Arms Race and Cold War

  • Arm race is intense competition between Powers or groups of Powers, each hoping to achieve an advantage in military power by increasing the quantity or improving the quality of its armaments or armed forces. The term is often used quite loosely to refer to any type of military buildup or spending increased finances on military capability by a group of countries. The competitive nature of this buildup often reflects an adversarial relationship between the two powers.

Arms race during Cold War

  • Usage of atomic bomb
    • USA was the first country to create nuclear weapon and so far the only country that has used nuclear weapon. President Truman did not inform Stalin that the atomic bomb was going to be used. This created mistrust. USA wanted to show that it was stronger than the USSR, and vice-versa. This competitive nature led to an arms race – not only to become the strongest, but also the most able and intelligent.
    • In 1952, USA tested hydrogen bomb. In 1961, USSR tested Tsar Bomb (the king of bombs). The largest nuclear device so far.
  • Missile technology
    • Both sides competed with each other to obtain more nuclear weapons than the other. They also tried to develop more powerful weapons. The USA believed there was a ‘Missile Gap’ in the 1950s and massively increased spending to try to catch up. The first atomic bombs were delivered by bombers, but these could be slow and there would have to be airbases positioned around the world. Both the USSR and USA began to develop missile technology that could put rockets in space. This opened up new possibilities for the delivery of nuclear weapons.
    • During cold war, countries develop ICBMs, a way to achieve nuclear deterrence by massive retaliation.
  • Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)
    • Nicknamed ‘Star Wars’ by the American media. In 1983, President Reagan announced research into SDI. This initiative would give the USA the ability to destroy nuclear missiles from space. The USSR saw this as a major threat, as it would allow the USA to achieve a First Strike. Because of financial and technological constraints, this never became a reality.

Examples of Arms race

  • Between UK and Germany– One example of an arms race can be understood through relations between Germany and Britain prior to World War I. In the early 20th century, Germany, which was a rising power at that time, sought to challenge the UK’s traditional naval dominance.
    • In 1906 Britain launched a new and more-advanced warship- the HMS Dreadnought, which triggered a naval arms race between Germany and UK. Between 1909 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Britain launched a further 19 dreadnoughts ships and along with them also nine battle cruisers.
    • At the same time, responding to all these, Germany also launched 13 dreadnoughts and five battle cruisers in the same time period. This arms race is often considered as one of the major causes of World War I.
  • Between USA & USSR- Similarly, the Cold War nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union can also be considered as another example of a 20th-century arms race.
    • The US’ use of nuclear weapons to end World War II led to a determined and willful effort by the Soviet Union to acquire such weapons too. It followed a very long-running nuclear arms race between the two superpowers- USA & USSR.
    • Here, The Soviet Union conducted its earliest nuclear test in 1949. By the end of 1956, the United States had more than 2,100 strategic warheads and closely following Soviet Union had 84 of them. Those numbers kept on increasing rapidly over the next 30 years.
    • The U.S. arsenal reached its peaked in 1967 where it had more than 31,000 warheads, and gradually the Soviet arsenal peaked about 20 years later reaching at more than 40,000. Finally, the end of the Cold War by the early 1990s ended that arms race.
  • Between India and Pakistan– India and Pakistan, South Asia’s nuclear neighbors, conducted 26 missile tests in 2021, making it a year of intense arms rivalry. While India tested 16 ballistic and cruise missiles, Pakistan tested 10 missiles with nearly identical capabilities in a tit-for-tat response. This equates to two missile tests in a month.
  • Middle east arms race– The first Gulf state to sign up to normalisation, the United Arab Emirates, has edged closer to getting a prized fighter jet from the US. And Israel, already the region’s most advanced military power, may consequently bristle with yet more powerful arms. The US administration views such potential sales as helping tilt the power balance further towards its regional allies and against Iran, which it sees as a global threat and seeks to isolate. Yet it is rattling nerves in the Middle East, with warnings of a new cycle of proliferation and fears of more bloodshed in corners of the region where big powers fight proxy wars.
  • There is effort by North Korea to strengthen its deterrence and by Iran to acquire deterrence.
  • There is fear of nuclear terrorism. Thus the present arms race has become multipolar, along with complex interdependence. It is showing the typical features of post modern world.

India and the Arms Race

  • India has also started new arms race in South Asia. India has entered into deal with Russia to acquire S400 Triumph missile defence system. So far, the most advanced air defence system which can engage multiple targets at the same time. It has capacity to engage up till 36 targets at the same time at speed faster than the most fighter aircrafts.
  • It has special panoramic radar which can detect the threat as far as 600km away and can engage the target at the range of 400kms.
  • India is also acquiring Barak 8, long range surface to Air missile system, crucial for Indian navy. It is important as China is increasing its presence in Indian ocean. Similarly Triumph will cover most of Pakistan. However China is also buying 6 Triumphs to be deployed against USA.
  • INS Arihant is now operationally ready.

There is fear of nuclear terrorism. Thus the present arms race has become multipolar, along with complex interdependence. It is showing the typical features of post modern world.

Consequences of arms race

  • Arms races are frequently regarded as negative occurrences in both economic and security terms. Large-scale arms acquisitions require considerable economic resources. If two countries spend large sums of money just to cancel out each other’s efforts, the expenditure might well be seen as wasted.
  • There is, however, considerable debate surrounding the economic effect of military spending. Some argue that it provides benefits through technological spin-offs, job creation, and infrastructure development. Others argue that it displaces more-productive forms of investment, while its final output is not itself productive.
  • Certainly, countries that must import arms will see more negative economic effects of an arms race, and arms imports are a major contributor to debt in the developing world. Even for arms-producing countries, excessive military expenditure is likely eventually to have negative economic consequences.
  • An arms race may heighten fear and hostility on the part of the countries involved, but whether this contributes to war is hard to gauge. Some empirical studies do find that arms races are associated with an increased likelihood of war.
  • One may also consider the gains for a country that “wins” an arms race in the sense of gaining a decisive military advantage. Arguably, the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left the United States as the sole global superpower, was partly due to the cost of attempting to keep up with the United States.


  • Disarmament is the process of reducing or eliminating military forces and weapons through cooperation, treaties, and oversight.
  • Disarmament is not something that can be easily defined in a few words. In truth, there are four key parts to it:
    1. Reduction in quantity of military items
    2. Formal meeting and treaty to achieve
    3. Emphasis on weapons and tools
    4. Body or group overseeing the process
  • These four parts lead to a detailed definition, and a detailed plan of action as well. Disarmament is usually focused on weapons, but can include other areas, such as tools and technologies.

Role of UN

  • The United Nations (U.N.) has been a mediator in arms reduction since the 1960s. They pass resolutions (formal statements of their position), have special committees focused solely on negotiating for disarmament, and have special units that oversee and help with the process.

Why is disarmament needed?

  • This contribution of disarmament to the realization of ‘peace within and between societies, including equality and non-discrimination, justice and the rule of law and freedom from fear and want’ is not limited to, but is most obvious in relation to so-called ‘humanitarian disarmament’ – multilateral disarmament and weapons control measures grounded in humanitarian principles.
  • Disarmament practice can also help support the international rule of law. This is perhaps most obvious where the rule of law is under most strain. In their reactions to the use of chemical weapons and recent threats to use nuclear weapons, many States emphatically reaffirmed their commitment to a rules-based international system.
  • Disarmament processes offer an important chance for transformation towards more peaceful and less violent ways of resolving conflicts. They do so by changing the perception of threats in the relations between actors and by building confidence.
    • The transformative potential of disarmament will, ultimately, depend on its capacity to foster an understanding and a conviction that violence-free relations and peaceful conflict resolution are possible and sustainable.
  • Disarmament mechanisms contribute to the institutionalization of a cooperative security order – a system of collective security. Disarmament institutions can promote multilateralism, uphold the rule of law and develop and maintain norms for the common good.
    • As is well known, however, the multilateral disarmament machinery suffers from critical shortcomings, including in terms of diversity.

Points in Favour of Disarmament and Arms Control-

  1. Just like Armaments lead to War, similarly disarmament can lead to Peace– every people on the world want peace and there is a common belief that since armaments lead to war, disarmament can lead to peace.
    • Armaments have in the past led to armament race and armament race have gradually led to the advent of war. Hence armaments directly cause the war and thus by eliminating the cause through disarmament, war can be eliminated for once and all. For example- the Arms Trade Treaty, adopted in 2013, which, among other objectives, aims to prevent arms transfers that could be used to ‘commit or facilitate a serious violation of international human rights law’
    • Disarmament constituents a direct appeal and prospect to peace and here arms control constitutes advance measures and remedies against the war. Armaments are believed to aggravate tension and fear among different nations.
  2. Armaments lead to Militarization which leads to War– It is believed that the process of armaments make war not only physically possible because of prominence of weapons available, but also politically probable.
    • Armaments encourage militarism and militarism further leads to tensions and fear among smaller countries. Rather than creating a sense of security among them, armaments create a feeling of insecurity. It gives rise to mutual jealousy and rivalry among different nations and thereby making the situation tensed enough to get countries involved in wars and armed conflicts.
  3. Disarmament may also reduce many tensions in International Relations- it is a famous proverb that, destruction of instruments of war can help in securing peace among nations. Thus, by ending the instrumentalities of war, the process of disarmament can end war.
    • It is largely believed that by doing away with one of the typical manifestations of the struggle for power on the international scene, one can do away with the typical efforts of that struggle international anarchy which often leads to war.
  4. Economic Arguments– through the process of disarmament, the humankind can save a very large amount of funds and finances, which is currently being wasted on the fruitless and dangerous production of weapons.
    • These funds can be used for human welfare and developmental purposes of the backward sections of society. It can release huge financial resources which can be used for securing the developmental needs of all the people of world.
  5. It is a Universal Objective– the present craze for acquiring more weapons is further aggravating the MAD situation and is thus making humankind more and more dependent upon war machines.
    • It has increased the emergence of risk of an all-destructive accidental war.
    • It is also a recognized fact that when machines start ruling men, they might escape control and run rampant.
    • The growing dangers of modern electronic warfare might be the biggest danger to humankind from an accidental war leading to total destruction of the mankind itself.
    • Therefore, the need is to take timely action in the Favour of Disarmament and Arms Control which will lead to saving the humankind from the present dangerously posed MAD situation in international relations.


  • Arms races is frequently regarded as a negative occurrence in both-economic and security terms. Large-scale weapons acquisitions require considerable economic resources. If at any time, two large countries spend large sums of money just to cancel out each other’s efforts, the resultant expenditure might well be seen as wasted.
  • However, there is considerable debate surrounding the economic effect of military spending. Some scholars argue that it provides benefits through technological advancement, increase in job creation, and large-scale infrastructure development.
  • Some argue that it leads to displacement of more-productive forms of investment, while its final output is not itself any productive. Certainly, those countries that must import arms will see more negative economic effects of rising of an arms race, and arms imports are surely a major contributor to debt in the developing world.
  • Even for arms-producing nations, excessive military expenditure is likely to have negative economic consequences in the long term. The USSR’s economic difficulties were certainly visible by the very high proportion of the gross domestic product devoted to the arms race in 1980’s, which ultimately led to the decline of USR.

Steps taken to control arms race

  • India has spent the 12 years since its 1998 nuclear tests operationalizing “credible minimum deterrence.” This process has involved steps such as building a warhead stockpile, establishing robust command and control, and developing, testing, and deploying reliable delivery vehicles of requisite ranges.
  • Multilateral nuclear arms control, such as through the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) or a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), could be an effective tool for constraining capabilities of the adversaries.
  • At the bilateral level, it would enable India to nudge the strategic stability architecture into a form that suits it best. Bilateral initiatives with China and Pakistan could enhance deterrence stability. If agreements could be formalized as treaties, they would carry the weight of law, making it easier to invoke international action in case of violations.


  • People have been hoping for disarmament and trying to control weapons and armed forces for thousands of years. Yet weapons systems have been modernized again and again as spending on arms rises. True, history has repeatedly seen breakthroughs by these efforts to agree arrangements on disarmament and arms control.
  • But the world is still far from achieving anything like the goal of “general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”, to which almost every country committed itself in 1968 by signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.


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