Cold War Weapons and the Arms Race

With hindsight, there is perhaps a terrible inevitability about the lack of cooperation and mistrust that led to the Cold War arms race (I explore this more deeply in my article “How Did World War 2 Lead To The Cold War?”). With a shared history of conflict over territory, resources and ideology, how could ‘East’ and ‘West’ have ever trusted each other at the end of WW2?

Josef Stalin, 1949
(public domain)

The Soviet Union’s living memory was one of invasion and the horrific death of between 9-11 million members of their armed forces, plus a further 13-15 million civilians (1). Against that backdrop, Stalin was fully aware that his post-war communist state was not trusted or accepted by Western leaders who had both concealed the Manhattan Project from him and then destroyed both Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons (2).

Western leaders were very aware of the vast territories that Stalin now controlled. They saw the Soviet Union supporting revolutionary socialism where it arose (Cuba, Vietnam, Angola) and were afraid that a ‘domino effect’ might quickly see other states turn communist if their neighbours ‘fell under its influence’. They were also fearful of how easily the massive Soviet conscript army might invade their western democracies.

Mistrust and misunderstandings dominated Cold War politics between the two blocs and a highly technological conflict developed. The underlying fear was that if a State fell behind in the development of modern weapons technologies, it would then be at risk of a successful ‘first strike’ (3) attack or become subservient to a better-armed opponent. As fast as one side acquired a new advantage, so the other was compelled to try to match and then exceed it. The numbers of weapons in particular classes, and a State’s economic ability to invest massive proportions of national income on developing new weapons, became barometers of that State’s preparedness for war.

What Kind Of Weapons Were Used In The Cold War?
The Cold War is synonymous with a competitive struggle to develop nuclear weapon systems between NATO countries and the Soviet Union, but the arms race also included the development of conventional, chemical and biological weapons. Let’s look at each of those in turn.

1) Cold War Nuclear Weapons – The nuclear arms race
After WW2, the United States had the clear military-technological advantage of being the only State possessing nuclear weapons, and a clear over-arching policy goal of preventing any further expansion of Soviet communism.

That imbalance could not persist for long as Stalin had already ordered the Soviet atomic bomb programme to be accelerated during the Allies’ 1945 conference in Potsdam (4). The Soviets’ test of their first atomic bomb in 1949 shocked America and marked the start of the Cold War nuclear arms race (5).

Both sides then rapidly built up their nuclear weapons stockpiles, with each test of a weapon becoming known as a ‘shot’.

Shot after shot, increasing numbers of ‘atmospheric tests’ (6) proclaimed US technological supremacy and the capacity to produce large numbers of atomic weapons. Then, in 1952 the United States tested the world’s first hydrogen ‘superbomb’. Mimicking nuclear fusion processes in the Sun, this Ivy “Mike” ‘shot’ exploded with a force equivalent to 10.4 megatons of TNT (it is estimated that around 3 megatons of TNT were used in total during WW2).

The Ivy ‘Mike’ shot – 1952
U.S. Government Work

Although Ivy Mike was a proof of concept weapon, too large to be dropped as a bomb, it showed that the US now had the ability to totally obliterate entire cities with a single bomb. This scale of destructive power was horrifying – as Harold Agnew said about observing from a ship 40 km away (7):

“Something I will never forget was the heat. Not the blast…the heat just kept coming, just kept coming on and on.

It’s really quite a terrifying experience because the heat doesn’t go off….on kiloton shots it’s a flash and its over, but on those big shots it’s really terrifying.”

One year later, the Soviet Union again shocked the West with their own fusion bomb test (8).

Completing the Manhattan Project had cost the US about $28 billion in today’s money. Espionage probably helped the Soviets to complete their own programme at a lesser, but still extremely high cost.

The race was on to build ever more powerful nuclear bombs. Just how far were these two superpowers prepared to take the arms race?

For any nuclear-armed State to feel safe, there needed to be a balance of nuclear forces, whereby the possession of sufficient nuclear weapons could ensure ‘nuclear deterrence’. Deterrence remains an underlying principle for modern nuclear-armed States. It acknowledges that when there is a balance of nuclear forces, no State can risk a first-strike attack because of the guaranteed massive retaliation that would follow.

This feeling of safety by nuclear deterrence is an illusion. Nuclear weapons present an extraordinary gamble with the security of human existence, but there seems to be no limit to the risks that scientists and politicians will accept in order to have them.

During the Manhattan Project, some scientists had been worried that a nuclear explosion could ignite the atmosphere (9) – that risk had not been disproved right up to the Trinity Test.

By the official end of the Cold War in 1991, the United States and the Soviet Union had accumulated over 54,000 nuclear warheads (10) (US 19,008, Soviet Union 35,000). Their arms race had taken the world from an initial risk of global incineration, to the very real risk of nuclear winter and omnicide.

For the Soviet Union, the ultimate expression of nuclear force was to be shown through explosive power. On 30th October 1961 they tested (exploded in the atmosphere) the most powerful nuclear weapon created in history, the “Tsar Bomba” (RDS-220 hydrogen bomb) (11). It was detonated over the Sukhoy Nos cape of Severny Island, Novaya Zemlya. Literature suggests that the bomb had a yield of 50 Megatons (not authenticated) – equivalent to around 1,570 times the combined energy of the bombs used to destroy Nagasaki and Hiroshima, or 10x the combined energy of all conventional bombs used in WW2.

People often ask “How would you survive a nuclear war?” – but with such devastating weapons being created, survival seems an impossible task.

As the two sides competed with their nuclear ‘shots’, it soon became obvious that nuclear bombing by air was uncertain to reach all of its intended ‘targets’ (which in many cases were cities, full of millions of civilians). For example, the US 1950s Nike defensive missile system established a series of missile launch bases across America tasked with protecting the country from bomber attacks (especially around Washington DC). Although this system was never activated, it convinced the Soviets that the US could shoot down their bombers (12).

So new missile technologies were needed, smaller and faster, with a much higher chance of hitting their ‘targets’ as no credible anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) technology existed.

From the 1950s, the United States became concerned that the Soviet Union had developed more missiles than the US had in its arsenal. Those missiles could cause devastating destruction if launched against the continental US, and there was no practical defence against them. This so-called ‘missile gap’ was a key driver for Kennedy becoming President in 1960 (13), but was later disproved by the CIA after much concern (14), and in hindsight the missile capability of the US was actually superior to that of the Soviet Union. However, by 1957 both the USA and the Soviet Union were testing ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and would escalate the arms race to terrifying levels (15).

The ability to field ICBMs, and other missiles of lesser range, requires an advanced rocketry capability. It is not surprising, therefore, that this period of the Cold War was also marked by ‘The Space Race’.

The Space Race and Cold War weapons development
I think that the early Space Race had little to do with the altruistic exploration of space and our solar system neighbours. Whoever controlled space controlled the skies, with the ability to send missiles to any place at any time, and all with remarkable accuracy. No wonder Americans looked towards the heavens in fear when the ‘Sputnik’ satellite flew over their heads on October 4th 1957, broadcasting the Soviet supremacy of space with its 20 and 40MHz on-off signals (16). The communists had beaten them into space and it was Pearl Harbor all over again. The Space Race was truly on.

On 12th April 1961, the Soviets increased the pressure still further when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space during his one hour and 48 minutes ‘Vostok 1’ mission. The US was still lagging, one month later sending Alan Shepard into space for 15 minutes, 28 seconds aboard ‘Freedom 7’ (17).

On 16th June 1963 the Soviets sent up their first female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, for a 71 hours mission aboard ‘Vostok 6’ (18). It was to be a further twenty years before America sent up their first female astronaut (Sally Ride, Space Shuttle ‘Challenger’ mission STS-7, 18th June 1983) (19).

Launch followed launch.

In the East, Vostok gave way to Molniya, to Voskhod and then to Soyuz.

In the West, Redstone gave way to Atlas, Gemini–Titan II, Saturn I, Saturn IB, Saturn V and the Space Shuttle.

Kennedy’s push for the Moon probably won the Space Race, but perhaps not that leg of the underlying arms race. His challenge was to land a man on the moon and then return safely, an effort that Kennedy said “… will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” (20). Of course it would be the Soviets who would most be measuring their skills, and Kennedy wanted to leave them standing.

Overall, the Apollo programme cost the United States around $28 billion between 1960 – 1973, or about $283 billion when adjusted for inflation (21). Ultimately the US completed Kennedy’s challenge – the Apollo missions famously saw a first landing on the Moon by the Apollo 11 Lunar Module ‘Eagle’ on 20th July 1969 (22). But the Soviets also had what they needed – they had done enough to develop ICBMs.

The nuclear risk was not confined to bombs and missiles. At times it seems as if anything that could have a nuclear warhead strapped to it was used. For example, fearing an attack by the Soviets and Warsaw Pact across the North German Plain, Britain developed ‘Blue Peacock’ (23), perhaps one of the stranger weapons of the Cold War. This weapon was part of a 1950s project to create and store ten-kiloton yield nuclear landmines in Germany. They could be triggered by a command wire or an 8-day timer, with the goal of preventing Soviet occupation of the area. However, it could be too cold in winter for the mechanics of the mines to work, and one suggested solution was to use the body heat from chickens to warm the devices. The UK Ministry of Defence cancelled the project in 1958 due to the risks from nuclear fallout, destruction of allied territory and that inherent unreliability.

Developments in missile technologies continued throughout the Cold War and then afterwards. Today (2020) Russia seems to have completed the development of an unstoppable first-strike weapon, the ‘Avangard’ hypersonic missile. Reported to be launched on top of an ICBM, the Avangard can apparently carry a 2 Megaton warhead and glide with manoeuvrability at mach 5 towards its target (24). No other world power currently has a comparable nuclear warhead delivery vehicle.

These massive Cold War projects were a significant drain on the economic resources of both superpowers. The Soviets struggled to keep up, and this economic aspect of the arms race was a significant factor in the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

2) Conventional Weapons
Even at the height of Cold War paranoia, the thought of using weapons of mass destruction must have been a last resort plan due to the massive retaliation that would have been expected from the enemy. With the opposing tensions of the Opportunity to Use WMDs versus the Massive Retaliation Risks, the superpowers held the world on the very knife-edge of danger. At times events like the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) or Exercise Able Archer (1983) took every living being perilously close to death – but somehow the line held and these terrible weapons were not used.

With the use of WMDs just about being held in check, it was extremely important to ensure an equal balance in conventional forces. Each side’s balance was expressed through the manufacture of sufficient arms, the maintenance of sufficient numbers of military personnel, and the completion of training exercises to both develop, and demonstrate, ‘combat readiness’.

‘Sufficient arms’ needed to reflect both the numbers of weapons needed to present a credible force, and their estimated degree of effectiveness against the enemy’s armaments. This drove a conventional weapons arms race. However, the defensive nature of NATO strategy seemed to shift the balance in conventional warfare towards the Soviet Union  / Warsaw Pact, as was described in a December 1988 briefing produced by the United States General Accounting Office for the US Senate and House of Representatives, Committees on Armed Services (25):

… the participants believed that NATO would probably lose a conventional conflict if war occurred. As one participant noted, because NATO is a defensive alliance, it concedes to the Warsaw Pact the choice of the time and place of attack and the concentration of forces at the axes of advance, as well as an advantage in mobilization. Several participants concluded that NATO could not conduct conventional operations for more than a brief period (days or a few weeks). One participant said that NATO’S operations might last only 3 to 5 days due to logistic problems (see Logistics section). Another expert, however, disagreed, saying that such estimates do not measure how long NATO would continue to fight, which would depend on the intensity of war; the degree of prewar combat preparation and ammunition sharing; and the results of initial combat.

From a multi-scenario analysis of the current NATo-Warsaw Pact balance, participants concluded that NATO is not so hopelessly outnumbered that conventional defense would fail or that NATO would necessarily contain a Warsaw Pact offensive. Uncertainties about prewar preparations and wartime events make both outcomes possible under different scenarios, although more scenarios favor the Warsaw Pact than NATO. Thus, the importance of specific conventional defense improvements to the outcome of a conflict could depend on relatively small changes in assumptions (for example, one of the NATO allies mobilizes more slowly than the others) about the type of war that would be fought.”

As the table below shows, the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact armies had a significant advantage in numbers of available personnel and vehicles (of all types) – the hope must have been that this numerical and tactical disadvantage was offset by the superior technology in Western equipment:

 Standing Forces in Europe excl. Reinforcements
CategoryNATOSoviet Union / Warsaw Pact
Standing Personnel2,600,0004,000,000
Main Battle Tanks13,47026,900
Anti-Tank Guided Weapon Launchers12,34018,400
Artillery / Mortars11,00019,900
Other Armoured Fighting Vehicles33,00053,000
Attack Helicopters5601,135
Other Helicopters1,9601,180
Other submarines130197
Major surface ships, Carriers, Cruisers, Destroyers, Frigates301214
Nuclear-armed bombers325400
Source: NATO Information Service, 1984 (26)

From a Western perspective, that makes for grim reading.

NATO was out-manned and out-gunned across the European theatre for a future hot war with the Soviet Union / Warsaw Pact.  Despite the Soviet’s use of conscripts in their army, the sheer weight of numbers gave them a high chance of being able to overwhelm NATO forces (a situation Tom Clancy made good use of in his 1986 novel, ‘Red Storm Rising’).

No wonder that NATO policy was that “… nuclear forces exist in combination with conventional forces to maintain peace through deterring aggression.”

Today, it is difficult to assess whether the perceived technological superiority of Western equipment would have been enough to achieve balance in a conventional war. But the outcome might not have favoured the West. For example, the West had developed increasingly sophisticated and capable aircraft like the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II (27), the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes, the Tornado and Fighting Falcon. The Soviets had the Mig-21 Fishbed, Mig-27 Flogger, Mig-29 Fulcrum, TU-16 Badger and TU-95 Bear. Those Soviet aircraft were not all the inferior designs that some Western egos liked to suggest. Here is a comment about the Fulcrum from circa 1996:

“… plenty of the Fulcrum’s smug “show us what you got” adversaries—F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-15 Eagle, and U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet jocks among them—became humbled, and often bloodied, after their first Fulcrum tangle… with some experience, you could outmanoeuvre any jet, even F-16s and Hornets…” (28)

3) Chemical and Biological Weapons
Both the East and West continued to develop chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction during the Cold War. The use of chemical weapons was banned under international law by the Geneva Protocol, but their development, production or stockpiling was not – so both sides continued to make them.

The United States worked on using German WW2 artillery shells containing sarin, soman and tabun for their own chemical warfare programme. In the process thousands of American soldiers were exposed to these chemical agents as part of testing programmes, in particular as part of the Edgewood Arsenal human experiments. They also experimented with nonlethal, psycho-behavioural chemical incapacitating agents and tranquillisers such as ketamine and fentanyl (29).

One of the more notorious chemical weapons created by the Soviet Union was Novichok. This nerve agent is potentially the deadliest ever made, with some variants claimed to be up to 10x more potent than soman. Novichok was designed to be (30):

  • undetectable by 1970s and 1980s NATO chemical detection equipment,
  • able to defeat NATO chemical protective clothing,
  • safe enough to handle (the precursors are significantly less hazardous than the agent itself),
  • made using precursors not banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention.
U.S. Soldiers with the 51st Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Company
Public Domain

Novichok causes seizures, respiratory paralysis, bradycardia, coma, and death (31). It was infamously used by Russia in an attack against Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer and MI6 agent, in the English town of Salisbury on 4th March 2018. His daughter was also affected, as was a police officer who fell ill after helping them outside a restaurant in the town. Their attackers were identified as officers from Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU. Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister, said the attack was “almost certainly” approved at a senior level of the Russian state (32).

The United Kingdom itself continued to produce chemical weapons during the Cold War at its  Nancekuke “Chemical Defense Establishment” in Cornwall. It is reported that 20 tons of sarin were produced there between 1954-56, as well as “… several other chemical weapons like VX, soman and cyclosarin”. The site was “… shut down in 1980. The lab was virtually demolished; some equipment was buried onsite, and the rest dumped in mineshafts(33). There is an interesting film about Nancekuk by Graham Smith available on YouTube (34).

The Geneva Protocol was eventually superseded by the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997 (35). CWC prohibits the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, as well as requiring the destruction of existing stockpiles. As at 31st December 2019, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reports that 97.51% of the world’s reported stockpiles of these weapons have been destroyed (36).

It is clear that good progress has been made in eliminating the entire chemical weapons class – however, have biological weapons filled the void?

With their use of living organisms or replicating entities like viruses, biological weapon are perhaps more ‘deniable’ than chemical agents.

From 1947 the Soviets focussed on weaponising smallpox. Over subsequent years the virulence and harm of the virus was increased. By the 1960s many biological weapons research facilities existed throughout the Soviet Union. These continued despite it having agreed, along with the United States, to the terms of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1972. The Soviets hid their biological weapons research within a program called ‘Biopreparat’, a supposedly legitimate civil biotechnology research organisation operating over 52 sites. They had an annual production capacity for around 95 tons of weaponised smallpox, typhus and rabies (37).

The United States rapidly expanded its biological weapon production capacity throughout the 1960s. Some of these weapons were covertly tested in public places and wide-open areas. One particularly alarming test was performed in 1966 when the New York Subway was contaminated with Bacillus globigii (used as a surrogate for Bacillus anthracis, Anthrax), with the aim of simulating the spread of anthrax in a large urban population. The American public were not informed about what was happening. Other alarming covert tests included a 1951 experiment which exposed a disproportionate number of African Americans to Aspergillus fumigatus in order to see if they had an increased susceptibility to infection. Most people inhale several hundred of its fungal spores each day, which are then quickly destroyed by the immune system, but they can cause disease in immuno-suppressed people. That same year workers at the Norfolk Supply Center in Virginia were unknowingly exposed to these same spores (38).

In the UK, scientists from the government’s Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment (CDEE) at Porton Down in Wiltshire were also working on biological weapons. In 1964 they also released “large quantities” of Bacillus globigii into the London tube (subway) network, without giving any warning to an unsuspecting public. This agent was released in order to see whether the ‘long distance travel of aerosols… was due to transportation within trains’ or through the tube’s air ventilation systems (39). Another test in 1952 apparently involved the release of live plague bacteria into the atmosphere off the west coast of Scotland in 1952. Other tests between 1961 – 1968 exposed over a million people to e.coli and bacillus globigii which was sprayed into the air from a ship off the Dorset coast. Further DICE trials in 1971 – 1975 involved both US and UK scientists spraying bacteria into the Dorset air (40).

How much arrogant disregard for public safety and human rights does any government have when it conducts biological weapons tests on its own people?

On 27th June 2016 the UK government released a short statement describing the work done at Porton Down, confirming that experiments like these had happened, and in no way apologising for them:

“During the cold war period between 1953 and 1976, a number of aerial release trials were carried out to help the government understand how a biological attack might spread across the UK. Given the international situation at the time these trials were conducted in secret. The information obtained from these trials has been and still is vital to the defence of the UK from this type of attack. Two separate and independent reviews of the trials have both concluded that the trials did not have any adverse health effects on the UK population.” (41)

The International Committee of the Red Cross records (42) that under customary international humanitarian law, the use of biological weapons is prohibited (rule 73), based on the Geneva Gas Protocol and the Biological Weapons Convention. Use of this class of weapons would probably be a war crime, but there seems to be little information available online about current or Cold War stockpiles.

A Reflection on the Balance Of Power
The balance of power during the Cold War was conventionally skewed towards the Soviet Union / Warsaw Pact. NATO counterbalanced that with an apparent willingness to use its nuclear forces if pushed.

As Daniel Ellsberg discusses in his 2017 book ‘The Doomsday Machine’, the real risks of a catastrophic military nuclear misunderstanding or accident were very much higher than almost all politicians, military leaders or the general public realised. Ellsberg reveals that for decades the unofficial US war plan was to release ALL of their nuclear weapons AT ONCE, against both the Soviets AND China, if the United States was at risk of being attacked. Such an action would have triggered a nuclear winter and the death of most life on the surface of our planet – omnicide.

Thankfully some arms limitations talks had begun even before the Cold War ended in 1991. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (1987) (43) and START 1 (1991) (44) withdrew classes of weapons by both the United States and the Soviet Union. Further progress seemed possible until recent years when increased posturing by both the US and Russia has led to the US withdrawing from the INF Treaty (45) and both sides pledging new weapons systems.

The current situation does not seem to be in balance and it already feels like a new chapter in the Cold War is beginning.


1 – ‘DEATHS BY COUNTRY’ – The National WWII Museum, New Orleans –

 2 – “Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” –

3 – “First strike – MILITARY STRATEGY” –

4 – “Soviet Atomic Program – 1946: The Soviet Atomic Bomb during World War II” –

5 – “RDS-1” –

6 – “TYPES OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS TESTS” – Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization –

7 – “1 NOVEMBER 1952 – IVY MIKE” – Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization –

8 – “Hydrogen Bomb – 1950” –

9 – “(The Impossibility of) Lighting Atmospheric Fire” –

10 – “Global nuclear weapons inventories, 1945–2010” – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists –

11 – “Tsar Bomba” –

12 – “Project Nike” –

13 – “50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE MISSILE GAP CONTROVERSY” – The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum –


“Missile gap” –

14 – “Of myths and missiles: the truth about John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap” –  for example

15 – “Intercontinental ballistic missile” –

16 – “October, 1957 – Listening to Sputnik on the Concertone” – St. Joe’s High School Radio Club –

17 – “Mercury-Redstone 3 (18)” – NASA –

18 – “Valentina Tereshkova – SOVIET COSMONAUT” –

19 – “Sally Ride – First American Woman in Space” – NASA –

20 – “John F. Kennedy Moon Speech – Rice Stadium” – 12th September 1962 –

21 – “How much did the Apollo program cost?” – The Planetary Society –

22 – “Apollo 11 Mission Overview” – NASA –

23 – “Blue Peacock” –

24 – “Russia deploys Avangard hypersonic missile system” – BBC News, 27th December 2019 –

25 – “NATO-WARSAW PACT: U.S. and Soviet Perspectives of the Conventional Force Balance” – GAO/NSIAD-89-23A –

26 – “NATO AND THE WARSAW PACT: FORCE COMPARISONS” – NATO Information Service, 1984 –

27 – “Tools of War: F-4 Phantom” –

28 – “The Truth About the MiG-29” – Air & Space magazine –

29 – “United States chemical weapons program” –

30 – “Novichok agent” –

31 – “Novichok agents: a historical, current, and toxicological perspective” –

32 – “Russian spy poisoning: What we know so far” – BBC News, 8th October 2018 –

33 – “The Secret History Behind England’s Deadly Sarin Gas Plant” –

34 – “Nancekuke” –

35 – “OPCW – Chemical Weapons Convention” –

36 – “OPCW by the Numbers” –

37 – “Soviet biological weapons program” –

38 – “United States biological weapons program” –

39 – “How the British Government subjected thousands of people to chemical and biological warfare trials during Cold War” – Independent newspaper –

40 – “Millions were in germ war tests” – The Guardian newspaper,

41 – “The Truth About Porton Down” –

42 – “Customary IHL: Rule 73. Biological Weapons” – ICRC –

43 – “The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty at a Glance” –

44 – “START I” –

45 – “U.S. Withdrawal from the INF Treaty on August 2, 2019” –

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