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Complex systems

Chaos and the arms race

04 Dec 1998

Chaotic equations may be more accurate in predicting the effect of arms build-ups than policy analysts. Governments are frequently concerned when their neighbours start stockpiling weapons, particularly when they are weapons of mass destruction. However, when both sides are engaged in an arms race, tensions are raised and slight misjudgements in assessing the situation could, as happened with the Cuban Missile Crisis, bring the world to the brink of destruction. Masaki Tomochi and Mitsuo Kono from Chuo University in Tokyo believe they have a model that can accurately assess the value of arms races (Chaos 8 808).

In the early 1960s Lloyd Richardson had developed a dynamic model to foresee the outbreak of war. He believed that there were three processes that a nation responds to: the external threat (the enemy), the fatigue factor (how much the military costs the public), and the grievance factor (hostility and justifications for going to war). His model suggested that there are only two possible outcomes during a arms race: bankruptcy or war. However, other researchers suggested that there are levels of predictability on whether both sides will go to war. In some cases, for example, nations go to the brink of war and then pull back, a scenario not covered in Richardson’s model.

Tomochi and Kono adapted his equations to include chaotic variables. They believe that three factors in particular affect the outcome: personal enmity could promote armaments – such as Germany after the First World War; deterrent would suppress the growth of arms race; and that large differences in the size of armaments between nations could encourage irrational actions by some states. It also highlights how slow responses to international crises cause a more chaotic and dangerous response. This, the authors say, is better at predicting the real world, with small, internationally isolated countries such as Serbia, taking more hazardous actions that could lead to war.

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