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Welcome to the New Global Arms Race

CJ Werleman assesses the West’s response to Russia and China’s aggression and what this means for future global security

Russian and Chinese Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Photo: American Photo Archive/Alamy

Welcome to the New Global Arms Race

CJ Werleman assesses the West’s response to Russia and China’s aggression and what this means for future global security

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been called “Europe’s 9/11”, an unthinkable and catastrophic jolt that has upturned the geopolitical order and created a new era of global insecurity. 

“Security is like oxygen”, famed US international relations scholar Joseph Nye once said. “You tend not to notice it until you begin to lose it, but once that occurs, there’s nothing else that you will think about.”

Russia has brought war back to Europe, as China threatens to bring it back to the Western Pacific. The new global arms race is here.

Germany announced a near-doubling of its military budget, which represents a major policy shift, and is now debating the reintroduction of compulsory military service for all young people, after they finish school.

Sweden, Romania, the Netherlands, and Latvia have announced similar plans to allocate more spending to defence; while Finland has suggested raising its military budget is now inevitable.

Now the European Union is more united than ever, there’s even talk of an EU army to compliment NATO and address Russian military aggression, with EU military chair General Claudio Graziano observing in a recent interview that “we have to do it now because later will be too late”.

The plan is to develop a ‘EU Rapid Deployment Capacity’ – a modular and multi-domain force of up to 5,000 troops that can “intervene in non-permissive [hostile] environments”, Graziano said.

This capacity would compliment “strategic enablers” that have normally been provided by the US, including command and control structures, strategic airlift, strategic transport, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, cyber defence, unmanned air vehicles, space communication assets, electronic warfare systems, anti-missile defence. “And, I hope in the near future, battle tanks and next-generation fighter jets,” Graziano added.

The advent of new military technology – including Russia’s use of its manoeuvrable Kinzhal (dagger) hypersonic missile, which moves at 10 times the speed of sound – gives further impetus to the start of a new global arms race. Although military analysts argued two years ago the arrival of the hypersonic missile pushed the US, Russia, and China into a news arms race, after the Donald Trump rump administration ‘industrialised’ the production of this frightening new weapon.

Moving at speeds exceeding 1,150 miles per hour, hypersonic missiles “dangerously compress the time during which military officials and their political leaders – in any country – can figure out the nature of an attack and make reasoned decisions about the wisdom and scope of defensive steps or retaliation,” observed R. Jeffrey Smith, managing editor for national security at the Center for Public Integrity.

The US military is currently spending $2.5 billion a year on developing hypersonic missiles, but expects to double this by the middle of the next decade, according to The New York Times. They can be used to take out an adversary’s nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, target aircraft bases, land or sea-based radars, military quarters, and aircraft carriers, or for waging a decapitation strike. A former Obama administration official called them “instant leader-killers”.

More worryingly, US and NATO refusal to attack invading Russian forces directly, or put in place a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace, has proven the theory that an attacker armed with nuclear weapons remains fundamentally safe.

“One of the most dangerous and far-reaching repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the subversion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – perhaps the most critical multilateral agreement for the survival of humanity,” observe analysts at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. “Since its first attack on Ukraine in 2014, Russia’s actions have put the logic of the treaty to prevent the spread of atomic weapons on its head.”

In other words, Russia’s actions and the West’s response to them, have not only undermined faith in the plausibility of nuclear non-proliferations, but also increased the motivation for other nation states, and even non-state actors, to develop or acquire them.

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When India launched its atomic/nuclear weapons programme in the 1960s, then Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto summed up the folly of the nuclear deterrent theory by saying: “Pakistan will eat grass, even go hungry but we will get one of our own… we have no choice.” 

Nuclear weapons aside, China’s expansionist polices and militarised threats ushered in a new regional arms race in Indo Pacific long before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Beijing’s has made illegal and baseless claims to territorial waters and islands hundreds and thousands of miles from its shores during the past two years, ramping up military spending in Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and India.

From insecurity, national security policies are formed. But arms races create more of the very thing you’re trying to resolve – insecurity. The First World War, for instance, was the unwanted bastard child of a naval arms race between Britain and Germany. This is what security scholars have dubbed the ‘security dilemma’.

“Both sides in the arms race are confronted by the dilemma of steadily increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security,” remarked renowned international relations scholar Jerome Wiesner, a former Kennedy White House official, and Herb York, a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. “It is our considered professional judgment that this dilemma has no technical solution. If the great powers continue to look for solutions in areas of science and technology only, the result will be to worsen the situation”.

While it is unlikely that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will end up triggering a third world war, it is probable that the global arms race his actions have invoked may do exactly that at some later point down the road – if history is any guide. 


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