The Cold War Technological Arms Race

The Cold War was about far more than the development of nuclear arsenals. It also required the continuous development and industrialisation of new technologies in all areas of competition between the superpowers, but especially those which could give a clear military advantage.

Winning at warfare has always needed both the willingness to fight, the physical resources to fight with, and gaining a technological advantage over your opponent.

Consider these two examples from the 15th Century:

It is reported that Henry V won the Battle of Agincourt on October 25th 1415. The English army had already been weakened by their late summer campaigning and the siege of Harfleur.

Then, on this field of battle, Henry’s 6,000-strong force was outnumbered by between 2-1 to 5-1 (records of the size of the opposing French army vary) (1).

Good tactics with the positioning of his army gave Henry a strong defensive position, but arguably it was his archers, protected behind an outward-facing wall of sharpened stakes, that finally tipped the odds in his favour. Longbow technology, in the hands of skilled archers, helped the English to overcome a significantly larger force.

Leonardo da Vinci
Public Domain

Or consider Leonardo da Vinci selling military ideas for patronage, like in this 1482 letter to Ludovico Il Moro Sforza, the Duke of Milan:

“I have methods for making very light and strong bridges, easily portable, and useful whether pursuing or evading the enemy; and others more solid, which cannot be destroyed by fire or assault…

If the place under siege cannot be reduced by bombardment, because of the height of its banks or the strength of its position, I have methods for destroying any fortress or redoubt even if it is founded upon solid rock…” (2).

Whether the fighting was happening in the 15th Century or the Cold War of the 20th Century, the need for technological innovation was the same.

However, rather than just killing armies or sieging cities, Cold War nuclear weapons could obliterate cities. Deterring the use of those weapons required an unprecedented balance of equally capable technologies.

Nuclear Deterrence, ‘Launch on Warning’ and C3I systems
For the first time in history, modern electronic devices and computers gave Cold War military leaders truly global C3I capabilities: Command, Control, Communication and Intelligence.

As semiconductor chip technologies improved, so C3I became more integrated, with high-speed, high-capacity systems linking human inputs to ICBM silos, ballistic missile submarines and bombers waiting for their “Go” orders. Eventually, the time needed to launch these formidable weapons was reduced to mere minutes – in a ‘Launch on Warning’ (LOW) scenario they could be fired either tactically while the enemy’s missiles or bombers had been detected in flight and before any had actually detonated, or strategically, if intelligence warned of an immediate enemy launch.

The development of computer networks: ARPANET and MILNET

One key US technological development was ARPANET, the forerunner of today’s global internet (3). ARPANET, created by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA – a branch of the military tasked with developing top secret weapons and systems) enabled computers to be interconnected and share information.

When the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the US were shocked into wondering if they were falling behind technologically. Beginning with the Eisenhower administration, the US began a programme of massive investment in military technologies. One of many such programmes, ARPANET was operational from the late 1960s to 1990 (although some commentators believe it was not an overt military technology, the network was split in 1983 when the encrypted MILNET was created solely for military use) (4).

MILNET (and ARPANET) could continue to operate even if individual communication nodes had been destroyed, helping the US to demonstrate its ability to function after a nuclear strike, and therefore hopefully deterring the Soviets from making such an attack.

The Soviets developed their own computer and communications systems, and made use of Western technologies. By 1986 the US Reagan administration was protesting about Soviet Intelligence having access to Western computer databases (5).  

Computers and Supercomputers

The development of increasingly sophisticated nuclear warheads proceeded in tandem with increases in the power of computer chips.  

Richard Feynman
Public Domain

Scientists working on the Manhattan Project in WW2 had very little computing support available to them when designing the first atomic bombs. Most of their calculations were made by hand using Marchant calculating machines. In ‘Los Alamos From Below’, Nobel laureate Richard Feynman describes how he worked with a team using banks of new IBM machines – adding machines called tabulators, multipliers, collators and sorters – to speed up those calculations. While they were waiting for those machines to be set up they tested their ‘program’ with teams working their Marchants on dedicated functions (adding, cubing, so on). They eventually got up to the same speed as they expected to get from the IBM machines, but unlike the teams, those machines didn’t get tired and could work three shifts (6).

Technology did not stop with big banks of machines dedicated to particular individual functions. Today the development of supercomputers is one of the frontlines in the emerging New Cold War (between the old US and Russian superpowers, and emerging superpowers like China and India) (7).

These machines are essential for modelling and testing nuclear warhead designs without the need for atmospheric tests.

In March 2019, the ‘Summit’ supercomputer at the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory was being heralded as the world’s most powerful, rated at 200 petaFLOPS (1015 floating point calculations per second) (8).

China is now emerging as the strongest superpower to challenge the US. Both nations are racing to build exascale machines – computers capable of making 1018 calculations per second (9).

The US is expected to have finished its first  exascale computer at Argonne National Laboratory (near Chicago) in 2021, and China is also likely to have completed one at roughly the same time… the latest technological race has already started.

Satellite technology

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.

The Space Race had started. Whoever controlled space controlled the skies, with the ability to send missiles to any place at any time, and all with remarkable accuracy.

Developing rocket technology capable of lifting satellites into orbit and sending men to the Moon was a complex, dangerous and expensive project. For example, overall, the Apollo programme cost the United States around $28 billion between 1960 – 1973, or about $283 billion in today’s money, when adjusted for inflation 17 (10).

In my opinion, any scientific and technological developments for civil society arising from the Space Race were by-products of military goals like:

  • Being able to use satellites in orbit as an unassailable (in the Cold War era) vantage point for monitoring your enemy’s forces,
  • Having a global, real-time military satellite-communications capability that is not inhibited by the curvature of the Earth or interference in the atmosphere,
  • Developing the rocketry ability to either repeatedly send astronauts to the Moon, or send an ICBM to any spot on the Earth’s surface, at any time, with exceptional accuracy.

Science Fiction author Arthus C. Clarke had predicted the use of geostationary communication satellites in 1945 (11). It was quickly realised that the doppler shift in signals from Sputnik gave a way of tracking satellites in orbit, which then prompted the inverse question: ‘… if you knew where the satellite was, could you calculate your own position on the Earth’s surface?’

The more accurately you know your own current position, the more accurately you can aim your nuclear missiles.

The US strongly desired this capability as it developed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), mobile nuclear missile systems, ICBMs and its bomber force (ground, sea, air – the ‘nuclear triad’).

The costs seemed prohibitive for most purposes, except for countering the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union (12), and eventually the Global Positioning System (GPS) was created.

GPS is a satellite-based, radio-navigation system operated by the United States Space Force. The first prototype satellite was launched in 1978 and the original, first ‘constellation’ of 24 satellites was completed in 1993.

Developing GPS was a complex technological and engineering challenge, spanning the 1959 US Navy ‘TRANSIT’ system for locating submarines, through Aerospace Corporation work in 1963 on systems to track fast-moving vehicles either in the air or on the Earth’s surface, to the 1978-85 NAVSTAR system that became GPS.

NAVSTAR satellites carried atomic clocks for timing signals, and some had sensors for detecting nuclear launches or detonations (13).

Civilian use of GPS technology was only authorised by President Reagan after Korean Air Lines Flight K007 was shot down in 1983 by the Soviets near their prohibited airspace around the Kamchatka Peninsula (14). However, the system could be degraded or deactivated for non-US use, if needed.

In the New Cold War era, other countries have developed, or are developing, their own global or regional satellite navigation systems. The Russian system is called GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System) and has had complete global coverage from 2000 onwards, with similar accuracy to GPS (15).

Not all technological C3I systems need to be high tech…
C3I does not always involve the use of multi-billion dollar systems.

Military Intelligence operates in the continuum of Mysteries, Secrets and Plans (16), seeking to predict what the enemy will do in the future. Mysteries include the unknowable inner thoughts, motivations and drives that guide the enemy leaders’ war planning. Secrets include the tangible systems, technologies and plans that the enemy is hiding in the interest of national security. If you can eavesdrop on the enemy’s strategic planning sessions then you essentially have a silent seat at his top table, and a tremendous insight into his future plans.

In 1945 the Soviets presented William Harriman, the US Ambassador in Moscow, with a carved replica of the Great Seal of the United States. A listening device made from passive electronic components was hidden in the carving. It was only activated when a radio signal of the correct frequency was sent to it from an external transmitter (17). Now known as “The Thing”, it hung in Harriman’s Moscow study for seven years until it was discovered, betraying his private conversations.

The Cold War took the scientific and engineering complexity of seeking technological advantage over the enemy to a level that dwarfs anything that had gone before. Physics, mathematics, chemistry and engineering were combined in ultra-complex ways to produce nuclear weapons and the vehicles for “delivering” them, tools to spy on the enemy and global systems to organise your own forces.

These technological developments and the ongoing increases in their capabilities are here to stay – the challenge for global society is to ensure that a balance is maintained and neither side gains such an advantage that it is tempted to start a superpower war… the consequences of that are almost too horrific to imagine.


1 – “Battle of Agincourt” – Encyclopedia Britannica –

2 – “Leonardo da Vinci’s Handwritten Resume (1482)” – Open Culture website –

3 – “The Internet Book” – Comer, Douglas E. – Prentice Hall, 1994 – second edition – pp. 54-56

4 – “How the Internet was born: from the ARPANET to the Internet” – The Conversation webzine –

5 – “Soviets possess access to Western data bases” – Computerworld Magazine – 24 Feb 1986 –

6 – “Los Alamos From Below: Reminiscences 1943-1945” – Richard Feynman –

7 – “Second Cold War” –

8 – “Summit (supercomputer)” –

9 – “Testing Nuclear Weapons is More Important Than Ever” – Discover webzine –

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

11 – “The 1945 Proposal by Arthur C. Clarke for Geostationary Satellite Communications” –

12 – “Global Positioning System” –

13 – “First Strike!: The Pentagon’s Strategy for Nuclear War” – Aldridge, Robert C. – South End Press (1983) – chap 4.

14 – “GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to Smartphones” – Easton. Richard D. – Potomac Books (2013) – chap 6.

15 – “GLONASS General Introduction” – ESA Navipedia –

16 – “Intelligence Services in the Information Age” – Herman, Michael – Routledge (2001) – chap 1

17 – “The Thing (listening device)” –

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