Thomas Mahnken, Joseph Maiolo, David Stevenson, eds. Arms Races in International Politics: From the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 304 pp. $100.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-873526-7.
Reviewed by James J. Wirtz (Naval Postgraduate School)
Published on H-Diplo (September, 2016)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
In the introduction to this collection of finely crafted essays, Joseph Maiolo notes that scholarly interest in the concept and study of arms races has declined since the end of the Cold War. With the significant reduction in the size of the Soviet (Russian) and US nuclear arsenals since the late 1980s, and their relatively modest efforts at nuclear modernization, the term “arms race” is today mostly bantered about by disarmament advocates as they rail against virtually any type of defense expenditure. Nevertheless, new archival research and the looming prospect of rapid technological, economic, social, and political change produced by the impact of Moore’s Law offers the contributors both the opportunity and incentive to explore the origins, course, and outcome of a host of arms races that have unfolded from the late nineteenth century to the present. Their collective endeavor offers not only important observations about specific arms races but also new theoretical insights into the phenomena of the arms race itself. This well-conceived collection also contains new details about the major arms competitions that influence how political scientists and historians think about the relationship between arms racing and war.
The editors begin by surveying three theoretical approaches to arms races that have waxed and waned in popularity over time. The first posits that technological momentum propels arms races as competitors vie for advantages by leapfrogging their opponents to deploy game-changing weapons systems. The second posits that domestic forces—capitalism, militarism, authoritarianism, the “military-industrial complex,” or even bureaucratic imperatives—lead to the production of ever-growing numbers of increasingly sophisticated weapons. The third posits that competitors become locked into a self-perpetuating “action-reaction” cycle that is generally accompanied by an increase in international tension that often culminates in war. The contributors then put this framework to good use by offering judgments about which theory best characterizes the particular arms race they consider, while also offering the all-important observation about whether or not a specific arms race served as a surrogate for war or actually was a critical factor in the outbreak of hostilities.
As David Stevenson notes in the conclusion of the volume, none of these theoretical approaches offered a particularly compelling or comprehensive explanation of the arms races surveyed by the contributors. Not only do the factors influencing arms competitions change over time, but none of the theories could really account for various twists and turns in specific arms races. The history, in certain incidents or in terms of the collective narrative provided by the authors, did not fit neatly into the theoretical framework supplied by the editors. Arms races are complex. Their origins can be innocuous and they can evolve in unanticipated ways as they are shaped by changing internal and external forces and action-reaction dynamics. Arms races, moreover, do not inevitably end in war. Sergey Radchenko’s and Vojtech Mastny’s chapters describing the Soviet role in the Cold War arms race highlight Mikhail Gorbachev’s very deliberate decision not to engage in a new round of arms competition with the United States. Gorbachev believed that the USSR was incapable of matching the information-age military systems being fielded by the United States and that the Soviets were destined to fall further behind their American rivals. In other words, the Cold War came to an end when one party decided to throw in the towel in the Cold War arms race. Yet recognition that an arms race has been lost does not guarantee the peace: on the eve of World War I, notes Matthew Seligmann, the Germans recognized that the Anglo-German naval race was a bust and had to be abandoned. War followed.
Two observations advanced by the contributors, however, should give readers special reason to pause and consider our current circumstances. First, Thomas Mahnken notes that the information-enabled, precision-guided military on display in the first Gulf War was an outgrowth of a US effort to defeat the Warsaw Pact along the central front, but that the demonstration of such overwhelming military superiority sent a signal that Beijing and Moscow could not ignore. Chinese interest in developing an anti-access and area denial capabilities thus appears as a logical effort to counter advanced US capabilities that were never developed with Beijing in mind. Mahnken also notes that Chinese armaments production has taken on a life of its own as institutional and business interests work to secure more resources for the procurement of large numbers of evermore sophisticated weapons. Although the situation has not become critical, Mahnken warns that in fact the stage might be set for an arms race between Washington and Beijing.
Second, Richard Overy’s description of the interwar aviation industry might in fact be a harbinger of things to come. Only four years elapsed between the time when the US Navy generated the specifications for its first monoplane fighter, the Brewster Buffalo, and the German drafting of the specifications for the ME-262 jet fighter. Such technological leapfrogging produced staggering results. For instance, the Brewster Buffalos that rose in defense of Midway Island in June 1942 just about all got shot out of the sky by Japanese Zeroes, which benefited from technological and design advances that occurred between 1935 and 1937. Given the technological churn created by the impact of Moore’s Law on a variety of industries, militaries everywhere face the prospect of bloc obsolescence as new weapons, operations, and systems-of-systems emerge on future battlefields. The aviators during the interwar period in fact might have been better positioned to integrate new technologies into the battle space—after all, increasingly sophisticated aircraft still relied on pilots and more or less traditional tactics to be effective. Today, it is more difficult to anticipate exactly where and how innovation will take place. Additionally, the exigencies of wartime created lightning fast procurement cycles compared to the glacial pace of today’s procurement processes. Indeed, if a technologically driven arms race emerges globally, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the party that can first innovatively incorporate commonly available technology into their force structure will win the race. But if officers believe that the future will resemble the past—a factor that Mahnken alludes to in his chapter on the post-Cold War impact of the revolution in military affairs—then they will be reluctant to discard today’s weapons to exploit innovations. The fact that the US Navy remains preoccupied with building aircraft carriers—ships that have a service life conceivably extending into the twenty-second century—is not particularly reassuring.
Here, indeed, lies our future predicament. As new technologies emerge, and new opportunities for the use of this technology in war become apparent, defense establishments will face an important decision: when is the appropriate time to go “all in” when it comes to putting a new type of weapon into production? In other words, should one wait for new developments in the hopes of leapfrogging a potential opponent, or should one put existing technologies into production to maximize combat capability in the short term? In this type of technologically driven arms race, timing is key. If war breaks out, it becomes imperative that one arrives on the battlefield with the absolutely most advanced technology available while catching one’s opponent in the cycle between last year’s design and the deployment of the next war-winning weapon. Guess right and you fly the Zero, guess wrong and it is a long swim back to Midway.
. A somewhat different way to make the same point is to note that the Brewster Buffalo apparently had the best kill ratio (26-1) of any World War II fighter. It achieved this splendid record while being employed by the Finnish air force against profoundly obsolete Soviet aircraft.
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James J. Wirtz. Review of Mahnken, Thomas; Maiolo, Joseph; Stevenson, David, eds., Arms Races in International Politics: From the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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