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REVIEW: The Baroque Arsenal

John Pendergrast (reviewer) — September 1984

Mary Kaldor. Abacus, by Sphere Books Ltd., London, 1983. Paperback, 239 pages. $6.95.

Sometimes the arms race seems to be nothing more than a massive boondoggle, and the Russian threat nothing more than a convenient justification for the self-enrichment of the weapons makers.

In The Baroque Arsenal, however, Mary Kaldor paints a rather more complicated picture. For one thing, although it consumes vast amounts of government money, weapons manufacturing does not generate massive profits. In fact, the arms manufacturers hold the government in thrall through their particular manufacturing sector’s financial precariousness, not through its economic vitality.

Present-day arms manufacturing is, according to Kaldor, based on the technology of the automotive and aircraft industries, technology that has passed its economic prime and is being supported, at tremendous cost to the economy, by the government.

Citing Joseph Schumpeter and Nikolai Kondratieff, Kaldor argues that capitalist economies develop in “long waves,” each wave associated with a new technology. As each technology develops, it goes through three different stages of product and process development.

The first stage consists of rapid product development, as with automobiles early in the century, airplanes in the 1920’s, and computers in the 1970’s.

In the second stage, once basic product innovations have been completed, process innovation becomes dominant, as manufacturers seek cheaper, more efficient means of production. This second stage represents the crests of the technological wave, as prices come down and distribution expands.

In the third and final stage, manufacturing and distribution processes have become more or less standardized, and competition now occurs through product differentiation. Product development in this period tends to drive up prices without significantly improving the product. As markets approach saturation, excess manufacturing capacity becomes a problem. This, plus the expense of product innovation in the context of an already established manufacturing process, tends to reduce profits within the sector.

As one technological wave subsides, another wave rises, and normally resources are shifted from the dying wave to the rising one. When for one reason or another this does not occur, product development continues, but in ever more bizarre and non-functional ways, and the products become ‘baroque.’ This, Kaldor argues, is what has happened in arms manufacturing.

During wartime, certain kinds of weapons prove effective, and the capacity to manufacture these weapons is therefore enormously expanded. Afterwards, reduced arms expenditures produce a critical degree of over-capacity in the very sectors which are credited with having won the war. Rather than face the loss of a vital national resource, the government begins to place new orders.

Once begun, the process cannot easily be stopped. Not only does the government find itself spending more and more money in order to preserve an artificially large arms manufacturing capacity, but the capacity preserved is that required to re-fight the past war. Tanks and aircraft won World War II; therefore tanks and aircraft continue to be the dominant forms of weaponry. These weapons are becoming increasingly anachronistic and ineffective, even as their technological sophistication re,aches dizzying heights.

The pernicious effects of the deficits generated by the current over-expenditure by government are becoming increasingly obvious. Ms. Kaldor’s contribution is to point out that over-expenditure on armaments in particular tends not only to depress the economy but to warp its shape and prevent its natural development.

The arms manufacturing capacity of the automotive and aeronautical sectors so carefully preserved after World War II in the name of national security would by now have been superseded without government intervention.

With the armaments sector overexpanded and financially weak” and with the government the only major customer, competition among arms manufacturers and designers is fier. ceo The military, however, tends to be conservative — the weapons it appreciates are like those that won World War II, and the performance characteristics it wants improved are the ones found valuable in that war.

The arms manufacturers are thus forced into the kind of product innovation associated with the last stages of a dying technology. Marginal improvements are made at an increasingly marginal cost. Weapons become more sophisticated, versatile and complex — the weapons system becomes the dominant form of armament. With increasing complexity, the cost of the system also increases, with the consequence that governments can afford fewer and fewer different systems, and therefore each system becomes even more complex in an attempt to serve different purposes.

Kaldor cites the case of the MultiRole Combat Aircraft, the MRCA Tornado, called by Helmut Schmidt “the greatest technological project since the birth of Christ.” Too expensive for any single European nation to produce on its own, the Tornado was a collaboration by Britain, Germany and Italy. Each country however, had different demands of the plane, and the resulting compromise has satisfied no one. The same applies to U.S. planes designed to serve both the Air Force and the Navy.

Increasing complexity requires elaborate logistics, creating, int he terminology of weapons systems, a longer and longer “tail” in proportion to the “teeth.” Increased complexity also means a higher failure rate. The helicopters sent to rescue the American hostages in Iran, for instance, had a mean time between failures that was less than the time required to fly from their carrier to the landing site, so that their failure in Iran was not really surprising.

The parts and skilled personnel required for these complex weapons systems are in notoriously short supply — many weapons systems are more often than not unready to perform at any given time. Vietnam, Kaldor states, showed that baroque weaponry, while extremely destructive, is not militarily effective.

Recently much has been heard of Precision Guided Munitions (PGM’s), the most famous of which is the cruise missile. These arornaments are based on new electronics technology, and unlike the baroque weaponry produced by the automotive and aeronautic sectors are cheap and easy to mass produce. Do they represent an escape from the cycle of baroque weaponry?

Kaldor is skeptical. A PGM-based military strategy .. amounts to a repudiation of the present organization of the armed forces,” and in periods of peace, organizational inertia tends to take precedence over military effectiveness. Further, if the baroque nature of modern weaponry is indeed the consequence of the relationship of the arms industry to government, the same dynamic will sooner or later affect any kind of weapon.

Kaldor also points out that while the United States is presently a leader in the production of microchips, it is Japan which is moving most quickly to capitalize on their potential economic benefits, for the simple reason that American interest in microcircuitry is so heavily military. Thus the development of the current wave of technology is already being distorted by the demands of the arms industry.

Behind the distortion of technological waves demonstrated in The Baroque Arsenal lurks the old choice between guns and butter. It is certainly true that the prolonged allegiance in the Western world to the military thinking of World War II no longer makes either military or economic sense. However, the really important fact is that military needs, even if intelligently supplied, are different from civilian needs. A guidance system for a cruise missile . is not useful to control a robot on an assembly line. The organization required to customize a weapons system for the Pentagon is not the same as the organization required to mass produce and market a consumer item. Attempts by weapons manufacturers to diversify into the civilian market have thus had very limited success.

The Baroque Arsenal shows in more detail than can be indicated in a review just how the armaments process occurs in the West and the Third World. (The Soviet Union is handled somewhat sketchily, though interestingly.) The book is in fact well worth reading for the research alone, even though the results of this research sometimes do not fit exactly into the conceptual framework of the book.

Even when this occurs, it does not represent a major flaw, since the theories expressed in the book, interesting as they are, are put forward ‘only in order to facilitate comprehension of the material.

The book is always readable and interesting, and in an area dominated by obfuscation has an air of common sense and realism.