it has immersed itself. This lesson is now commonly accepted in respect of events as historically distant as the Vietnam War, but it may take some level of time to come to be appreciated in respect of more contemporary conflicts such as those taking place in the Middle East.

In this context the progress from the counter-insurgency theory to a second arms race, itself directly stimulated by the emergence of new economic superpowers that then aspired to acquire equivalent military status and who thus could race with one-another, may also represent a maturity in contemporary defence policy across the world. Arms races have been proven to keep the peace in the sense that once the race results in a substantial risk of mutually assured destruction because weapons become so powerful and effective if they are ever used to their full capacity. They may also prove to be the most effective means of fighting proxy wars and engaging invasions. But arms races, and military theories, are no substitute for wisdom and discernment in military strategy. If it is a strategic error for a Superpower to participate in a conflict, then an arms race is no better a method of buying oneself out of the error than is a counter-insurgency manual.

One final point to bear in mind is that arms races typically come to an end. The last arms race came to an end because it become relatively too expensive for one side (the Soviet Union) to pursue against the other (the United States). That is because, at its fundaments, the United States had a more sustainable underlying economy with which to pay for the arms race. This was a relatively benign end to an arms race, even though the consequence was the economic collapse of the Soviet Union and all the hardship that this placed upon the people of the countries that emerged from the Union’s concomitant political collapse. Compare the end of that arms race, however, the conclusion of the arms race that ran from the Congress of Berlin until 1914. The end of that arms race was World War One, which condemned tens of millions to death and serious injury. One unanswered question with which this work might conclude is to query how one best structures an arms race so that it ends purely in state insolvency rather than in global conflict. Maybe all future arms races are destined to be resolved only by insolvency, by reason of the fact that the destructive power of contemporary weapons has in principle, and notwithstanding the race towards precision, reached such heights that global conflict is now unthinkable. Nevertheless, everyone thought global conflict unthinkable after the assassination of an obscure Austro-Hungarian nobleman in Sarajevo in June 2014.

To attempt to say much more in this context is an attempt to predict the future, and in all likelihood we should try to avoid doing this. Nobody has ever succeeded. History never has come to an end. All we can do is in observing the second arms race, to exercise the utmost vigilance and urge upon our political representatives the utmost restraint.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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