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Far from a Russian-U.S. arms race

The US shouldn't give credence to Putin's rhetoric.

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With a stridency reminiscent of the cold war, outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin charged last month that with US plans for a limited defense against ballistic missiles, "a new arms race has been unleashed in the world." He vowed to field new weapons, which have been under development for years, "in response." The same day, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he anticipated "hundreds of thousands of missile interceptors all over the world ... in the foreseeable future."

Both claims are wrong. Despite a near universal belief to the contrary, the "action-reaction-upward-spiraling strategic weapons race" of the cold war never really happened. And Lavrov's hundreds of thousands of missile interceptors won't happen either.

The idea that the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in an arms race that led to reciprocal increases in nuclear weapons, steadily rising strategic budgets and an escalating danger of nuclear war was widely accepted during the cold war.

But as is often the case with conventional wisdom, little serious research was done to establish whether it was true. The most important exception was the work of the late Albert Wohlstetter, America's preeminent strategic thinker. In a 1976 article Wohlstetter demonstrated that US and Soviet strategic weapons programs were largely independent of each other and that the number, explosive power, and cost of American nuclear weapons had peaked years earlier and had been declining ever since, even as Soviet programs had expanded significantly.

Using the same data that had been available to the many academics and politicians who unquestioningly accepted the existence of a deadly arms race, Wohlstetter argued that it would be foolish in principle for us to respond in kind to every Soviet development. He argued for building only the strategic forces we needed, and reducing their number and explosive power. He believed that nuclear weapons had only a limited, defensive role to play in a carefully designed strategic posture and that a policy of seeking safety in threats to destroy whole countries in retaliation was neither credible nor moral.

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