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The term arms race, in its original usage, describes a competition between two or more parties for real or apparent military supremacy. Each party competes to produce larger numbers of weapons, greater armies, or superior military technology in a technological escalation. Nowadays the term is commonly used to describe any competition where there is no absolute goal, only the relative goal of staying ahead of the other competitors.

Examples of arms races

See also: Causes of World War I

In the historical period preceding World War I, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom, France, and Austria-Hungary all strived to build up their respective armies. The theory behind this buildup was to deter other nations from an attack by threatening many more losses than would be worth the potential gains from a war. This strategy served to increase tensions in Europe and led to the formation of alliances and the utilization of defensive stategy. Many theorists cite the beginning of World War I as a direct result of the military buildup by many European nations.[citation needed]

Lewis Fry Richardson devised an arms race model, trying to retrodict World War I, in which he posited that two countries would go to war if more money was spent on an arms race than in trade.[citation needed]

At the geopolitical level of the 20th century, the United States and the Soviet Union developed more and better nuclear weapons during the Cold War (see: Nuclear arms race). Immediately after World War II, the United States was behind the Soviet Union in the area of intermediate range missiles, but they managed to catch up with the help of German scientists. The Soviet Union committed their command economy to the arms race and, with the deployment of the SS-18 in the late 1970s, achieved first strike parity. At the peak of the arms race in the late 60s and early 70s both the United States and the Soviet union were spending $70-80 billion each on nuclear weapons. The United States had the ability to spend money more easily than the Soviet Union because it did not suffer the destruction during the war that the Soviet Union did. The Soviet Union did not have the ability to sustain the arms race with the United States because in doing so it was depriving its citizens of basic consumer goods. The strain of competition against the great spending power of the United States created enormous economic problems during Mikhail Gorbachev's attempt at konversiya, the transition to a consumer based mixed economy and hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. Because the two powers were competing with each other instead of aiming for a predefined goal, both nations soon acquired a huge capacity for overkill.

Other uses

More generically, the term "arms race" is used to describe any competition where there is no absolute goal, only the relative goal of staying ahead of the other competitors in rank or knowledge. An arms race may also imply futility as the competitors spend a great deal of time and money, yet end up in the same situation as if they had never started the arms race.

An evolutionary arms race is a system where two populations are evolving in order to continuously one-up members of the other population.

This is related to the Red Queen effect, where two populations are co-evolving to overcome each other but are failing to make absolute progress.

In technology, there are close analogues to the arms races between parasites and hosts, such as the arms race between computer virus writers and antivirus software writers, or spammers against Internet service providers and E-mail software writers, or between large companies, a possible example being Apple Inc. and Microsoft.


  • Richard J. Barnet: Der amerikanische Rüstungswahn. Rowohlt, Reinbek 1984, ISBN 3-499-11450-X (German)
  • Jürgen Bruhn: Der Kalte Krieg oder: Die Totrüstung der Sowjetunion. Focus, Gießen 1995, ISBN 3-88349-434-8 (German)


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