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An arms race occurs when two or more nations compete in increases in military personnel and materiel. Simply defined as a competition between two or more states to have superior armed forces; a competition concerning production of weapons, the growth of a military, and the aim of superior military technology. The term is also used to describe any long-term escalating competitive situation where each competitor focuses on out-doing the others.
The existing scholarly literature is divided as to whether arms races are correlated with war. International relations scholars explain arms races with the security dilemma, rationalist spiral models, states with revisionist aims, and deterrence models.
1909 cartoon in Puck
shows (clockwise) US, Germany, Britain, France and Japan engaged in naval race in a "no limit" game.
The size and power of battleships grew rapidly before, during, and after World War I: a result of competitive shipbuilding among a number of naval powers, brought to an end by the Washington Naval Treaty
From 1897 to 1914, a naval arms race between the United Kingdom and Germany took place. British concern about rapid increase in German naval power resulted in a costly building competition of Dreadnought-class ships. This tense arms race lasted until 1914, when the war broke out. After the war, a new arms race developed among the victorious Allies, which was temporarily ended by the Washington Naval Treaty.
In addition to the British and Germans, contemporaneous but smaller naval arms races also broke out between Russia and the Ottoman Empire; the Ottomans and Greece; France and Italy; the United States and Japan in the 1930s; and Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.
Nuclear arms race
This contest of the advancement of offensive nuclear capabilities occurred during the Cold War, an intense period between the Soviet Union and the United States and some other countries. This was one of the main causes that began the cold war, and perceived advantages of the adversary by both sides (such as the "missile gap" and “bomber gap”) led to large spending on armaments and the stockpiling of vast nuclear arsenals. Proxy wars were fought all over the world (e.g. in the Middle East, Korea, Vietnam) in which the superpowers' conventional weapons were pitted against each other. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, tensions decreased and the nuclear arsenal of both countries were reduced.
Charles Glaser argues that numerous cases of arms races were suboptimal, as they entailed a waste of resources, damaged political relations, increased the probability of war, and hindered states in accomplishing their goals. However, arms races can be optimal for security-seeking states in situations when the offense-defense balance favors offense, when a declining state faces a rising adversary, and when advances in technology make existing weapons obsolete for the power that had an advantage in the existing weaponry.
An evolutionary arms race is a system where two populations are evolving in order to continuously one-up members of the other population. This concept is related to the Red Queen's Hypothesis, where two organisms co-evolve to overcome each other but each fails to progress relative to the other interactant.
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.
More generically, the term 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 with neither side gaining an advantage over the other.
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- Bruhn, Jürgen. 1995. Der Kalte Krieg oder: Die Totrüstung der Sowjetunion. Gießen: Focus ISBN 3-88349-434-8 (in German)
- Intriligator, Michael D., and Dagobert L. Brito. "Can arms races lead to the outbreak of war?." Journal of Conflict Resolution 28.1 (1984): 63–84. online
- Mitchell, David F., and Jeffrey Pickering. 2018. "Arms Buildups and the Use of Military Force." In Cameron G. Thies, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Foreign Policy Analysis, vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 61–71.
- Smith, Theresa Clair. "Arms race instability and war." Journal of Conflict resolution 24.2 (1980): 253–284.