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Commentary | 9 February 2021

The arms race in emerging technologies: A critical perspective

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Ryan R. Swan |California Representative on the Peace Action Committee of the Green Party of the United States

Image of Haig Hovaness

Haig Hovaness |New York Representative and Secretary of the Peace Action Committee of the Green Party of the United States

Arms Control Emerging technologies Global Security

Growing arms racing in emerging technologies does not advance its desired goals of achieving strategic advantage and enhancing deterrence. In fact, it is strategically suspect, gratuitously risky and economically wasteful. Europe can – and should – play a leading role in encouraging restraint and advancing needed arms control in the high-tech sphere.


Since the dawn of civilization there has been competition among nations in pursuit of superior weaponry. The race for ever greater weapon destructive power culminated in the development of nuclear weapons. This quest, motivated by age-old logic that superior force translates into battlefield success, encountered a dead end when mutually assured destruction took hold during the Cold War. Strategists quickly recognised a credibility problem with threatening the use of mutually-devastating force in response to minor provocations.

The preferred workaround, exemplified by the Kennedy Administration’s flexible response policy, was to retain the pursuit of superior force, albeit in modified form. Instead of concentrating on nuclear superiority in now infeasible total war, the nuclear powers shifted focus to achieving the conventional upper hand in lower-level, more ‘fightable’ conflict settings.

Considerable capital was invested in a conventional military buildup with corresponding strategies for careful escalation management. This led to the cultivation of impressive non-nuclear warfighting capabilities, including advanced precision-guided munitions, which the US demonstrated with intimidating success in the First Gulf War. However, post-Soviet Russia and ascendent China began to catch up with sophisticated conventional capabilities of their own enabling them to carry out devastating attacks on US military bases and logistics networks. Additionally, they developed new strategies to challenge the US in the so-called ‘grey zone’ below the level of overt conventional warfare.

To summarize the current strategic state of affairs: nuclear war remains an unwinnable dead end, despite reinvigorated major power nuclear competition. Meanwhile, the continual advancement of conventional capabilities has dramatically increased the speed of potential armed conflict and the likelihood of sustaining serious losses and damage to critical assets earlier in conflict scenarios, frustrating escalation management. As such, conventional war between major powers is now too becoming growingly infeasible and strategists are being forced to confront a quandary similar to the one they faced six decades ago when nuclear war became unfightable.

The new high-tech arms race

Where their predecessors turned to conventional arms buildups, today’s major power strategists are similarly initiating a new arms race – this time in the weaponization of emerging technologies, like artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, directed energy, cyber warfare, orbital systems, and more. Though the capabilities sought are new, the objectives of this competitive, arms race-based strategy are old: secure competitive advantages and strengthen deterrence by curbing lower-level challenges.

Numerous analysts and observers have raised concerns about the effects of this course of action. They have pointed to the possibility of military cyber advancements undercutting strategic stability by impairing adversary nuclear command and control systems, to AI applications incentivizing first strikes and to the growing risk of inadvertent escalation through “entanglement” of grey zone meddling with critical early warning system assets.

These analysts highlight important concerns, but they tend to focus on the effects of arms racing decisions and less on the questionable nature of the underlying strategic thinking guiding them. Some direct fundamental questions are too infrequently asked – is arms racing in emerging technologies a sound strategy? Does it enable the attainment of strategic advantage? Does it strengthen deterrence? And is it an effective use of massive expenditures? We use the US as our primary subject for exploring these questions, though they are equally applicable to the other powers and states entering the high-tech fray.

As the US Third Offset Strategy and 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) make clear, a core objective of competitive development in emerging technologies is the achievement of strategic advantage. The NSS refers to this as “overmatch,” or “the combination of capabilities in sufficient scale to prevent enemy success and to ensure that America’s sons and daughters will never be in a fair fight.” Despite its unprecedented defence spending, however, the US prospect of securing durable advantages, just like those of its fellow competitors, is illusory.

Just as the historical record shows in the nuclear and conventional arms race contexts, any advantage one state is able to carve out in the gamut of emerging technologies will almost certainly be ephemeral. The party that initially exploits a technical breakthrough in weapons design makes it easier for a competitor to field a comparable weapon. Particularly with modern advanced computing and accelerating additive manufacturing capacities, the first mover will only be providing proof of feasibility and general design information, however carefully this is guarded, which will allow adversaries to expeditiously develop comparable capabilities or asymmetric counters. Furthermore, unlike during the Cold War, competitors today, like the US and China, are better economically matched such that the prospect of outspending – and, thus, outracing – rivals is not realistic.

It is commonly argued that great power competition demands competitive arms development, but it should be noted that, in this context, there is a significant range of competitive intensity. In the US, the NSS and Joint Vision 2020 make clear that maximal superiority, expressed in terms of “overmatch” and “full spectrum dominance,” is the goal. This aggressive posture gives military establishments in Russia and China cover for correspondingly ambitious, high-tech weapons programs, creating a vicious cycle of perpetual arms racing. To mitigate the costs and dangers of this chimeric quest for dominance, arms competition should be constrained by rational calculus – not only by the finite nature of national funding resources. While it is hypothetically possible that clandestine weapons programs could deliver strategic surprises, modern surveillance technologies make any deployment of these secret capabilities very difficult.

If arms racing fails to yield durable competitive advantages, does it strengthen deterrence? Deterrence credibility is a function of capability and will. Arms racing strategies tend to focus myopically on the former while neglecting the latter. Formal theoretical analysis shows that the party with greater resolve (higher risk threshold) has the advantage, and analysts acknowledge that it is “undoubtedly true” that US competitors, like China, enjoy asymmetry of interest in potential conflict hotspots inevitably located in their more immediate geographical regions.

That a strategy of increasing risk through progressively advanced capability development will enhance deterrence in a world where challengers possess similarly advancing capabilities, but different risk tolerances, is far from clear. The failure of US deterrence strategy to deter Chinese salami-slicing in the South China Sea is illustrative of this fundamental asymmetry of interest problem.

The above strategic questions aside, is high-tech arms racing economically sound? There is a powerful critique of unchecked high-tech arms racing based on development risk and misallocation of defence resources. High-tech weapons are notable for difficult engineering challenges, great complexity and reliance on computer technology. Thus, such weapons development programs frequently exceed their budgeted costs and fail to meet completion schedules. Perverse incentives exist for arms vendors to promise unrealistic system deliverables, then request additional time and money to attain program goals.

Government sponsors of ambitious weapons programs are often politically trapped because their prestige is tied to program success, and cancellation of a mismanaged program reflects badly on their leadership. As a result, sponsors of troubled programs typically capitulate by providing additional funding, extending delivery schedules and relaxing program requirements. In the US, the problem-ridden F-35 fighter jet serves as a ready example. Over-budget programs also have the negative effect of diverting resources away from basic force sustainment functions, such as training, maintenance and supply logistics.


High-tech arms racing is a manifestation of deeply entrenched dogma that does not stand the test of strategic efficacy in the modern era. Like nuclear and conventional arms racing before it, arms racing in emerging technologies is strategically suspect, needlessly risky and economically wasteful. As the US, China and Russia become ever more embroiled in this burgeoning competition, Europe has a chance to assert itself as the champion of reason and lead the needed global charge for restraint and effective arms control in the high-tech sphere. Because Europe is relatively free of influential monolithic defence establishments, as compared with the US, Russia and China, it has greater political latitude in pursuing diplomatic and technical measures to constrain high-tech arms racing.

German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, has already proposed taking important initial steps in this direction. Mr Maas has highlighted the need for “rules” governing the increasing autonomy of advanced high-tech weapons systems under development, as well as “universal norms and standards in cyberspace.” Likening the implications of an unbridled high-tech arms race to the “ills of mankind” flowing from an opened Pandora’s Box, Mr Maas has called for “frank and serious dialogue on the future of arms control” involving “parliamentarians and government representatives, as well as thinks tanks, researchers, military experts, and industry representatives.”

While constraining military applications of emerging technologies will inevitably be challenging, a possible arms control agenda might focus as a point of departure on restricting the deployment of new families of advanced high-tech weaponry. While a prohibition on research and development in emerging capabilities is unrealistic, it is deployment that significantly increases costs and risks (see reports from Center for Strategic & International Studies and the Defense Acquisition Research Journal).

As technical capacity for verification improves, new arms control treaties could potentially curb competition in a range of high-tech weapons applications. The European Union, in concert with the United Nations, could play a crucial role in urging international cooperation needed to establish treaties and norms preventing deployment of destabilizing weapons technologies. We beseech all states to heed Mr Maas’ call to action, to recognize the common interest in restraint and to avoid repeating the folly of previous futile, wasteful and dangerous arms racing!

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Flickr, AirmanMagazine