Why Arms Races Never End
Hypersonic weapons close in on their targets at a minimum speed of Mach 5, five times the speed of sound or 3,836.4 miles an hour. They are among the latest entrants in an arms competition that has embroiled the United States for generations, first with the Soviet Union, today with China and Russia. Pentagon officials tout the potential of such weaponry and the largest arms manufacturers are totally gung-ho on the subject. No surprise there. They stand to make staggering sums from building them, especially given the chronic “cost overruns” of such defense contracts — $163 billion in the far-from-rare case of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Voices within the military-industrial complex — the Defense Department; mega-defense companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Boeing, and Raytheon; hawkish armchair strategists in Washington-based think tanks and universities; and legislators from places that depend on arms production for jobs — insist that these are must-have weapons. Their refrain: unless we build and deploy them soon we could suffer a devastating attack from Russia and China.
The opposition to this powerful ensemble’s doomsday logic is, as always, feeble.
The (Il)logic of Arms Races
Hypersonic weapons are just the most recent manifestation of the urge to engage in an “arms race,” even if, as a sports metaphor, it couldn’t be more off base. Take, for instance, a bike or foot race. Each has a beginning, a stipulated distance, and an end, as well as a goal: crossing the finish line ahead of your rivals. In theory, an arms race should at least have a starting point, but in practice, it’s usually remarkably hard to pin down, making for interminable disputes about who really started us down this path. Historians, for instance, are still writing (and arguing) about the roots of the arms race that culminated in World War I.
The arms version of a sports race lacks a purpose (apart from the perpetuation of a competition fueled by an endless action-reaction sequence). The participants just keep at it, possessed by worst-case thinking, suspicion, and fear, sentiments sustained by bureaucracies whose budgets and political clout often depend on military spending,