Events during the arms race

Nuclear development

Both sides competed with each other to obtain more nuclear weapons than the other. They also tried to develop more powerful weapons (see table below).

Each side aimed to achieve the possibility of a first strike. This was for example, the ability of the USA to neutralise all of the USSR’s nuclear capabilities before they could launch nuclear weapons back at the USA.

Because of the secrecy surrounding the number of nuclear weapons each superpower had, both countries believed the other was ahead.

The USA believed there was a ‘Missile Gap’ in the 1950s and massively increased spending to try to catch up.

YearWeapon development
1949USSR tests its first atomic bomb
1952USA tests its first hydrogen bomb
1953USSR tests its first hydrogen bomb
1957USSR tests its first intercontinental ballistic missile
1957USA tests its first intercontinental ballistic missile

Delivery systems

The aim was not just to amass more weapons than the other side, but to invent more effective delivery systems.

The first atomic bombs were delivered by bombers, but these could be slow and vulnerable and there would have to be airbases positioned around the world.

Delivery of nuclear warheads by missile became a reality by the 1960s, with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs).

Both the USSR and USA began to develop missile technology that could put rockets in space. This opened up new possibilities for the delivery of nuclear weapons.