A War of the Future

27 december 2013

A New Arms Race Vector in the Years to Come

Andrei Baklanov is Head of the International Affairs Department of the Federation Council of the Russian Federal Assembly; Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary; Deputy Chairman of the Board of the Association of Russian Diplomats.

Resume: New defense technologies often create the illusion of a possibility of “victorious” wars, which provokes ever new conflicts and wars. The number and scale of conflicts in the world will hardly decrease in the coming years, while the arms race will serve primarily the needs of the development of new areas and the goal of expanding the resource base for production.

Is it possible to predict what will happen in the foreseeable future in the development of weapons? How will the amount of military spending change? How will future armed conflicts differ from present ones? In short, what kind of “war of the future” should we prepare for right now?

If we answer these questions we’ll be able to build a prudent defense policy, organically link the development of different types of weapons, determine optimal sizes of target programs for rearmament, and work out adequate mechanisms for interaction with other countries in the foreign-policy and military fields.

When people speak of weapons updating, they usually mention the serious impact of political factors on the arms race, among them the level of tensions in the world and individual regions, clashes of interests of states and their alliances, and the emergence and development of conflict and crisis situations.

Less known is the reciprocal influence of the arms race on the world situation. Meanwhile, this influence is very strong. The development of new defense technologies often creates the illusion of a possible “guaranteed” defeat of the enemy and “victorious” wars, which provokes ever new conflicts and wars.

A good example of this kind is the advocacy of the benefits of automatic weapons (machine guns) on the eve of World War I. Another example is the spread of blitzkrieg concepts during the interwar period. These concepts provided for a large-scale use of armored and motorized forces and aviation and fast-maneuver warfare to deliver a crushing defeat to the enemy. These theories played a highly provocative role in Nazi Germany’s starting the war against European countries and the USSR.




Now we can see many publications overstating the importance of precision weapons. They argue that their growing use leads to more rapid warfare, exclusion of traditional combined arms units, and devaluation of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. I think there is a great danger of overestimating the importance of new missile weapons. The hope that one, even though the most “advanced,” weapon can miraculously help win a war is hardly justified.


For many years, the author has been studying trends in weapon development, primarily to identify stable tendencies in two key areas – the financing of the arms race and the choice of major vectors in upgrading military equipment.

It must be emphasized that the development of weapons is a process with its own distinct trends and rules. The arms race is driven by a desire to acquire new scientific and technical knowledge that can be applied in the military field. This knowledge is used to develop, test and produce more sophisticated defense technologies.

So, along with the depreciation of military equipment, there is another powerful factor that makes countries rearm their armies. This is a desire to equip their armed forces with more effective and more powerful types of weapons, which would give them qualitative superiority over enemy forces or, at least, let them keep up with other countries, and which would prevent an undesirable change in the balance of power.

Before the beginning of the 20th century, only a small group of the most developed and almost exclusively European countries were actually involved in the arms race. After World War I, they were joined by the United States.

In the 1960s, the sphere of the arms race considerably broadened with the collapse of the colonial system, as newly independent countries sought to acquire all the “attributes” of a modern state, including a strong and well-equipped army.

However, the world is still divided into countries with great economic, technological, industrial and military capabilities that can set trends in the arms race and produce and export the most advanced types of military equipment, and “periphery” countries that mainly consume weapons, which they buy or receive as part of technical assistance programs.

If we analyze the dynamics of military spending, adjusted for inflation, we will see that the arms race develops in a spiral pattern. Periods of relative stability of military spending or even its decline (in constant prices) are replaced by growth, which again leads to periods of respite and stabilization.

This trend dates back to the end of the 19th century. The emergence of new means of warfare in the 1890s caused the world’s largest countries to increase dramatically the scale of military preparations and, therefore, the proportion of military spending in their national budgets. The growth was particularly strong on the eve of World War I. The United States, for example, increased budget allocations for defense between 1910-1913 from 28% to 43% in relation to all budget allocations. Over the same years, average annual military budgets increased against the previous decade by 66% in Germany, 15% in the UK, 27% in France, and more than 100% in Italy.

It was the first round of the arms race, which involved all the leading military powers of the world. The result is well-known: material preparations for a world war.

In the interwar period, which lasted for a decade and a half, the stabilization of military spending gave way to an unprecedented growth of armaments in the second half of the 1930s. That was the second round of the arms race, which led to World War II.

Unlike the period after World War I, the stabilization of military allocations in the second half of the 1940s was short-lived and was quickly replaced by a Cold War. Countries stepped up the production of new types of weapons and boosted defense spending. For example, between 1950-1955, the U.S. increased its military spending by almost 150 percent (in constant prices).

The stabilization of military spending in the U.S. in the second half of the 1960s was followed by a new round of the arms race, with the defense budget growing by 23 percent from 1965 to 1970.

In the 1970s, when geopolitical tensions eased, military spending in the U.S. (in constant 1978 prices) in 1976 decreased by 18 percent, compared to 1970 – from U.S. $131 billion to $104 billion. However, in the next two to three years, the arms race began to gather pace.

The rapid pace of the arms race in the U.S. in the 1980s stopped in 1986 and was again replaced by a relative stabilization of military spending.

It must be emphasized that the arms race in the postwar decades was characterized by “synchronization” of the dynamics of military spending in the leading military powers.

One of the factors behind this trend was that in the 1940s-1980s the U.S. and the Soviet Union accounted for the lion’s share of the global spending. In addition, the leading military powers sought to put into service only those military developments that were comparable to or exceeded the developments of other advanced countries. The close intertwining of the economies and R&D industries of the leading Western countries objectively implied that in some countries the “ripening” of discoveries, including in the military sphere, often coincided with active implementation of scientific and technological achievements. This trend was particularly evident in the production of high-precision weapons in the 1980s-2010s.

Countries involved in the arms race seek to increase the might of their armed forces through modernization and replacement of obsolete weapons with new ones. However, they usually give the green light to the production of only those types of weapons that will add a new quality to the armed forces to bring them to a level higher than or comparable to the level of armaments of a potential enemy.

Such weapons can be produced only on the basis of effective scientific and technological developments.

However, major technological discoveries are not made “by order.” As a rule, new technologies need a more or less long period to “mature.” This phenomenon is a kind of “regulator” of the arms race, which makes the process cyclic. At present, this period takes eight years or more.

Another, no less important “regulator” is financial restrictions. To translate ideas into metal, that is, to go over from research, experiments and testing to large-scale production, the state must have enough financial resources. The economies of even such powerful countries as the United States are unable to withstand an accelerated arms race for long, and after six to eight years of the race they need a respite, a period of stabilization or even reduction in military spending.TRENDS IN ARMS MODERNIZATION

The latest arms race began in 1998. In 2005, the U.S. increased defense spending by 55 percent from 1998 (in constant prices). However, the specifics of the situation were that defense allocations were largely made for the “war on terror” and the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, these campaigns slowed down the development of military research.

The search for new, promising defense technologies for their subsequent production did not stop, but there were no more signs of acceleration in the technological arms race.

Recent years have seen the modernization of armaments taking place in two areas.

The first one is the development of fundamentally new types of armaments that would add a basically new quality to military actions.

In the 20th century, there were only two military-technical and military-technological breakthroughs of this kind. The beginning of the century saw a large-scale introduction of highly effective (for that time) engines of various types, which gave a boost to the development of aviation, armored and mechanized forces (“war of motors”), and submarines. In the second half of the 20th century, the leading military powers of the world equipped their armies with nuclear weapons.

The other area of modernization is updating the existing types of weapons. The main task of military experts is to come up with the most promising variants of “weapons of the future.”

One can name three major trends in the modernization of weapons. One is increasing their destructive capabilities. The second is improving accuracy and selectivity of weapons. And, finally, the third trend is creating new types of weapons that can be effectively used in new “operating spaces” (outer space, deep-water horizons of the World Ocean, high latitudes, etc.).

The first of these trends – the “traditional” desire to develop ever more powerful types of offensive weapons – has long reached a deadlock.

The goal – to build up the striking power of weapons – has come into conflict with objective limitations that are due to the size of individual countries and the planet as a whole.

The power of offensive armaments became excess already in the 1960s, which prompted the U.S. and the Soviet Union to enter into disarmament negotiations.

The second trend – increasing the accuracy of weapons – is in its peak now. It is precision-guided weapons that have become the main technological highlight of the arms race in the last three decades. However, like the first trend, it is about to reach its logical end soon.


In one of my interviews, published in the national press in 2008, I said that in the next few years rivalry for “spaces” would rise to a new level. It seems that things are developing according to precisely this scenario.

The trend per se is not new. Attempts to penetrate, and in the future establish control over, the northern high latitudes date back more than a hundred years, and the race for Antarctica began in the mid-1950s. The problem of space militarization was raised at the turn of the 1960s. Rivalry for control over seas and continental shelves never stopped. Starting in the 1980s, international legal mechanisms (the International Seabed Authority, etc.) began to be used in the context of this rivalry.

However, a new situation is taking shape in this sphere today, as countries have come close to a point where the development of technologies will enable them to start large-scale development of these spaces.

So, if countries fail to complete efforts to define and establish international legal norms, common to all, for economic uses of new “spaces,” full-scale and fierce struggle may begin in this area after 2018-2020.

The scope of training (technical, technological, financial and legal) for securing “bridgeheads” in this confrontation will sharply increase already in the very near future, changing the vector in the arms race and the allocation of defense spending within branches of the armed forces. Temporarily, “until things get better,” the emphasis will move from the development and introduction of more powerful first-strike weapons to the development and bench testing of basically new types of weapons for use in the struggle for seas and high latitudes, where harsh temperature conditions set special equipment, outfit and personnel deployment requirements.

Constant large-scale military presence in Arctic seas will require truly enormous costs.

Speaking of new “spaces,” one cannot rule out that in the next ten to fifteen years the sea shelf, sea depths and high latitudes will be attached more importance than outer space.

Improving methods of warfare will be another priority. The significance of skillful actions by personnel will increase; every soldier and officer will be of much value.

In this context, training programs for soldiers and officers will have to be radically revised and made more complex.

No doubt, the professionalism of the army will increase. But this task should not be solved through the creation of a kind of mercenary armies without a considerable reserve, especially in countries with long borders, such as Russia.

Russia should restore all forms of reserve training to the fullest possible extent, including military training at school, and promote applied military sports among youths.

Much is now being written about major countries’ plans to modernize their weapons. But these are all “routine” variants. There are no signs of real breakthrough technologies yet that could seriously affect the nature of warfare.

Meanwhile, experts, politicians and legislators are only coming to realize the change in arms race vector. This factor is opening a “window of opportunity” for us: despite the great differences in the amounts of defense budgets between Russia and the U.S., Russia can enter the next round of the arms race (the second half of this decade) with a “portfolio” of technological developments that will help keep the strategic balance of power at an acceptable level.

In this case, we will continue to feel confident in the world where reliable security can only be achieved through reliance on one’s own deterrent forces.

The task of the day is to correctly predict the main trends in the development of armaments that promise the greatest military “dividends” and to assert priority in the development and production of the newest types of weapons.

Another top priority in the development of armaments will be to find basically new solutions to the task of “blinding” the enemy and instantaneously destroying enemy military command and control systems at all levels.

New technologies are intended to affect electronics, data storage devices, etc. In other words, they will be capable of delivering a disarming strike that will “devalue” the huge masses of accumulated weapons, including the most advanced ones.

Another trend will apparently be the development of anti-terror weapons. This promising trend will cover a much broader range of products than it is believed today, as it will require considerably expanding the infrastructure for protecting sensitive targets, including energy facilities. Various types of “traditional” small arms will have to be adapted for the needs of anti-terror units, new methods of “neutralizing” terrorists developed, and video surveillance systems updated.

Much money and effort will have to be spent on the solution of the problem of fortifying borders. Some countries, particularly the Gulf States, need complete reconstruction of their land borders, which today are largely porous for various kinds of evildoers – be it “ordinary” smugglers or arms suppliers linked to terrorists.

For the Russian Federation, fortifying borders, including those with post-Soviet countries, is an absolute requirement today.

A few words should be said about missile defense. The emphasis the Americans make on the development of new missile defense systems reflects the situation in the field of armaments. As noted above, significant growth in the quality of strategic nuclear missile forces actually loses its rationale. Is it really worth spending a lot of money to reduce the flight time of missiles, for example, from 40 to 15 minutes? In both cases, it is highly doubtful that either party would be able to complete all the procedures required for making a fateful decision regarding a retaliatory thermonuclear strike.

Apparently, from the viewpoint of preventing a sudden attack, it would be much more rational to boost the financing of and broaden tasks that could be set before intelligence and counterintelligence communities to provide an early and reliable warning of a potential enemy’s intentions.“OFFENSIVE” AND “DEFENSIVE” WEAPONS

The problem of a ratio between “offensive” and “defensive” armaments has always attracted the attention of military theorists. Let me quote Wladyslaw Sikorski, a renowned military strategist and the author of the book “War in the Future: Its Capacities and Character and Associated Questions of National Defense,” unmatched in the number of correct predictions. (The book was published in Warsaw in 1934, and translated into Russian and published by the State Publishing House of the USSR People’s Commissariat of Defense in 1936.)

Sikorski argued that attempts to divide weapons into defensive and offensive were due to political factors. He said the Army must be equally ready to act both as a weapon of defense and attack. The formation of troops, he warned, may take the wrong path if it rests on “pseudo-technical” views on “defensive” and “offensive” armaments. Taking “defensive” weapons as the basis would mean only one thing: voluntarily giving one’s highest-ranking trump card to the enemy, Sikorski wrote. In this case, a purely defensive organization of the armed forces will put them at a serious disadvantage, which will manifest itself already at the initial stage of a conflict.

In view of this, any attempts to insist that the U.S. missile defense system is of a “defensive” nature are unfounded and extremely dangerous.

What conclusions can be drawn from the above?

We are entering a basically new stage in the development of armaments. Some trends, previously key ones, have reached a certain limit due to the size of the Earth. These include increasing the lethal power and accuracy of weapons and decreasing weapon delivery time.

Today, priorities in preparations for a “war of the future” are changing.

In the next 15 to 20 years, the most powerful countries in the world will likely focus their efforts on the “battle for spaces” – high latitudes of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres and sea depths.

In these circumstances, countries could even partially reallocate funds between their space programs and the struggle for new spaces on the Earth in favor of the latter. Benefits from efforts made on the Earth are more tangible and better seen.

Shifting the emphasis in the arms race to the struggle for new spaces implies analyzing the “starting positions” of countries that will take part in the upcoming battle.

In this regard, Russia is in an advantageous situation, compared to the world’s leading powers: it has priority rights in the northern latitudes, the unchallenged authority in the development of the Northern Sea Route, traditions of participation in the exploration of the South Pole, and extensive experience of expeditions in the oceans.

However, all these achievements and rights need to be protected. Is Russia ready for this? Not quite so. Its share in world production and trade does not correspond to its potential role in the unfolding struggle. It will need huge financial infusions and large-scale organizational efforts for the economic and human development of new spaces.


The present neo-liberal financial and economic system needs a major modification to match the large scope of the arising tasks and enlarge the financial base for the country’s growing might. This may be achieved, for example, by restoring (naturally, in a new, modern way) the state planning sector’s role in the economy.

One can hear people say, although much less frequently than ten or fifteen years ago, that the state sector of the economy is “inefficient in principle.” Such statements were “good” for our inexperienced public opinion in the early 1990s. At that time, no one wondered why many rich countries had a thriving mixed economy which allowed large state structures into production, banking, etc.

In the first half of the 2000s, as Russia’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, I acquainted myself in detail with the situation in the Saudi oil sector and more than once had long negotiations with the leadership of Saudi Aramco. This state-owned oil company, which has full control over oil production and marketing in the country, is one of the most efficient and profitable commercial organizations in the world. So, it is not a form of ownership that matters but an ability to manage one’s assets efficiently.

Siberia and the north of Russia will most likely have to be developed primarily by state-owned companies. Investments in those regions will pay off with spades, but in the long run. Russian capital of today, which is accustomed to easy victories, is not ready yet for a “march” to the North and the East. Hence the weak response to calls to develop these territories.

Meanwhile, the arms race in the coming years, which will involve Russia as well, will be distinguished by a very close interrelationship among financial, economic and military components.

The development of new areas will require new major investments. Otherwise, Russia will be increasingly challenged that it is unable to fulfill its historic mission to develop the “wealth of the Earth.”

Politically, the coming period will be marked by unconventional and unexpected blocs and temporary rapprochements between countries. For example, Russia may well pool efforts with the United States, its “traditional” opponent and rival, in developing and using the Arctic. The interests of both countries in this area largely coincide.

Above, I already mentioned the persistent stereotype algorithm of an arms race established in the postwar years: the development of new inventions–bench testing–mass production of new weapons. This stereotype had a corresponding financial component: moderate consumption in the period preceding a new round of the arms race, followed by a growth in defense spending.

However, this arms race system has been glitching in the last decade and a half.

Apparently, the absence of a real enemy after the fall of the Soviet Union affected the pace, intensity and scale of development of “weapons of future wars” by the U.S.

In the 2000s, the level of defense spending in the world’s leading military power, including allocations for R&D, was already determined not by military-technical considerations but the very fact of the United States’ direct military involvement in regional conflicts in Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and other countries.

Arms manufacturers must have liked the easy way of increasing profits by producing “consumables” necessary for bombings, missile attacks, etc.

However, this factor led to a decrease in the intensity of the research and development of new equipment and weapons. Of course, efforts in this area continue but they are not enough to provide the basis for a new breakthrough in the field of armaments.

The number and scale of conflicts in the world will hardly decrease in the coming years, while the arms race will serve primarily the needs of the development of new areas and the goal of expanding the resource base for production.

As regards military spending, it will predictably stabilize in the next two to three years, after which it will increase by about 2-3% per year in the leading military powers.

The years to come will be a difficult period of world development and situational evolution in many regions. Russia will have to make strenuous intellectual, financial, organizational and other efforts and tap its capabilities to preserve and strengthen its positions in the world. There is no doubt that it will make and implement realistic, balanced and ambitious decisions that would match the evolving situation.

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