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Lensman Arms Race

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"First we got The Bomb and that was good
'Cause we love peace and motherhood
Then Russia got The Bomb, but that's OK;
'Cause the balance of power is maintained that way
Who's next?"

This is what happens when countries attempt to build a Bigger Stick or prove that My Kung-Fu Is Stronger Than Yours.

If a military conflict goes on for any appreciable length of time in a high-tech setting, each side will be struggling to become and remain stronger than the other — often by producing better equipment and weapons. As one side advances technologically, the other feels the need to keep pace, and then to go even further to get an advantage. Sometimes, this process of Serial Escalation goes way over the top (especially with Soviet Superscience).

Truth in Television, naturally, with the decades-long Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union as the Trope Codifier and the inspiration for many Arms Races in fiction. As a result, these Arms Races usually have rapid inventions of Nuclear Weapons-parallels, Space Weaponry, Mutually Assured Destruction, and other Cold War-era tropes. The Trope Namer is E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman novels. Over the course of a decades-long struggle (that was only the surface of a deeper, eons-old war between cosmic beings using mortals as pawns), Civilization and Boskone went from ordinary starship battles to star-powered lasers, antimatter bombs, planets used as missiles, antimatter planets used as missiles, faster-than-light missiles, faster-than-light antimatter planet missiles...

If somebody tries to argue that arms races are evidence that competition and the constant drive to survive and kill each other more effectively motivates humanity's progress, they are likely to be a Social Darwinist.

"Moore's Law" is this trope applied specifically to computer technology, stating that roughly every eighteen monthsnote , we see a doubling of transistor density (and thus hardware capabilities).

If the factions aren't actually inventing their new stuff, but recovering ancient Lost Technology, it's an Archaeological Arms Race.

See also: Plot Leveling, So Last Season, Sorting Algorithm of Evil, Serial Escalation, Space Cold War.

Not to be confused with the rather less bloody Escalating War.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Gundam:
    • Mobile Suit Gundam (original Universal Century timeline): The Principality of Zeon launches a war with their mobile suits (at the time, a new technology). At the start of the first series, the Federation has just produced the RX-78 Gundam, a Super Prototype Humongous Mecha with the armor and weaponry roughly equivalent to that of a battleship. By the end of that war, only a few months later, Zeon has begun mass producing mobile suits that are almost even with the Gundam. Seventy war-filled years later, the Victory 2 Assault Buster Gundam is 3 meters shorter than and half the weight of the RX-78, and boasts an inertialess drive system, a force field and more firepower than every Mobile Suit from the One-Year War put together.
    • Mobile Suit Gundam Wing has a bit of a Lensmen quality to its mobile suit development. Initially the Leo mobile suit is a formidable weapon especially in the hands of a competent pilot. In the first episode we even see Zechs take out Heero's gundam using nothing but a Leo (albeit sacrificing the suit in the process). Soon the Taurus comes out, and the series is dominated with images of Taurus' tearing Leos to shreds. Then comes the Virgo, a much more innovative mobile weapon which is seen tearing Taurus' to shreds (and Leos too). The culminations of this arms race are Gundam Epyon and Wing Gundam Zero, both capable of massacring whole armies of Leos, Taurus', Virgos and basically every other mobile suit seen before them.
    • Mobile Suit Gundam 00 has this happen right around the end of the first season and takes off from there. By the end of the second season, they've gone from mostly present day levels of technology to fleets of battle ships, armies of superpowered mechs, a gigantic space station with a super laser, and a Mobile suit capable of going through matter and connecting people's minds. The movie, though not technically an example, essentially continues this process to... well escalate. In the second season this get's lampshaded by Andrei.
      Yet another new model. What kind of budget and manpower are the A-Laws working with?
    • Mobile Suit Gundam SEED and its sequel are also notorious offenders. It starts out at roughly the same tech level as UC, with one side having just produced its first mobile suit prototypes. By the end, one side has a Wave-Motion Gun Kill Sat that can sterilize Earth with just two shots. In the sequel, we get combining and transforming mobile suits by the hundreds, the Destroy Gundam (followed by half a dozen more), the Neo-Genesis which is a smaller version of the aforementioned Wave-Motion Gun, and the Requiem, the strategic weapon to end all strategic weapons: a Roboteching Wave-Motion Gun that can hit anything anywhere, without line-of-sight.
      • There was also a subset of the Lensman Arms Race revolving around nuclear weapons. Prior to the start of SEED, the Earth Alliance had used nukes as their great equalizer against ZAFT's advanced technology. ZAFT responded with the Neutron Jammer (or "N-Jammer"), a piece of Applied Phlebotinum that somehow blocks nuclear reactions...and has the side effect of interfering with radar and other missile guidance systems. ZAFT spreads millions of the devices all over Earth and the surrounding space. This is later countered by the N-Jammer Canceller, which is exactly what it sounds like, allowing both nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered mobile suits to be fielded. Then in the sequel, ZAFT brings out the Neutron Stampeder, an energy wave that forces nuclear reactions in any fissile material it hits. This is used to halt an Earth Alliance nuclear strike attempt by blowing up the nuclear missiles while they're still in their launch tubes.
    • The tendency of this to happen in Gundam was given a nod in Mobile Suit Gundam AGE when one Vagan commander observed that starting a war is a good way to kick-start a technological revolution.
  • Yoshiyuki Tomino really loves this trope, as his other main franchise Aura Battler Dunbine has it in spades. Human technology is introduced into the medieval fantasy world of Byston Well, and the countries in civil war quickly capitalize on it, starting with part-organic part-steel insect mecha swinging giant swords at each other, to the end of the series where the hero is flying a transformable fighter jet armed with cannons that can wipe out a small city in a single shot, launched from a kilometers-long Airborne Aircraft Carrier with even bigger guns.
  • Mazinger Z: Throughout the series, the title Humongous Mecha has to be constantly upgraded and endowed with new weapons and capabilities in order to battle Dr. Hell's increasingly powerful Kikaiju. Of course it drove Hell to create still more dangerous Robeasts and when Mazinger Z finally could not catch up, it was replaced with an entirely new robot, Great Mazinger.
  • Chainsaw Man is a Magitek example. All the world's superpowers are in a Cold War replacing the development of conventional weaponry with Faustian bargains and attempts to create demonic Super Soldiers. The President of the United States is contracted with the Gun Devil while the other world powers are waiting for the chance to use it to destroy the others, Bomb Girl is a Russian spy, and the Prime Minister of Japan is contracted with the Control Devil (Makima). The reason for all this is that guns and bombs stopped being an option in order to avoid empowering their respective devils, and Chainsaw Man erased nuclear weapons from existence.
  • Code Geass:
    • The first example of Real Robot technology was used in combat seven years before the series, consisting of ground-based Knightmare Frames armed with machine guns, recoil-less rifles, and cannons. At the start of the series, most of these have been replaced with a newer generation of Knightmares, but they are still limited in their abilities. The second episode introduces the first Seventh-Generation Knightmare, a Super Prototype with experimental weapons and technology, but still ground-based. New technologies are introduced as the show's first season progresses, including flight packs, radiation waves, and Hadron cannons.
    • By the middle of its second season, the main named mecha in the show have become flying Super Prototypes with radiation waves, Hadron cannons and Beehive Barriers, only one year after the end of the first season. For comparison, this would be like going from the first jet fighters of World War II seven years before the series, to Vietnam War era fighters at the start of the first season, and then the bleeding-edge Real Life Cool Planes of the modern age only a year later. And then X-Wings and TIE Fighters, a few months after that.
  • Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann does this with the title Humongous Mecha. The heroes start out with a little robot the size of a car (the Lagann), but by the end of the series, becomes the nucleus of a gargantuan battle beast that can hurl galaxies as shurikens. It also does this with awesomeness. Hand Waved on the grounds that the entire universe is powered by Spiral Energy, which causes the scale of events to spiral outward like this. Of course, it helps that every major upgrade save the last one is achieved not through actual technological development but rather by stealing technology from enemies or finding technology of the defeated previous Spiral Warriors. Indeed, it's heavily implied that at least some of it isn't even "real" technology at all, but rather Spiral energy made manifest.
  • GunBuster engages in some of this as well, going from fairly sci-fi standard space vessels and Gundam-ish robots to using Jupiter as the core of a Black Hole Bomb to destroy the center of the galaxy to wipe out the race that wants to kill humanity.
  • The Macross franchise is a subdued version, by virtue of there not being an overarching bad guy for the heroes to have an arms race against. There was a big jump in the original Super Dimension Fortress Macross as mankind used salvaged alien technology to build giant spaceships and transforming Humongous Mecha, but since then, not much has really changed in the sixty-or-so year time span of the franchise besides a shift to energy-based weapons, some more portable and advanced Faster Than Light drives, and increased use of AI-controlled drones, with the only big development being DME weaponry (a space-time warping weapon, which is really just a weaponized extension of the aforementioned FTL tech), which is capable, if built on a large enough scale, of an Earth-Shattering Kaboom.
  • Transformers Super Godmasterforce has one of these drive much of the conflict, revolving around the energy that powers the titular Masterforce called Chokon Power. The initial Autobots and Decepticons have the ability to shrink down and take organic forms (the Autobots living amongst humanity while the Decepticons opt for more monstrous forms), but save for the ability to use Chokon Power in one or two Desperation Attacks aren't that different from Transformers from previous shows. However, both sides then realise that combining a human with a lifeless Transformer body called a Transtector grants the resulting being a much higher control of Chokon Power. At first the Autobots their Tagalong Kids to join up as the Headmaster Juniors, after which the Decepticons reveal their own trio of kids who also become Headmaster Juniors. The Decepticons then introduce the Godmasters, two brothers whose Transtectors are so powerful a Healing Factor is the least of their powers. A good chunk of the show is dedicated to both sides trying to find and recruit these Godmasters, and towards the end of the series both sides are looking for ways to augment the Godmasters even further. The Decepticon leader eventually decides that the only option is to wipe out all life on the planet, lest the Godmasters get to space and join in the larger war going on.
  • GaoGaiGar escalates rapidly, especially when the show starts Growing the Beard. When the series starts, a single monster mostly threatens a skyscraper, the enemy spends most of its efforts to make a single Zonder metal plant, and at the end of the arc, nearly transforms 75% of the city into one. By the end, nearly every monster is its own plant, and the final battle is fought against the moons of Jupiter.
    • The villains of Gao Gai Gar Final takes the logical next step by creating an evil duplicate of the Solar System, powered by a sun made of G-Stones. To which the heroes respond by revealing what they'd built to deal with threats at the level of the aforementioned battle on Jupiter: a a hammer that crushes the sun.
  • Based on the booklet of StrikerS Sound Stage X, this trope led to the destruction of Ancient Belka in Lyrical Nanoha. With the Ancient Belkan War entering a deadlock, the various factions promoted weapon research more intensity. Eventually, a weapon that proved too powerful was either used or became unstable, and the Ancient Belkan empire, together with the majority of its people, was wiped out, prematurely ending the war. This sequence happens repeatedly in the universe. Al-Hazard destroyed itself; survivors settled Belka. Belka destroyed itself; survivors settled Midchilda. Midchilda... almost destroyed itself, but turned back in time. So far.
    • And the race is re-started again in Magical Record Lyrical Nanoha Force with the Dividers able to render useless any magical weaponry showed at the time, thus forcing the TSAB to take a risk by making weapons that convert magic into conventional energy to power up physical attacks, getting closer and closer to breaking their once stone-settled ban on mass-based weaponry.
  • Getter Robo starts off with a single Humongous Mecha fighting monsters, to every nation on Earth having them and engaging in conflicts of World War proportions, to epic wars in space between galaxies. The action grows in scale and the mecha in size rapidly from there, and peaks at the point where one of the mecha is larger than galaxies and can stand toe-to-toe with God. Overall, this series is something of a Deconstruction of the idea. The main characters are trapped in a Lensman Arms Race because the Getter Rays, the energy of evolution, keeps pushing them forward regardless of the consequences for the universe. The antagonists are fighting them to prevent this, but by attacking humanity they only make them stronger. This results in a vicious cycle of increasingly escalating power that will eventually destroy the universe.
  • In Claymore this trope turns out to be the real reason Claymores and related demonic hybrid beings are developed. The nation is gearing up for a war with another nation that has successfully militarized dragons of all things.
  • In Gall Force, the arms race between the Paranoids and Solnoids results first in Kill Sats capable of an Earth-Shattering Kaboom, and then logically proceeds to Star Killing Kill Sats as the next logical step.
  • Zoids would dip into this from time to time, but the most prominent example would be how the Ultrasaurus ended a 50 year war in a few months. A few years later, the Death Saurer was introduced and destroyed all opposition, including the Ultrasaurus.
  • Dr. STONE has a more low-tech example of this. Due to a mysterious incident that turned all living beings to stone, thousands of years passed and everything human civilization has built has crumbled to dust, resetting all of human progress for the few survivors who managed to recover from their petrification. Fortunately, one of the survivors is Senku, a genius among geniuses, who intends to speed through millions of years of technological development as quickly as he can. With Senku reinventing things like mortar, sextants, soap, and alcohol within two years after his depetrification. When Tsukasa is awakened by Senku; he goes rogue and plans to stop the reestablishment of human civilization to enforce a perpetual Stone Age, with Senku as his direct opponent he must kill. Senku planned to use Nitric Acid (which when combined with Alcohol could create "Miracle Water" that's needed to depetrify Humans) that was kept at "The Miracle Cave" to create Gunpowder; only for Tsukasa to take control over the Miracle Cave, so Senku ends up having to try and skip from primitive wooden crossbows to the invention of Steel Swords, Wireless Telephones, and later Cars just to stand a chance to defeat Tsukasa.
  • Rebuild World: A buildup like this is what led to the two strongest gangs in the slums, Ezont and Hauritas, having not only armies of mercenaries with high-quality Powered Armor, but tanks and Mini-Mecha as well. For comparison, most slum gangs mostly consist of essentially Gangbangers. This naturally earns them the ire of the government, who trick them into a massive Mob War as part of their plans to get rid of them.
  • Magilumiere Co. Ltd.: Kaii are slowly growing stronger over the course of the story because of the increasing proliferation of magical energy. This requires magical girls to use more magical energy to defeat them, which in turn causes the Kaii to mutate and grow even stronger to compensate. Shigemoto explicitly designed the Alice System to exterminate Kaii with the minimum amount of energy required, while opposing the deregulation of magical energy out of fear that the Kaii will become too powerful for magical girls to contain.

    Comic Books 
  • Transformers: Animated comic "Everything Must Go". It is based on the Dr. Seuss book The Sneetches, just replace the Sneetches with Lugnut and Blitzwing, the merchant with Swindle, and the stars on their stomaches with every other weapon in Transformers mythos. This ends with the destruction of New Kaon, after which Lugnut and Blitzwing catch on and rip Swindle apart.
  • IDW's Transformers fiction treats Combiners as an equivalent to nuclear arms. The first, Monstructor, is a horrific abomination that was sealed away by Omega Supreme, and when the Decepticons learn about it, they pull out all the stops to try and acquire him in order to make their own. The Autobots, meanwhile, are so concerned about this happening they're willing to abandon Earth to Megatron to reclaim Monstructor.
    • In The Transformers: All Hail Megatron, the Decepticon have in fact managed to build their own Combiner, Devestator, who requires the aforementioned Omega Supreme to stop. In the follow-up series, Swindle's creation of Menasor is treated as the equivalent to an illegal nuclear weapon.
    • The follow up series, The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye and The Transformers: Robots in Disguise, both show that the Decepticons have in fact been after the secrets to combining since the war began, and it's part of the reason Megatron approached Shockwave in the first place. And the Decepticons aren't above the odd unethical experiments to get it, even causing one or two 'Cons to defect in disgust. The metaphor is taken to its conclusion when the Autobots finally get their own combiner, Superion, and it's played as an Oh, Crap! moment.
  • Ultimate Marvel
    • This is a major plot point in The Ultimates, crossed with Genetic Engineering Is the New Nuke. After the public debut of the Ultimates, various foreign nations begin trying put together their own teams of superhumans, such as Alpha Flight and the Liberators. The final arc by Mark Millar has the Ultimates racing to stop military dictatorships like North Korea from developing their own superhumans.
    • Ultimate Vision: The Gah Lak Tus module has destroyed the bombers. Colonel Fury, orders?
      Nick Fury: As grandma Fury used to say, back in the day, when in doubt, escalate.
  • Comes up if you read a lot of X-Men. Of the original five members, the strongest hero, Beast, had the strength of a gorilla. Over several decades, the "strongest hero" title has passed around to Colossus (who can fight The Incredible Hulk), Rogue (during a time where she could fight the Hulk and fly), Phoenix (who could destroy minds and eat suns), Namor (able to fight the Hulk and fly, plus half a century of combat experience and an army of monsters on call), Magneto (who can break the planet if he wants), and others. Beast himself has gotten much stronger, once casually mentioning the ability to bench press 70 tons, and this still doesn't put him anywhere near top-tier. Meanwhile their enemies have followed suit: the Sentinels began as mere 12-foot-tall rebel robots; they gained teleportation, have created duplicate heroes, got used by cyborg hate groups, have grown big enough to kill whole countries or small enough to mimic an illness in mutants.

    Fan Works 
  • The Butcher Bird has the pirate alliance known as The Wild Hunt kick one off against the World Government Navy, with Bio-Augmentation and new weapons (including modern-style firearms) changing the balance of power in a previously Age of Sail setting.
  • Child of the Storm has this, in large part because of its MCU basis, but also in large part because Doctor Strange is manipulating events to prepare Earth to take on Thanos. As in canon, the Tesseract was used to produce weapons by HYDRA and later by SHIELD (that didn't work), while SHIELD also had Alan Scott, allied with the First Class of X-Men (Xavier, Sean Cassidy, and Hank McCoy), contemporary with other factions such as Weapon X (Wolverine and Sabretooth), the Red Room's Winter Guard (led by Natasha and the Winter Soldier), and a pre Heel–Face Turn Magneto. Then, in the 21st century, the Avengers Initiative kicked off (eventually gaining Loki as a member), while Iron Man style suits proliferated, and thanks to Jane's New Bifrost tech, Earth has de facto interstellar travel. In response, HYDRA dug up the Darkhold and the Winter Soldier, started using dimension-manipulating tech and stolen Vibranium, and enlisted an Omnicidal Maniac necromancer from the Nine Realms called Gravemoss.
    • In the sequel, the Red Room get in on the dimension manipulating act, along with major league genetic warfare, while MI13, Britain's spooky secret service, have got in on the act with a monstrously powerful vibranium-hulled Helicarrier of their own called the Valiant that's capable of going toe to toe with a dragon that's known for destroying planets. Meanwhile, the Avengers' de facto roster and allies expands to include War Machine, Doctor Strange, Wanda Maximoff, Harry Dresden, and Magneto. Meanwhile, the X-Men have Storm, a fully powered Jean Grey, Scott Summers, , and Remy LeBeau a.k.a. Gambit a.k.a. Remy Summers. All in the space of five years, if that.
    • Even Harry's friend group, repeatedly indicated to include a number of proto Young Avengers, not only has Carol Danvers a Super-Soldier, Uhtred - a young Asgardian warrior, a teenage Wonder Woman, and young Flash in Jean-Paul Beaubier, but also Maddie Pryor, and a certain Clark Kent.
  • Sudden Contact: The aftermath of the Great War leads to the breakdown of relative peace in both Citadel space and the Koprulu sector, leading to the development of, among others, newly advanced powered armors and the Waygate system, a pseudo Mass Relay system.
  • In Pokémon Reset Bloodlines, the Trainer and Ranger nations are grouped together in formal alliances, the T.A.T.O (Trainer-Aligned Treaty Organization), and the Ranger Union (known also as the Fall City Pact), and there's a lot of tension between them. A sidestory has Belmondo attempting to recruit Clemont for a think tank based on Lumiose University to develop weaponry to deploy against the Rangers, but Clemont's father Meyer refuses.
  • A lot of Code Geass fanfics, especially those that redo the entire series, has this happen due to the fact that Lelouch is able to get Rakshata early, or in the case of The Black Emperor, is able to develop his own prototypes.
  • Fallout: Equestria: In the backstory, when the war started the world had just started producing firearms. By the end of the war they had Powered Armor, PipBucks that could cast a number of minor but useful spells, StealthBucks, non-pegasi flight, Artificial Intelligence, Brain Uploading, Wetware CPUs, Bio-Augmentation, were starting to crack true transponyism, and of course the megaspells. These were all developed over a few decades. Even hundreds of years after the apocalypse, with most of the technology lost, the scavengers in the Wasteland still have a higher tech level than the ponies before the war.
  • In Innocence Once Lost side story "Enemy Unknown," this gets deconstructed by showing the consequences of trying to reverse-engineer technology you know nothing about. Several Pony technicians studying human technology die in accidents that a human tech with basic knowledge would know to avoid, such as one trying to pull out a high voltage wire with his mouth, or some ponies putting what turns out to be a barrel of fuel next to a fire because they can't read human warning labels. Several of their discoveries don't have any practical aplications: they can't use human guns with hooves, and their research into human Super Serum shows most of them either don't work on ponies, don't do anything useful, or are useful but would be unethical.
  • In The Smurfs That Canon Forgot, Scaredy and his faction adopt increasingly severe methods to protect themselves and Smurf Village in the wake of Papa and the other displaced smurfs abruptly disappearing. While this violence deters some of the adversaries who'd expected them to be easy pickings with their leader gone, others (like Gargamel) up their efforts, leading to both sides resorting to increasingly desperate measures. It takes Gargamel losing a hand to a malfunctioning defense mechanism for things to calm down.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Doomsday Weapon from Dr. Strangelove was built by the Soviets to reach an unsurpassable upper hand over the Americans. It's a system that will poison the world's atmosphere for decades if it detects a nuclear attack on Soviet equipment. The Americans would never dare attack them knowing they had such a system. However, General Ripper launches his attack on Russia before the weapon is announced, creating the Foregone Conclusion to the movie. And a nuclear holocaust can't stop the arms race, because now the Americans have to move people into mine shafts as they wait out the radioactivity on the surface. Fearing the Soviets will move more people into mine shafts and have superior numbers when they emerge, Buck Turgidson declares, "We can't allow a mine shaft gap!"
  • In the film The Men Who Stare at Goats, and the book its based on, and in real life, the United States Army started research on new age and psychic powers because they heard Soviets were researching those things as well. The Soviets supposedly started the research because they heard a rumour the Americans has started research...
  • This is going on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
    • When the Tesseract is introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger it was used to produce weapons by the Red Skull, and when put into the hands of the good guys for the next 70 years it was deemed too dangerous to experiment on. In response to the discovery of Asgardians in Thor, S.H.I.E.L.D. started looking into tapping into the Tesseract again. Asgardian Loki is tasked to retrieve the Tesseract and deliver it to Thanos, in return taking over the planet; to accomplish this, he brings the alien Chitauri army to Earth. When this proved unsuccessful, thanks to the first evocation of the Avengers Initiative, Thanos is informed that Earth is much more dangerous than expected, which only makes him more interested in us. Later films in the MCU introduce more items like the Tesseract and identifies them as the Infinity Gems (actually stones), which reaches a head in Avengers: Infinity War where Earth is a battleground for control of the remaining Infinity Stones.
    • On a smaller scale, Iron Man 2 has the US government trying to take the Iron Man tech because they're afraid other nations will copy and mass-produce it before they can. Stark counters with evidence that enemy nations' attempts at this are failing hilariously, but nonetheless shows that they're trying. Then Ivan Vanko shows up and proves that Tony's not the only genius who can make advanced powered armor tech, adding fuel to the government's arguments. By Iron Man 3 Tony is trying to leapfrog himself, building faulty armors, because of his fear of not being prepared for new threats.
  • Kung Fu Hustle:
    • The Crocodile Gang attacks a police station, beating up the cops. They are attacked when they leave the station by the Axe Gang. Then the Axe Gang intimidates the people of Pig Sty (including the petty criminal protagonist Sing, until three seemingly ordinary tenement residents reveal themselves as kung-fu masters, and defeat the Axe Gang. So the Axe Gang recruits two assassins, who go to Pig Sty and kill the three heroes, but then Landlord and Landlady reveal themselves as even greater masters, and defeat them. So now the Axe Gang recruits the most dangerous master of all, the Beast, who defeats Landlord and Landlady. Now more powerful than the entire Axe Gang, the Beast returns to Pig Sty, but discovers Sing has transformed into a true master.
    • Worth mentioning that Sing, now a redeemed man, ends the cycle of escalation using a technique named after the Buddha, defeating the Beast without killing.
  • The DC Extended Universe has this happening almost instantly, using the dramatic events of Man of Steel as a springboard.
    • Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice shows that having a being as insanely powerful as Superman dramatically alters world politics but also inspires certain individuals to try and provide countermeasures to him. Batman and Lex ended up fighting for control of a large chunk of Kryptonite, the only thing that can harm Superman. By the end of the film it is speculated that something bad is on the horizon, and they'll need to gather a team to face it in Justice League.
    • Suicide Squad suggests that this Boxed Crook team would be another factor in trying to ward off Superman in case he turns against the world. Before Superman the knowledge of metahumans was kept to a minimum, but ever since he showed up he's been a "beacon" to pull them out of the shadows. The actual film is set after the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where Superman dies, so it's revealed that the Suicide Squad was formed to ward off "the next Superman".
  • The Star Wars franchise has The Empire and its successors doing this. There was the original Death Star which could blow up a planet. The second Death Star was even bigger and an improved close range defense. The novels gave us the Sun Crusher which does what its name indicates. The Force Awakens has Starkiller Base, which is an entire planet that uses an entire sun to power its weapon that can destroy multiple planets at the same time from light years away.
  • Plan 9 from Outer Space has a typically bizarre speech by the alien soldier Eros about how humans started by building small, "harmless" explosives and gradually escalated to the point where they're about to build a weapon that will explode particles of sunlight, and thereby blow up the universe.
  • In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the Klingon Empire develops a cloaking device that can enable such an equipped warship the ability to fire torpedoes while still cloaked; an unprecedented ability and a massive tip in the balance of power. The Enterprise gets battered by its untouchable foe in the climactic space battle... until the heroes surmise that despite its cloak, it must still emit fuel exhaust somehow, and devise a plan to graft a sensor to catalogue gaseous anomalies into a photon torpedo guidance system. The Klingons' latest and greatest martial terror gets undone by a quick hack job on a torpedo using off-the-shelf parts when the torpedo is finally fired and inexorably homes in on its mark.

  • Lensman also gave us the Sunbeam; a whole star system altered to function as core, coil and vacuum tubes for a beam that directs the full power of the star into a fleet- and planet-annihilating beam. Lensmen and their rivals, Boskone, routinely flung planets at one another at relativistic speed in lieu of normal relativistic projectiles found in other novels. By the end they develop a way, both sides, to create wormholes that allow them to fire FTL planets at one another from intergalactic distances. Nevermind the fact that, originally, their "Super-Mauler" class battleships were created to kill relativistic planets in battle, and by the end both sides were producing them by the tens of millions and using them as frontline battleships. They mass-produced Death Stars! Ironically the Super-Maulers proved ineffective...because the Boskone forcefield tech was amped up before they were deployed, ergo they simply started using them as battleships instead. The Sunbeam was considered a stop gap against relativistic planet bombardment until they developed something better.
    • The FTL antimatter planetoid projectiles mentioned in the opening paragraphs? Yeah they start mass producing those as well. Including smaller ones designed to be launched from bomber squadrons, and whole fleets of them to be used as interstellar bombardment against enemy planets and star systems. This was also considered a minor footnote by the end, where their FTL planets launched from wormholes could destroy star systems from intergalactic distances.
    • The Lensmen at one point were thrown into another dimension where the laws of physics are different. After finally figuring out how to return to their home dimension, they went back to the other dimension and modified two planets to be thrown at Boskone. When they did, the "foreign" planets hit the Boskone planets at 15+ times the speed of light.
  • A second, in some ways even more ridiculous, example from E. E. "Doc" Smith is his lesser-known Space Opera Skylark Series. By the final novel in the sequence, our heroes destroy two entire galaxies by teleporting every star from one into the close vicinity of every star in the other, causing each pair to collide and go nova, meanwhile teleporting every non-hostile world in the area to safe orbits around stars in a third galaxy, all while they themselves are safe in yet another galaxy entirely...! And all this only four books (and, at the most, a few In-Universe years) after the same human protagonists discovered space travel!
    • In both the Lensman and Skylark series, Smith combines fast evolution of weapons with a crazily short research and development cycle. The antimatter bombs go from theory to practice in a few months. In his proto-Lensman novel Triplanetary, agents of the Triplanetary fleet refit their own side's guided missiles to accept guidance from a totally new, recently-discovered means of communication... in the middle of a battle. And it works. Of course, the crazily short R&D cycle was something of a commonplace in all the pulp science fiction of that era, and is echoed by accomplishments in WWII a conflict which started with prop-driven biplane fighters, 3- and 5-tonnes machine-gun armed tankettes and a general level of technology not much distanced from WWI and ending (six years later) with the battlefields bristling with 55-ton armoured behemoths, jet powered fighters and bombers, flying bombs, ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs. "Doc" Smith was a Ph.D chemist who spent WWII developing explosives for the U.S. goverment. Most of the Lensman books were written in the context of World War II (Galactic Patrol and Gray Lensman were published shortly before the war during the rise of Nazi Germany, and Second Stage Lensmen was published during the war).
    • In Skylark, the Lensman Arms Race only really gears up when the protagonists encounter a very ancient civilization whose Hat is Science. They have worked out pretty much everything thousands of years ago... too bad they didn't have any of the atomic catalyst until the heroes showed up. And then our heroes learn how to transfer knowledge between brains. Between that and their spaceships, they can synergize the knowledge of different species to leapfrog millennia of R&D.
  • David Weber:
    • Honor Harrington
      • Though nowhere near as over-the-top as Lensman, note  the series started out as a Recycled In Space retelling of English and French naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars, and the technology advances mirror actual advances in naval warfare. Smooth-bore cannons to rifled guns (multi-drive missiles). Armor ("bow and stern walls" energy shielding) to aircraft and aircraft carriers (LACs and CLACs) to radio (faster-than-light comms) to guided missiles (project Ghost Rider) to radar guided gunnery (Apollo). Submarines are creeping in with the Mesans' new "stealth" spider drive, and their single-shot laser missile that behaves suspiciously like a homing torpedo.
      • As the series progresses the trope becomes stronger: the Mesan Alignment reveal two new super-duper space drives, an entirely new biological "mind control" weapon, and that's just the first few things we've seen coming from their centuries-long supersecret R&D program.
      • Honor Harrington also shows what happens when said two sides team up to defeat a third group armed with equipment that's twenty years of constant warfare out of date.
    • Weber's Starfire series showcases realistically depicted arms races spurred on by the current conflict, with specific technologies and tactics being designed to counter the enemy's latest gimmick, while at the same time still managing to follow the respective races' (often) wildly divergent military doctrines.
    • It also shows up in a Technology Uplift set-up in the Safehold books, and in his standalone novel The Excalibur Alternative. Safehold in particular is all about invoking this trope, as the main character, Merlin Athrawes, tries to bring the Lost Colony of Safehold out of its Medieval Stasis by helping introduce innovations to one country to force the rest to try and catch up.
  • See Dr. Seuss' The Butter Battle Book for a version of this trope in poem form as a satire of the Cold War.
  • Subverted in the Arthur C. Clarke short story Superiority, where the side which tries out the new technology in battle (without adequate field tests) loses. This was a clear allegory for World War II and the German investment in "superweapons" and over-engineered supertanks as compared to the Allied investment in Boring, but Practical equipment. Lesson: In industrial war, industrial capacity is more important than the quality of the weapons. Unless, of course, your weapon is The Bomb...
  • Subverted in Computer War, by Mack Reynolds, the advanced side uses alarms that can detect laser fire to help guard their buildings—which are useless, as the saboteurs use bows and arrows to kill the guards. Also, although this side has a massive conventional military advantage, the weaker side is winning by fighting guerrilla-style, and only in easily defensible terrain (mountains, swamps).
  • Played with in Philip K. Dick's The Zap Gun, where a pair of weapons designers, one on each side of the Cold War, are continually coming up with what are ostensibly new weapons. In reality, though, everything they come up with is immediately repurposed into harmless knick-knacks. This helps keep the Cold War cold, but proves disastrous once aliens invade, and the world is defenseless. They end up getting the aliens to leave by getting them addicted to a video game.
  • In the German pulp Sci-Fi series Perry Rhodan (started in 1961 and still running), the story started with the title character, Perry Rhodan, being the first human to land on the moon. 10 issues in, he was commanding an interstellar cruiser, and in another ten issues in he achieved immortality.

    More than 2000 issues followed and stuff grew grander and grander in scale: Cosmic Powers of Order and Chaos, called "Kosmokrats" and "Chaotarches" by the less-advanced races, are forever fighting for supremacy, using mortal species and even ascended beings as chess pieces because they cannot interfere directly. The Chaotarchs try to literally unmake the laws of physics and return the multiple universes to a state of ur-chaos where they can thrive, while the Kosmokrats seed life and sentience throughout the galaxies and try to defend the "cosmic code" from tampering.
    • While the Kosmokrats appeared to be the Good Guys in the beginning (sponsoring space-faring races, granting immortality to certain exceptional individuals to further their plans) it became more and more apparent that they treated "lesser" races like chess pawns, and reacted badly to anyone trying to leave their service. As they claimed, they saw a bigger picture. Existing outside time and space, these transcendent entities were no longer able to imagine or sympathize with the plight of mortal races, even though they had started out as whole races of mortal species eons ago.
    • Turns out the cosmic superweapons of the Kosmokrats were often just as destructive as those of the Chaotarchs; in one instance, servitors of the Kosmokrats were ordered to destroy a whole galaxy (and all civilizations in it) down to the subatomic level rather than seeing it fall into the Chaotarchs' hands. Somewhere in midseries, Perry Rhodan showed them the finger in parallel to what happened in Babylon 5.
  • Stephen Baxter's Ring: The Xeelee use cosmic strings to build a Kerr metric with which they can escape into another universe. This structure (the Ring) is so massive that it is pulling all galaxies for quite some distance towards it, at high speed. The Xeelee's antagonists, the Photino Birds, go one up on this by arranging galaxies around the Ring to form a resonance cavity that will shake the Ring apart.
  • Belisarius Series: The series starts out with fairly normal armies for the late antiquity or early middle ages. In particular, heavy cavalry is hugely emphasized. Thanks to Alien Space Bats, however, they start moving up the tech tree very rapidly. It starts with primitive gunpowder weapons such as handheld rockets and siege cannons. By the end of the series, they're using breech-loaded rifles, ironclads, and radio.
    • In an alternate future where only one of the two sides comes back to the past, the bad guys develop tanks. It didn't happen in the main series timeline because they started the war far earlier, so the bad guys didn't have as much time to prepare.
  • Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream. The body of the book is (ostensibly) an award-winning novel from an alternate universe where Adolf Hitler migrated to the United States and became a science fiction writer. Over the course of the novel-within-the-novel, the hero and his cohorts develop (or reinvent) technology at an astonishing pace until a final confrontation with the villain unleashes nuclear weapons and forces the heroes to invent cloning technology and interstellar space travel in no time flat. The book deliberately takes advantage of established tropes in science fiction and fantasy to try and force a comparison with Nazism. Although it is patently satiric, some readers have taken it at face value (including the American Nazi Party), thus subverting the subversion.
  • In a rare fantasy example, The Wheel of Time. The first book has fireballs and single bolts of lightning as enormous feats of power, and the idea of facing down 1500 Trollocs is an earth-shattering prospect. By the 11th volume, we're at uses of magic that can melt the planet if performed incorrectly, and an attack by 100,000 Trollocs is considered an assassination attempt.
    • Unlike many examples of this trope, though, it was planned from the start. The story revolves around prophesies of The End of the World as We Know It, and the Distant Prologue of the first book features a channeler creating a volcano by accident, so the potential was there all along. Especially since said channeler is the past incarnation of the main character.
  • In Alan Dean Foster's Humanx Commonwealth universe, this occurred between two Precursor races in the series' Back Story. The Tar-Aiym were individually powerful, warlike, and technologically advanced; while the Hur'rikku were prolific and persistent. Panicked by the Hur'rikku threat to use their planet-destroying anticollapsar weapon on Tar-Aiym worlds, the latter embarked on a hurried program of weapons development. The program eventually led to the release of a "photonic storm", a plague that travelled from world to world, wiping out all life forms more complex than single-celled organisms over a vast region of the galaxy, including the Tar-Aiym and Hur'rikku themselves. 500,000 years later, this region becomes known to the expanding Commonwealth as the Blight.
    • It later turns out that the Tar-Aiym constructed, but never used, an entire artificial planetoid constructed entirely out of Krangs, a single one of which is enough to destroy a fleet and the combined might of all of them is sufficient to rip a hole across spacetime that can destroy entire star systems. And when that weapon proves ineffective against the Great Evil, The Hero Flinx has to go looking for an even bigger one built by an even older race.
  • In The Eschaton Series by Charles Stross, this is slated to happen at some point in the future. Albeit one-sided as Eschaton, in a simple display of its power drew humans from all different time periods and scattered them across the stars. The other side in this arms race is a Nazi cult that uses mind uploads to store knowledge. Somehow in the future they're able to get power fast enough to avoid being warped into a blackhole. The "present" of the series shows that whatever they developed, it was stronger than Eschaton and that it was achieved pretty quickly in order for it to beat Eschaton's omniscience and omnipresence.
  • Something of a subversion in the Frank Herbert short story Cease Fire. The war is in something of a standoff, with both sides using small manned stations. A techie invents a device to detect and remotely detonate the power supplies in these hidden bunkers, ending the fighting at a stroke. The military top brass are deeply upset at this discovery, because they know that Humans Are Bastards and destroying the effectiveness of this relatively clean style of warfare will only mean that in a generation or two humanity will escalate to something worse in order to wage war. They're proved right by the afternote, which implies that biological weapons became dominant in the next major conflict.
  • Briefly referenced in Small Gods, with regard to the Moving Turtle (a steam tank designed by the young philosopher Urn). In the event, though, it doesn't come to that, partly because the Turtle doesn't work ( Lu-Tze can spot something that could change history, and takes steps) and partly because Om forces the other gods to stop the war altogether.
    "What if we do keep it? It'll be a... a deterrent to other tyrants!"
    "You think tyrants won't build 'em too?"
    "Well... I can build bigger ones!" Urn shouted.
    Didactylos sagged. "Yes," he said. "No doubt you can. So that's all right, then. My word. And to think I was worrying."
    • On the Disc, the use of war elephants is pretty much this trope. The elephants themselves aren't much good for anything but spooking their own cavalry and trampling their own infantry, but the finest military minds of the world have decided to keep making them bigger and more impressive.
  • Magic: The Gathering novel The Brother's War has the title war between two nations consist of an increasing arms race mostly fueled by the title Brothers. Starting out with a few scavenged and re-fitted machines left behind by the Precursors, and ending with giant mechanical dragons, flights of Da'Vinci-esque fliers, robot soldiers, combining mechs, and shapeshifting clay golems.
  • Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book, Cat's Cradle, in which something has been invented which could totally wipe out all life on Earth. Try to guess whether or not the two powers involved in the real life nuclear arms race of that time fall over one another trying to be the first to acquire it.
    • And of course, it's an insane 3rd party that accidentally unleashes the thing, destroying the world, illustrating the inherent danger and instability of any Mutually Assured Destruction scenario (like the cold war).
  • David Wingrove's Chung Kuo novels have a period of this, after Stefan Lehmann's attempt to conquer Europe through brute strength stalls. The front line in his war against Li Yuan's forces becomes suicidally uninhabitable as both sides seed no-mans land with increasingly deadly drones and smart mines, and the stalemate is only broken when the Big Bad Howard Devore arrives and tries to annihilate all life on Earth.
  • The Star Trek novel Final Frontier by Diane Carey (not the novelization of the movie) claimed that the Romulans developed the cloaking device because Enterprise's first captain (with Kirk's father as his second-in-command) tricked them into believing the Federation had one.
  • David Drake's Northworld trilogy includes a planet of "giants" (basically, people who are 5 feet tall and five feet wide, strong as can be, smarter than normal people; it's based on Norse myths) who live in isolated citadel-cities, and who are constantly at war with one another, building more powerful weapons, tanks, etc. The engineer, Ritter, is a super-genius who could win the war for his citadel yesterday, but he only designs slightly better weapons because if he did it wouldn't be fun any more.
  • Explicitly referenced in Larry Niven's Down in Flames, a tongue-in-cheek outline for his last Known Space novel. "Before it's over, we'll need billions of human protectors. It's a Flash Gordon/E.E. Smith war, with superior Tnuctip technology battling tools and weapons worked up on the spot by a billion Dr. Zarkovs. [...] I'm not strongly tempted to write this story. The scale of things near the end gets bigger than I like."
  • Happens over the course of Shadows of the Apt. In the first book, they start off with crossbows, slow flying machines, and crude gunpowder weapons. A man in full plate armor represents the pinnacle of personal defense. Then one character invents the snapbow (an armour piercing, fast reloading gun based off of compressed air), which makes killing so easy that there's an ethical debate about making more of them. By the end of the series, everyone has snapbows, plus fast and deadly ornithopters and fixed wing bombers, super heavy computer controlled artillery, and Nigh-Invulnerable spider tanks. There are also radar analogues and lightning based super weapons, and an experimental railgun shows up at one point.
  • Not nearly as crazy as Lensman, but the First Galactic War in The History of the Galaxy is a good example of technological escalation taking place over the decades-long conflict. Despite the name, the war was confined to a few dozen systems in our corner of the galaxy. The technologically-advanced and militarized Earth Alliance attempts to subjugate the disparate and largely peaceful colonies in order to forcibly offload excess population from the homeworld. However, the colonies band together and form a unified front, despite, initially, using a rag-tag fleet of converted ships to counter Earth's strike fleet, and the projected quick conflict turns into the bloodiest war in human history. First, the standard tanks and troop transports of the Alliance are surprisingly easily fought off by the colonists of the planet Dabog using their unique Walking Tanks. Since then, nearly all manned planetary combat vehicles are of the walker type due to their superiority to the traditional treaded and wheeled vehicles. The Alliance starts producing better and more automated walkers with advanced AI systems, partnering them with human pilots for an unprecedented partnership. To counter them, the less advanced colonists mass produce their own walkers, relying on their superiority and determination. Eventually, the Alliance AIs get so good that, even in the event of the pilot's death, his AI can continue the fight using the same tactics and ferocity. The colonists counter with the development of the less advanced but cheaper and mass-produced Attack Drones of both walker and treaded variants, who lack true AI but can network together for coordinated attacks. In space, both sides try to outdo one another in more advanced and deadly weaponry with the Alliance, once again, placing its faith on greater automation and AI usage. The colonists eventually develop a Wave-Motion Gun that shoots a burst of Anti Matter that can obliterate a small planetoid and anything in the vicinity, which quickly becomes a deterrent-type weapon due to the uncontrolled nature of a matter/antimatter reaction and the inability to scale it down. The Alliance makes several failed attempts to get their hands on one. Even a thousand years after the war, its horrors are still present in humanity's racial memory, and many space and planetary graveyards are still home to roaming machines that are still attempting to fulfill their programming, and a good number of novels involve wartime echoes threatening to unleash destruction upon humanity again.
  • Kris Longknife: One develops in the Guilt-Free Extermination War against the Planet Looters that begins in Daring, who have enormous weight of numbers (to the point where the aliens are willing to sacrifice themselves in the billions to kill their foes) and Beam Spam on their side and learn to innovate with their existing technology quickly (armoring their initially Glass Cannon ships with rock, then adding nuclear suicide bombers and Colony Drop ramships accelerating in from several jumps away), but have worse technology to start with, No OSHA Compliance, and Honor Before Reason attitudes that discourage experimentation and mean that few survive to learn from their mistakes. The human and allied alien forces fighting them (led by Kris) start with ships built to post-Iteeche War standards (ice armor and no reactor-fed lasers bigger than 18-inch), but by Unrelenting (only a couple years later In-Universe) are fielding rapid-fire 22-inch lasers on ships ships built entirely of nanomachines, able to maneuver at far greater accelerations with the crew staying comfortable, and armored with crystals that re-radiate incoming laser fire. And then we get to the "beam ships", million-ton behemoths built from Imported Alien Phlebotinum that are more scientific instrument than warship. They fight as kinetic artillery by using a technobabble beam to knock small but immensely heavy chunks off of neutron stars at .05 c.
  • E. William Brown's Daniel Black series features a protagonist from our world who is transported to a magic-based universe (but one where science still works.) He is allowed to select the elements he can manipulate magically before he is transported, and one of his selections is magic itself. He's a Magic Elementalist. When he arrives, he can barely throw a firebolt: by the end of the third book, he's creating arcologies with hundred-foot-thick walls (Not a hundred feet high, a hundred feet thick.) and making magical power batteries that work by converting matter directly to mana and impress even the Goddess of Magic, as well as a magical drone that converts matter to energy and emits a constant beam of high-speed neutrons, making many square miles of jungle so radioactive that every living thing in it dies in a few days. Meanwhile, his opponents go from throwing small packs of goblins at him to fielding armies consisting of millions of Bigfoot soldiers riding dinosaurs and shaman units that can cause earthquakes which level whole cities.
  • Isaac Asimov's "Let's Get Together": One of the things that keeps the Balance of Power between "Us" and "Them" is the continual exchange of scientific/engineering advances. Both sides have developed in several areas beyond modern-day; force-fields, solar power, insect control, mentalics, colonizing the Moon and Mars... However, "They" have been focusing on Robotics for the past decade, allowing them to create Deceptively Human Robots while "Our" scientists are far behind.
    For a hundred years each side had kept the struggle even. And in the process, peace had been maintained for a hundred years while, as byproducts of the continuously intensive research, force fields had been produced and solar energy and insect control and robots. Each side was making a beginning in the understanding of mentalics, which was the name given to the biochemistry and biophysics of thought. Each side had its outposts on the Moon and on Mars. Mankind was advancing in giant strides under forced draft.
  • Aeon 14 is made of the Lensman Arms Race trope due to the thousands-of-years long lives of the principle protagonists and the progressively larger inter- and intra-galactic conflicts they are involved in. Over the course of the novels, technology improves from fusion-based ramjets to FTL travel to warp gates, electrostatic shields, railguns, and beam weapons to nigh-invulnerable stasis shields and neutronium slugs fired at relativistic speeds through warp gates, nanotech to picotech which can grow ship hulls, dissolve ships in combat, or grey goo planets, summoning dark matter creatures which can devour space ships or even stars, and fighting ascended multidimensional beings which have what appear as essentially super-powers to three dimensional enhanced humans and Sentient AI's.
  • An early version appears in From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne, forming the backbone of Barbicane and Nicholl's rivalry with each other. During the Civil War, Barbicane produced ever-more powerful shells, Nicholl designed ever-more resistant armor plating for ships (though both were on the Union side). The end of the war prevented Nicholl from proofing his lastest masterpiece, and Barbicane continuously refused to have it tested, even with Nicholl giving ever-shorter ranges to test it at, and culminating with an offer of twenty-five yards with Nicholl standing right behind it.
    Barbicane returned for answer that, even if Captain Nicholl would be so good as to stand in front, he would not fire any more.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Danger: UXB. As the Bomb Disposal unit gains experience and better equipment, they find themselves up against more sophisticated German anti-handling devices, which in turn requires all the ingenuity of the British boffins to counteract.
  • Doctor Who:
    • Subverted in "Genesis of the Daleks": the war between the Kaleds and the Thals has been going on for a thousand years. It started with nuclear bombs and chemical weapons. By its end, the two sides were using a mish-mash of lasers and WWII-era weaponry due to resources being diminished over the course of the war. In the end the Kaled scientist Davros turns the "environmental suits" he was working on into the Daleks, who exterminate both sides.
    • Played straight during the Last Great Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks, culminating in not one, but two, reality-destroying weapons: the Ultimate Sanction (where Rassilon plans to sacrifice all of Time for the sake of defeating the Daleks) and the Reality Bomb (where Davros created a machine to un-make all particles in existence).
    • The Doctor comes to realise that simply being the Dalek's Arch-Enemy has forced them to lift their game in response.
      Dalek: We have grown stronger in fear of you.
  • John Crichton does this single-handedly in Farscape with his wormhole research. First he learns how to enter and fly in wormholes, from there he becomes an expert on discovering them when they open, then he learns to make wormhole weapons, the first can destroy a single ship by putting one opening in front of the ship and another in the corona of a star. The second and final wormhole weapon of the series is a black hole which nearly destroys the armadas of the two most powerful empires in the known galaxy. While this is happening Criton claims that the black hole could potentially destroy the entire galaxy.
  • Heisei-era Kamen Rider typically sees the main Rider gain somewhere between two and four progressively better enhancements to their main powers, each of which gets a turn to shine before the strength of the antagonists rises to match and eventually exceed it. The first Heisei Rider, Kamen Rider Kuuga, can level city blocks with the first enhanced form he gets, and has two more beyond that each implied to be exponentially more powerful than the last, with Ultimate Kuuga allegedly being powerful enough to produce an Earth-Shattering Kaboom if misused. Later Riders rarely get to quite that level of raw destructive power, but a typical Rider will go from vanilla Powered Armor to being metaphorically, or in some cases literally, godlike.
    • Kamen Rider Build features a more traditional use of this trope, thanks to its overall plot involving a divided Japan warring with itself and both Kamen Riders and Monsters of the Week being part of a secret government Super-Soldier project. The speed at which new upgrades are introduced escalates as the war goes from cold to hot: by the end of the show the Riders have to deal with a galaxy-faring Eldritch Abomination who devours planets, and their own powers have escalated to where this isn't an instant Curb-Stomp Battle even if they still have no real hope of beating him. Ultimately they take advantage of his addiction to this trope and trick him into blessing himself with suck under the guise of yet another upgrade.
  • Super Sentai / Power Rangers operates under similar conditions:
    • Power Rangers RPM had one of the more obvious and implicit examples: it is directly stated that, due to the robotic nature of Venjix and his forces, the Power Rangers' weapons will eventually become completely useless. As the series progresses the Zords they start with go from being able to deal with the monsters directly, to becoming inevitably obsolete in a few episodes, and likewise every few episodes a new Megazord, batch of Zords, or both is added to compete. By the end, it becomes a major plot point that Venjix is going to outmaneuver them if left to grow unchecked.
      • Put in perspective: in episode one, a year or so after the machine uprising, the RPM Rangers could still defeat Venjix's machines with their basic weapons, maybe needed a megazord. But machines progress faster than humans, and Venjix is shown openly learning from each defeat, so by the time of the Carrierzords arriving (ALL the carriers, they needed THREE, though only one was actually a carrier per se) show up they basically were only good enough to fight the enemy toe-to-toe, and not the Ultimate Battle System as such weapons are usually depicted. Venjix had already developed counters to them and was on his way to building a fleet of machines to overwhelm them. And again, this is probably the only Ranger team where three, separate Ultimate Battle Systems are necessary to fight the enemy—the Croc Carrier early on, almost immediately rendered useless by Venjix's evolving army, the Whale Jumbo Jet, which was useful for a while, then immediately replaced by the Paleozord unit (a trio of dinosaur-themed trains), which is within a few episodes shown to be outclassed by Venjix's evolving forces. So either they find a way to stop him fast, or he wins inevitably with no possible safeguard against him. In a way it makes the 'ho-hum, lost again, better luck next time I guess' response of Venjix after every battle make a lot of sense. He doesn't care if he lost, he'll start over again better than before. And by the very end, Venjix had basically won completely (partially because of this, but mostly because the typical setup was in fact a massive Gambit Roulette to disguise his real plan: infilitrating Corinth with tons of sleeper agents), and was defeated almost exclusively because of a combination of luck, stupidity and the grace of God! And even then, it's hinted Venjix is Not Quite Dead... which finally became relevant almost 10 years later.
    • In a reverse of the above, Power Rangers Zeo explained early that the Zeo powers were based on, basically, a perpetual energy machine: i.e., they continue to get stronger over time. While the Machine Empire, led by King Mondo, prove to be their equals or betters at first, by the arrival of the Gold Ranger this is completely the opposite. The addition of a new Carrierzord in Pyramidas, the Warrior Wheel, Super Zeo Megazord and various other gadgets basically seals the Machine Empire's fate. By the end of the series, the Zeo Rangers were fighting Mondo directly without the need for Zords at all in the final episode...something that would have been literally impossible at the beginning. But thanks to Executive Meddling, they got kicked back beyond even square one for the next season, Turbo.
  • In Stargate SG-1, it is initially a miraculous feat for humanity to figure out how to even operate a piece of advanced alien technology, namely, the Stargate. This turns out to be a risky move as they run into the Goa'uld, an egomaniacal alien race which rules various interstellar empires by using their advanced technology to pose as gods. Early on in the show, members of Stargate Command have to use ingenuity to adapt modern day weapons and what little alien technology they understand into methods of combatting the much more advanced Goa'uld.
    • In less than a decade, the SGC goes from special ops guerrilla tactics, and firing missiles through the stargate, to commanding a fleet of Earth-built interstellar starships. Most of this advancement happens after season 6 or so when Earth's first starship, the Prometheus, is completed and the US starts making squadrons of F-302 space fighters.
    • Replicators, however, take the cake. This race of sentient Lego bricks which form into spiders and endlessly build more of themselves were a threat so advanced, even the Asgard, a race that could pimp smack the Goa'uld, have to devote most of their resources to fighting them. At first, it is mankind's more primitive way of thinking that allows us to stand toe to toe with this menace. Since their replicator blocks are based on "kiron" pathways, an energy particle humans had not even discovered, SG1 decided the best response to a replicator threat was flying chunks of metal. This seems to work until the Asgard decide to screw it up by trapping the replicators in a time dilation field. Their stupidly brilliant plan backfires when the replicators are able to reverse the time dilation device just before it activates and advance thousands of years, creating new humanoid replicators (made up of nanobots instead of cells) that are immune to shotgun blasts! Not to worry though, because thanks to SG1 the device was reset properly, freezing the replicators in time just long enough for humanity to learn how to make a weapon that destroys kiron pathways. They first build a single kiron disruptor cannon, but later combine this device with Ancient technology to simultaneously wipe out all the Replicators in the Galaxy.
    • At this point, the Goa'uld are all but destroyed and no longer a threat to Earth; thus, a new villainous faction is introduced, the Ori. Whereas the Goa'uld were aliens posing as gods, the Ori basically are gods. They're immortal, incorporeal beings with vast power that grows from people worshiping them. In their final bout of Lensman style ingenuity, SG-1 defeat the Ori with a device that "neutralizes" them. They later have to strip the last surviving Ori of its power with an ancient brainwashing device and an arsenal of Asgard technology.
  • Star Trek: Voyager followed this trope to some extent in their clashes with Borg vessels. At the end of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which Voyager spun off from, a single Borg cube plowed through 40 Starfleet ships trying to stop it (and an unknown number of Klingon ships who bolstered them) and nearly assimilated Earth. By the middle of Voyager, the title starship was single-handedly blowing Borg cubes out of space — and they had to create the technology to do so while stranded 70,000 light-years away from the Federation.
    • A more straightforward example between the Romulan Star Empire, Klingon Empire, and the Federation involving cloaking technology. In "Balance of Terror" Romulans use a new, but comparatively crude cloaking device violate Federation space and probe their defenses. A more advanced version is stolen for analysis by Starfleet in "The Enterprise Incident." Around this time, it's also implied that the Romulans have given cloaking technology to the Klingon Empire as part of a technology exchange during their brief alliance; bringing them into the arms race. By the TNG-era, the Federation has given up their right to field cloaking devices as part of a peace treaty with the Romulans. Interestingly, in TNG's "The Pegasus" it's reveled that rogue elements of Starfleet intelligence had equipped the starship Pegasus with an illegal prototype cloak that was demonstrably decades more advanced than anything the Romulans were fielding at the time. Notably, while both the Federation and Empire's tests of the technology ended disastrously, Starfleet's only failed due to operator error, while the Romulans' was catastrophically defective.
      • The Klingons, for their part in the arms race, seem to have been the only faction to have mastered operating a ship's transporters undetected while cloaked. Both the Romulans and the Federation (when equipped with a borrowed Romulan device) have been seen having to briefly decloak in order to beam people in or out.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • This has happened to professional wrestling as a whole, although it has been most drastically visible outside of WWE in the past decade. Moves that were considered devastating once-a-match nearfalls in the 70s, like the piledriver and the vertical suplex, have since become mundane moves. The powerbomb, considered the scariest and most dangerous move in the business when it was popularized in the mid 90s, is occasionally used as a mid-match move by modern wrestlers like Samoa Joe. WWE eventually took measures to curb this by implementing a "safe style" in 2005 in order to minimize the health hazards of the more dangerous moves being invented (as well as ensure that classic finishers like the Stunner, choke slam, and powerbomb still looked effective), but the wrestling world outside WWE continues to invent crazier head drops and more spectacular flips. This has the double effect of making older moves look weak and threatening wrestlers' health. WWE itself is likely to not change this policy of safe work due to the circumstances surrounding Chris Benoit's death.
  • Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling, started off with a relatively normal premise of pro wrestlers fighting martial artists of different styles but quickly became the most violent pro wrestling promotion the world had ever seen, combining the use of brawling, barbed wire and fire seen in the Southern USA (particularly Jerry Lawler's promotions) and Puerto Rico(primarily CSP/WWC), at one point actually partially melting a ring. Victor Quiñones would breakaway from to start two more promotions, W*ING and IWA Japan, that would then directly compete with FMW by using the same style. Soon there were scythes, boiling water, electricity and explosives being implemented in matches Giant Baba would describe as Garbage Wrestling. After the decline of these three no major promotion would again reach these heights, though FMW itself continued to exist as the "winner".
  • All Japan Pro Wrestling has a particularly awful case, extending to its splinter-rival, Pro Wrestling NOAH. The old finishers like the Tiger Driver and Folding Powerbomb just didn't cut it, so new, more vicious and head-dropping moves were invented to be the real finishers in big matches, so that the old finishers were now recurring moves. Then worse finishers got invented, leading to huge death-drops like the Burning Hammer and Tiger Driver '91. This is believed to have led to the eventual death of legend Mitsuharu Misawa in the ring, as his neck could no longer take the punishment.
  • The Dragon Gate promotion has been the worst offender of the new millennium, in the case of finishing moves. CIMA's Schwein went from instant victory to repeated nearfall in just three years; Naruki Doi's Bakutare Sliding Kick was reduced to The Worf Barrage; and Shingo Takagi's Last Falconry was replaced by an upgraded version that failed to keep opponents down (the renamed Original Falconry became a low-level impact move) while his death finisher, MADE IN JAPAN, suffered such Badass Decay that Shingo's rival BxB Hulk was able to survive three of them.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Battletech got into this pretty quickly. At the start of the game's first edition, the year was 3025 and humanity lived in a near-Scavenger World; the Humongous Mecha of the setting were near Lost Technology and every 'Mech design in the game (as well as most of the actual 'Mechs) was canonically centuries old because the tech base for further developments had been lost. After a few years in-game, a library of such Lost Technology was unearthed and shared with all the major powers of the Inner Sphere, rapidly kick-starting 'Mech and weapons design and improvement and causing each of the nations to build their own designs to respond to other nations' advances. In 3025, there were about 60 unique 'Mech designs available in the five Successor States, all of them relics of the Golden Age. 25 years later, that number had doubled, with most of the old designs still produced with the latest technology. The Clans only added to this as the Inner Sphere had to respond to them as well, to the point that by the Dark Age there are currently over 400 different 'Mech designs still in use in the Inner Sphere alone.

    Video Games 
  • Although it's often possible to win through peaceful means such as election or Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence, due to the existence of the Tech Tree, this is usually what happens in 4X games round about the midgame. In Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, for example, it's entirely possible to start a vendetta with a Chaos Gun (level 8 offense) and have a Quantum Laser (level 16 offense) by the end, and that's if the vendetta finishes relatively quickly.
  • This is a key part of all the Civilization games. At the beginning of the game you are basically throwing rocks at each other and by the end you are using stealth bombers, atomic bombs and giant mecha.
  • Metal Gear: After the Shadow Moses Incident. Due to an intelligence leak, the militaries of the world learned how to create and manufacture their own Metal Gears against major forces. Solid Snake formed an anti-Metal Gear activist group called "Philanthropy" with the focus of destroying Metal Gears around the world.
  • One Bad Future in Steins;Gate had every single country on Earth racing to be the first with a functioning time machine, which eventually devolves into a hellish World War III that leaves 5.7 billion people dead.
  • This also occurs within, and over the course of the XCOM games. The first game starts on New Year's with a group of soldiers, rifles, and rocket launchers. They've got lasers before the end of February. Around April, they're using alien plasma cannons that can burn through almost anything, and wearing armor made out of the hull metals of captured UFOs. Around the end of the summer, they're wearing Powered Armor and firing guided missiles that are even more powerful. Around October they can fly, and they ride a ship that can travel to Mars. Around November, at the latest, they're all psychic. The second game features much the same thing, but underwater (it's basically a carbon copy of the first game, so no advancement is expected). Chronologically, we then travel to The Frontier(TM) region of space and by the end of the game, we can travel through black holes to reach pocket dimensions, and have a bomb that can force supernovas from suns. And then Apocalypse just goes nuts.
  • In Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam both good guys and bad guys are constantly building huge papercraft figures to do battle with each other.
  • If series like Gundam and Getter feature this, surely putting the two of them together in Super Robot Wars games, along with a ton of other mecha, leads to this in spades. Let's put it this way: In one game, you get the Zeta Gundam (fresh off the production line, plans drawn less than a month ago) and the mass-produced version of the Zeta Gundam, the Re-GZ, at the exact same time. In Alpha Gaiden, Kamille Bidan comments that Heero Yuy's Wing Zero must have been developed before mobile suits were even invented. This isn't counting the fact that the V2 Assault Buster Gundam, mentioned above, is rolled out of the factory within a few years of the original RX-78 Gundam. So Yeah.
    • This actually is the motivation behind the Shadow-Mirror organization: They actively seek to use endless cycles of war to rapidly advance Human knowledge.
    • It is less pronounced but still present in the Original Generation subseries. For example, the Grungust Type-0 is treated as a top secret prototype in the beginning of the first game and there are multiple successors to the Type-3 by the middle of the second, which is only a few years later.
  • This is also found in Galactic Civilizations II. In fact, since one of the game's major gimmicks is the detailed customizability of the player's units, a great deal of the game is spent not just advancing up the (broad) tech tree, but also finding new and effective weapon and defense combinations for individual ships. The expansion packs, of course, add even more ridiculous technology, until by the end of the last expansion, you can build your own customized Death Star.
  • EVE Online is heading to this direction with the proliferation of Titans, ships so large that their gravitational pull can mess with the tides of the planet they're orbiting. The current count for Titans owned by players is measured in thousands, and the NPC empires are implied to have even more.
  • A variation of this occurs towards the end of TIE Fighter. The Empire has just built the more durable TIE Defender to deal with Rebel starfighters. Then Grand Admiral Zaarin steals a few dozen TIE Defenders and stages a coup. Thus the Empire is, from a certain point of view, in an arms race with itself. They counter the TIE Defender with the Missile Boat, a starfighter loaded with as many warheads as it can carry.
  • Homeworld actually manages to incorporate the Lensman-like game mechanics directly into its plot (and incidentally, the game is heavily inspired by the Lensman books).
  • In Star Control the Spathi backstory is that they were peaceful primitive people when some new predator showed up and started eating them, in an attempt to deal with the new threat they progressed from stone tools to atomic technology in less then a 100 years...
  • In Master of Orion II the player starts out with electronics, nukes, titanium armor, and lasers. By the endgame, they will be messing around with mining shafts that reach into a planets core, electron-state computing, artificial planets, neutronium, phasing cloaks, and low-level time travel.
  • At the start of Sword of the Stars, all races begin with peashooters and lasers that couldn't light up a cigar. By the end, tiny destroyers have been replaced with gargantuan dreadnoughts armed with Wave Motion Guns, and Colony Drop weapons. The randomized tech tree adds excitement to the game. The sequel escalates to the even larger Leviathans that can turret-mount most of the old fixed weapons.
  • Space Empires, of course, being a 4X game. You start with wimpy proton cannons, advance through the orchard of Tech Trees, and end up able to commit galactic genocide through scorched earth tactics by turning all your enemies' systems into black holes.
  • Happening in the M.U.G.E.N community with "Uber-Cheap" characters. We aren't talking about the likes of F1, Omega Tom Hanks, Rare Akuma, Legend Gogeta or A-Bomb here- these guys would die in seconds against an Uber-Cheap. We're talking about things like Chuck Norris (obviously), Oni-Miko-Zero (an edit of Reimu who KILLS the opponent before the battle starts), various modifications of Orochi from The King of Fighters series, and other such chars that cause seizure with their flashy, deadly moves. If any of these are defeated, expect their next update to come back with immunity to the move that killed it.
    • Right now, the lead seems to be taken by "Mathrus", a character that is purported to not only defeat the opponent before the battle starts... but also crashes MUGEN and the computer itself.
  • The first Tiberium War had GDI using what's basically the Abrams tank as it's main tank, and Nod using M2 Bradleys for their "Light Tank" The most advanced tech was arguably the Nod Obelisk of Light, which was fragile and extremely vulnerable to mass attacks and the GDI Orbital Ion Cannon that can destroy one building. Cut to The second Tiberium war and we have GDI Walking Tank war machines versus Nod Cyborg Supersoldiers, with one model in particular, the Titan, being a Main Battle Tank replacement and Prototype Railguns mounted on the expensive and extremely powerful Mammoth Mk. II. Following this, the Third war includes Rail gun retrofits for all GDI tanks, Laser ones for the Nod arsenal, Ion cannons that level entire bases and the Obelisk's latest incarnation is extremely durable and capable of sweeping a short beam over infantry squads to beat them. Zone Armor Elite Mooks start showing up. Then we have the Fourth War, where all the infantry are either in Zone armor for the GDI, or a Cyborg for Nod, Gigantic walking tanks that can rebuild themselves after taking massive damage, and all weapons are partially ionized.
  • This kind of conflict led to the current situation in Final Fantasy X, thanks to an arms race between Bevelle and Zanarkand that spiralled out of control and laid the world to waste. The still-active ultimate weapon of one side drives the plot of the game; the sequel deals with the other side's never-deployed ultimate weapon.
  • Star Ruler: You start without practical lasers or missiles and only the basics for everything else. By lategame you can build Ringworld Planets, casually even, go Star Killing through brute force firepower, cause Earth-Shattering Kaboom with point defence guns, build Clown Car carriers holding thousands of parasite battleships half its size and build ships larger than the galaxy.
  • Dominions does this with magic rather than technology. The early game typically consists of small scale battles between human armies with medieval weaponry. The endgame typically consists of dredging dead gods out of Tartarus, arming them to the teeth with ancient magical artifacts, and using them as One Man Armies.
  • Used as a handwave for the Gun Runners' Arsenal DLC in Fallout: New Vegas. When the DLC is installed, the player gets the message that because of the escalating war, the various weapon vendors are bringing out brand new stock, including weaponry, mods and ammo types.
  • Mass Effect:
    • In Mass Effect it's the reason why weapons go through so many roman numerals, and why the Geth introduced thermal clips in the 2nd.
    • To fight back against the Reapers and their minions, technology jumps by leaps and bounds in the sequels. Mass Effect 2 sees a reverse engineered Reaper dreadnought weapon mounted on the Normandy frigate.
    • In Mass Effect 3, the stealth technology pioneered by the Normandy in the first game is eventually applied by the Salarians to create stealth Dreadnoughts.
  • Phoenix Point: A game mechanic. As you progress through the game, the Pandoravirus creatures will develop new adaptations to fight your human soldiers. Mutations on creatures that are killed easily will be discarded in favor of mutations that allow them to fight longer and prove more effective, forcing you as a player to adapt your own playbook in turn to their changes.
  • This is the eventual culmination of Evolve's plot after the game. Once knowledge of monsters becomes widespread, humans react by developing tactics and weapons specifically to counter them. The monsters, who before could wipe out entire worlds with a single individual, respond by upping their numbers and integrating technology into their forms. By the end of the war, massive hordes of biomechanical reality warping monsters are clashing with the full military might of three galactic superpowers and assorted mercenary groups.
  • Kaiserreich: Legacy of the Weltkrieg has a Second Dreadnought Race in its backstory. After WWI ended in a German victory over France and a "Peace with Honor" with Britain, the Dreadnought Race resumed, and without any naval treaties to reign it in, it culminated in 100,000 ton monsters with fifteen 18-inch guns that make the historical Yamato look sane as the "standard" dreadnought battleships of most major navies and the crippling expense of building them was one of the major factors leading to the British syndicialist revolution that exiled the royal family to Canada. One of the first naval techs amounts to realizing that the current dreadnoughts are insane and oversized and overcoat and cutting back to more practical, higher-velocity 16-inch guns that can match the penetration of the old 18-inch guns while weighing less and scaling back the speed of the warships, making for one of the few times where more advanced naval designs are actually smaller, lighter, and cheaper.
  • An intro cutscene in some of the Worms games shows two worms in an arms race, beginning with swords and rapidly escalating through uzis, to tanks, and ballistic missiles. The cutscene concludes with a weapon that reminds us that these are worms after all.

    Web Comics 
  • Drowtales: The clans of Chel'el'Sussoloth have a magical version of this going on, as expained in detail here. First there was just three ways to use mana: sorceries, summons and golems. Then came the foci which let even the most untalented channel mana. This also made it possible to master different kinds of magic, which hit hard the Dokkalfar who only knew how to use one. The use of foci was countered by sheer force of numbers, which was then in its turn countered by more modern golem engineering. The answer to manatech were the nether arts, which forced the others to train special demon sealers. There have been hints that the next step is going to be biological warfare.
    • Snadhya'rune invests heavily in airships and anti-aircraft artillery (which gets used against her by the Saghress' increasing adherence to Wutai fighting styles and guerrilla tactics). Biological warfare is a miss, as the unfortunate No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup to the antidote means the disease becomes a pandemic. However, this only adds demand to Soul Jars , which are used as an incentive to turn assassins into suicidal killing machines unafraid to throw themselves to their deaths, and they'll come back so their training costs are long term! Except of course, Kiel's perfected Tar Demons are trained to hunt down and devour the 'immortal' souls.
  • Summarized and taken to its logical conclusion on this strip from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.
  • Schlock Mercenary:
    • The webcomic started with Nanomachines, Super Soldiers, Powered Armor, sentient AI, all-purpose fabricators, genetically engineered lifeforms, and an interstellar Portal Network. Then the Toughs' Mad Scientist invented the teraport, and technology's been spiralling upwards ever since.
    • There was also that bit where the author went on about how there are not only missiles and anti-missile-missiles, but also anti-anti-missile-missile-missiles, anti-anti-anti-missile-missile-missile-missiles, and so forth.
    • Then we find out that in the distant past, "grand warfare" consisted of "throwing big stars at little stars." And they had foundries that ate planets to build fleets. Petey has begun mimicking some of this in his war in Andromeda against a species of Eldritch Abominations; for his troops, the first step in combat is to secure the local star so that it can't be used against them.
    • All these terrible technologies end in the "soulgig," a teraport-derived device that uploads a mind straight into virtual reality, and is capable of doing so to entire planets at once. The mere existence of such a device leads to massive existential questions about the soul, and it's worse when they enter a situation where such devices are necessary. This is why all the precursor civilizations are gone; if they survived, they built massive worldships, cut all communications, and fled the galaxy.

    Web Original 
  • The fan-made video Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar has the Four Years war between The Federation and the Klingon Empire portrayed this way. Each side keeps trying to head the other off with better ships and tactics. At first, the Klingons win battle after battle with their superior D6 battlecruisers. Then Starfleet commissions the new Ares class, the first dedicated Federation warships. The new ships turn the tide, especially after Captain Kelvar Garth (later nicknamed "Garth of Izar" by the Klingons) pushes his own USS Ares to the limits and pulls off a daring maneuver that cripples the Klingon forces in the system. The Klingons, not content to let the Federation get away with this, starts building a brand-new, much more advanced ship class, the now-iconic D7. In response, Starfleet designs the even larger, more powerful Constitution class, as the Ares class would prove no match for the D7s. It's a race who can get their ships finished and deployed faster. Played with in that both sides agree that if the Klingon high council had listened to their main commander Kharn, they could have had the D7s deployed in time to immediately counter the Ares before they had much effect. Only their arrogance after early successes prevented a complete Klingon victory.
  • Skibidi Toilet Series: The two sides of the story end up falling into this after fighting for long enough. The toilets create a Puppeteer Parasite that shifts the numbers to their side? The Alliance create an Energy Weapon that can neutralize these parasites. TVmen are using their screens to stun toilets or make them flush themselves? The toilets just wear shades to block the rays. As the series continues, various characters and weapons pop up on each side to counter each other in increasingly destructive ways.

    Western Animation 
  • Justice League eventually evolves to a plot line of the League being so powerful and outside government control that multiple factions start preparing for the League turning against them. The secret research team Cadmus, headed by Amanda Waller, begins recruiting their own metahumans and elite groups like the Suicide Squad. The instigation and origin can be placed at multiple points. Season three and the start of the "Unlimited" subtitle is when the League expands to includes dozens more heroes (and builds the Watchtower with a Wave-Motion Gun). "A Better World" from season two shows an Alternate Universe where the League took over the world and became the Justice Lords. There are also ties all the way back to the Grand Finale of Superman: The Animated Series, "Legacy", in which Superman is Brainwashed and Crazy and invades the Earth in the name of Darkseid, which is credited as the first beginnings of Cadmus. Once the Cadmus arc comes to an end, the Legion of Doom forms because now the villains need their own sanctuary against a better unified League.
  • The Simpsons:
    • Parodied when Itchy and Scratchy draw progressively bigger weapons on each other and finally end up with enormous pistols that wrap around the globe.
    • Discussed in a "Treehouse of Horror" episode:
      Kang or maybe Kodos: That board with a nail in it may have defeated us, but the humans won't stop there. They'll make bigger boards and bigger nails, and soon, they will make a board with a nail so big, it will destroy them all!
  • The SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Sand Castles in the Sand" revolves around Spongebob and Patrick turning a playfight around sand castles into a sort of evolution race that climaxes with state-of-the-art fighter jets against a Humongous Mecha.
  • This tropes shows up in Star Wars Rebels. The Empire typically uses fast but non-shielded, fragile, hyperdriveless TIE Fighters and Interceptors. However they use a lot of them to make up for their weaknesses. The Rebels on the other hand use hardier and more versatile fighters, but they have fewer of them. In response to this, partway through season three, the Empire, under the guidance of Thrawn, begins manufacturing the fast, shielded, hyperdrive capable, TIE Defender. The rebel B-wing design was a similar step up, but other than a single deployment of the prototype was not ready for use during the time of the series. X-wing fighters enter use in the last season and prove much more effective against basic TIE Fighters than the A-wing fighters the Rebels started with, but not enough to swing the balance of power.
  • Parodied in The Tick. The US military made a sentient mustache because "The Russians were working on a beard!"
  • Rabbit of Seville: Elmer chases Bugs with a hatchet; Bugs chases Elmer back with an axe; Elmer escalates to a revolver, and so forth.

    Real Life 
  • A 16th century arms race happened between the Spanish Empire and the Dutch rebels during the siege of Antwerp, which was known as one of the biggest and best defended cities in all of Europe. Spanish general Alexander Farnese, who had been an understudy of accomplished engineer Francesco de Marchi, deployed a gigantic siege operation that included draining the city's river and building a fortified bridge over 32 boats, to which the Dutch answered by bringing in a renegade imperial engineer, Federico Giambelli, who developed mine-ships which managed to destroy part of the bridge. To this, Farnese answered rebuilding the structure with improved defenses and a system of hinges that allowed the open the bridge to let the mine-ships pass harmessly. To this, Giambelli and the Dutch answered building a gigantic floating fortress, the Fin de la Guerre, planning to destroy the bridge by directing their firepower to their weak spots, but this Awesome, but Impractical measure failed itself when the ship turned impossible to steer around and just ran aground. Eventually, Farnese and the imperials overcame Antwerp's defenses and conquered the city.
  • One of the main causes of World War I. Particularly significant was the naval arms race between all the Great Powers in general and Britain and Germany in particular, which saw the transformation of the battleship from a mixed-gun, smaller vessel to the gigantic, all-big-gun Dreadnought type, and shortly thereafter increasing numbers of guns, and increases in size, speed, and armor among Dreadnoughts. By the time the War started eight years after HMS Dreadnought started the trend, the Royal Navy had already commissioned three four-ship classes (the Orion class, the King George V class, and Iron Duke class) of "super-dreadnoughts", all in response to the German campaign to build more and better battleships, which in turn was inspired by the launch of the Dreadnought in the first place. By the time the Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo, Britain had 29 battleships, most of them dreadnoughts, with Germany having 17. Ironically, the only time that British and German battleships fought a large battle, it was the Battle of Jutland, a tactical stalemate that can only a be called a strategic victory for Britain by default (the Royal Navy held off the German fleet, maintaining control of the North Sea and the blockade of Germany, but only because two fleets banging futilely into each other tends not to change the status quo).
    • The irony is actually increased when one examines the actual Battle of Jutland - the Battleships barely engaged each other, with both sides essentially considering them Too Awesome to Use (the German admiral fled when he realized how badly the British outnumbered him), and instead the smaller and less well armored battlecruisers did most of the fighting that day.
    • At the same time, a miniature version was occurring in South America between Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.
    • The naval arms race actually runs back much farther. France and Britain built the first ocean-going ironclad ships—France the Gloire (1859) and Britain the Warrior (1860)—because neither wanted to fall behind the other. The Battle of Hampton Roads in The American Civil War, in which the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia became the first ironclads to fight each other, added fuel to the fire; as one European newspaper after the battle noted: entire wooden Navies of countries around the world had just become "obsolete", and there was a huge scramble to build bigger, faster, and better ironclads. By World War I, there were still ships using CSS Virginia style rams.
      • The Dreadnought may have made the arms race possible. Its construction prompted a German response - and made Britain's extant superior navy useless. Before the Dreadnought, Britain so outclassed Germany that Germany would never have even tried; with Dreadnought creating a class of ship that made everything before it obsolete, suddenly Germany had an actual chance to compete.
    • And right after World War I, Japan and the United States were all set to continue the escalation with an unhappy Royal Navy dragged along for the ride before an outbreak of sanity prevailed and the Washington Naval Treaty (agreed to by the major naval powers because their governments realized how ludicrously expensive it was to keep building bigger and bigger battleships) put an end to the arms race. At least, for the next fifteen years.
    • The lull in the arms race was put to an end by Germany building the Deutschland-class cruisers, whose 11-inch guns made them quite a concern and prompted France to build the battleship Dunkerque to counter these new surface raiders as they were seen as more dangerous than standard heavy cruisers. While relatively modest in armor and armament compared to more conventional battleships, Dunkerque broke the informal agreement France and Italy had that each wouldn't use their 70,000 ton allotments for new battleship construction under the Washington Naval Treaty (granted because the French and Italian fleets were much older than those of the other signatories) if the other didn't. The construction of Dunkerque prompted Germany to design and build the Scharnhorst-class and Italy to build the Littorio-class. Scharnhorst prompted France to build a second, more heavily armored Dunkerque-class ship, Strasbourg and Littorio prompted France to design and build the Richelieu-class, which could respond in kind to Littorio's 15-inch guns, and which in turn prompted Germany to build the Bismarck-class. Additionally, the whole exchange also helped prompt the British construction of the King George V-class, even if it wasn't a response to any single other design, as these new designs would leave Britain's own battleship fleet comparatively badly outdated. Escalation past Bismarck was cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War and the defeat of France, but all parties had designed even larger ships for the next round of the arms race, such as Alsace for France, the Lion-class for Britain, and H-39 for Germany.
  • At the opening of World War II, the Royal Navy and the US Navy was still deploying biplanes.note  By the end of the war, the Nazis were fielding jet fighter planes and ballistic missiles (the Royal Air Force also had jet fighters, but neither side's jets ever fought the other's). It ended with the United States Curb Stomping Japan with two atomic bombs.
    • Similar tactics were seen in localized areas - for example, the Russians built the T-34 to leap ahead of German tanks like the Panzer III, so the Germans built the Panther and Tiger tanks to beat it. The British had already developed night carrier techniques (no one else bothered, which the USN was very thankful for at Pearl Harbor), and once it all kicked off, everyone else scrambled to do the same. When they realized that the Brits fitted armored decks to their aircraft carriers (which made the usual reaction to a Kamikaze attack: "sweepers, man your brooms"), the Japanese built the MXY7 Ohka, essentially a manned cruise missile, to stop them.
      • The United States ended up sticking with the medium M4 Sherman throughout the war, with a couple of mid-season upgrades such as the 76mm gun and specialized variants like the heavy armor "Jumbo". However, the U.S. constructed several tank prototypes as huge and heavily armed as anything the Soviets or Germans did, they just didn't end up using them because of impractical weight, mechanical unreliability, or being rendered unnecessary when the enemy was defeated by other means. One example is the T28 Super Heavy Tanknote , a Mighty Glacier weighing 95 short tons, with 12 inch frontal armor and a high velocity 105 mm gun; it was supposed to help smash through the Siegfried Line, but this fortification had already been breached by the time it would have been available, so it was never shipped overseas.
      • On the Soviet side of things, after the Germans introduced the Tiger and Panther, as well as the Kwk 40 tank gun and Pak 40 anti-tank gun designed to destroy the T-34 and KV-1/2 series, the Soviets began working on more powerful designs in order to counter them. The first of these was the IS-2, followed not long after by the SU-100 tank destroyer, easily capable of destroying most German tank designs up until the end of the war. While the King Tiger, and later Jagdtiger, slightly outclassed both, there were too few of them to actually make a significant difference to the war's outcome. This escalation continued after the war with the IS-3, which when revealed to the world led to the British and Americans scrambling to develop tanks that could reliably kill it. Which ranged from trying to simply develop their own IS-3 equivalents to the British FV4005 tank destroyer with a gigantic 183mm gun (7.2 inch) firing a 72.5kg (160 pound) shell.
    • The Battle of the Beams. The Germans invented ever more complex systems of radio guidance for their bombers, only to have the British deploy even more complex counter-measures to successfully thwart them.
    • And that's not even getting into all the various plans, ranging from the plausible to the Crazy Enough to Work to the Awesome, but Impractical to the completely ludicrous and back again that never even made it off the drawing boards.
  • The Cold War, Trope Codifier of the Arms Race in Real Life, saw a constant stream of increasingly expensive military projects pursued by both the United States and the Soviet Union driven by limited or inaccurate intelligence about the other side's plans or Awesome, but Impractical stuff that didn't make it off the drawing board. Essentially, the Cold War ended with piles of nuclear, mechanical, chemical, and electronic innovation until one side just sort of...stopped existing. For reasons entirely unrelated to the military might of the other side.
    • A quintessential example: The Soviets caught wind of the American XB-70 Valkyrie in the late 50s; it's a long-range, super-fast bomber intended to scream overhead and have landed before its bombs do. By 1970, they had created the MiG-25 "Foxbat" interceptor to catch it. The Foxbat is a brick with engines, and needs huge wings to keep it from falling from the sky, but Yanks with Tanks saw those huge wings and thought, "Oh-crap, an ultra-maneuverable superfighter!" They spent a fortune developing the F-14 (1974) and F-15 ('76) to beat it. This caused the Reds with Rockets to counter with the Su-27 "Flanker" ('84) and MiG-29 "Fulcrum" ('83), which caused America to field the F-22 Raptor (2005) and F-35 Lightning II (2015). The Russians with Rusting Rockets are scrambling to produce their own fifth-generation fighters, but they are hampered by budget constraints; while their competing Su-57 "Felon" (25 December 2020), most recently seen in Top Gun: Maverick, is highly maneuverable, there are only six of them and they have inferior stealth and electronics compared to America's latest. So, as of 2022, America currently has the edge and can now safely operate the XB-70 Valkyrie. ...Or could, if it hadn't been cancelled. In 1961. Before its first flight.
    • Or the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, which was built to hunt down Soviet SS-24 and SS-25 mobile ICBMs, which were built to hide from US "counterforce" ICBMs like the MX and Trident that were intended to survive a first-strike and still be able to destroy the other side's missiles, which were designed because the US believed that the Soviet SS-18 ICBMs could do the same thing, and so on.
    • There's also the fact that sometimes the scientists would completely punk the military by taking the physics experiments they wanted to do, dressing it up under the pretense of developing some impractical military technology and getting the military to fund it.
    • A peaceful example from the Cold War is the Space Race. The Soviets put a satellite into orbit and get a man into space and back in one piece, so the Americans ramp up their space program and eventually get men onto the moon. Eventually, there was détente, and the US and USSR realized that space is enormous, so the Americans decided to focus on unmanned planetary science and building a shuttle that could do anything for the manned program (provided that "anything" was in Low Earth Orbit), and the Soviets/Russians decided to focus on space stations and long-term human spaceflight.
      • One side benefit of the Space Race was that it allowed both factions to further develop their ballistic missile technology (satellites and space capsules were often launched into space using the same rockets used to deploy nuclear warheads), while garnering better PR and avoiding unnecessary escalation of tensions. It was win-win for both sides.
    • And, of course, there's the ongoing war between air defense and aerial strike, with the USSR (and now Russians) and US developing ever-more sophisticated missiles, planes, sensors, weapons, and tactics/techniques to either get through enemy air defenses or fend off enemy aerial strikes.
  • Now that the pseudo-Alliance the two had during the Cold War is officially over and China is trying to bring itself to modernity, it is beginning to develop a military with which it can actually defend itself properly - which it basically couldn't, until this last decade or so. Currently, the USA has a fixation on China's new stealth fighter prototype, the Chengdu J-20, while the United States' F-22 is semi-grounded for oxygen problems they can't seem to pin down or fix (it finally saw real combat action in 2014) and the F-35 is suffering from both technical and funding issues. In March 2012 a video was taken of the J-20 showing various tests done in flight, this is expected to be used in the ongoing F-35 funding wars to justify its enormous expense.
    • Made even worse by the fact that the J-20 is a pure prototype technology demonstrator, and will never be made into an operational design. Fielding an operational 5th generation stealth fighter by the Chinese is almost certainly a decade away. But that doesn't stop the clamoring for more F-22s.
    • In a similar vein, China purchased an old Soviet-era aircraft carrier (of the same class that the current Russian flagship), and is now attempting to build a naval air arm from scratch. It'll take 20 years to do so, but, the current stuff looks threatening on paper... Chinese admirals have even admitted that they're doing this not because China has a military need for them but because the United States has large aircraft carriers. So China has to have their own or else they're conceding American superiority.
  • An oft-cited justification for the increased militarization of American police forces is that the US' loose gun laws have allowed criminals to be far better armed than their counterparts in other countries, forcing American police to embrace automatic rifles, military equipment (from body armor to surplus armored vehicles), and increasingly aggressive tactics due to the possibility that even a common perp may be packing heat. This has been especially acute in Mexico, where many American guns have been smuggled over the border to drug cartels in order to fight both the police and each other, such that the Mexican military has had to get involved in that nation's increasingly brutal drug war. Supporters of gun control in particular often bring this up to support their case, arguing that a side effect of restricting sales of weapons and ammunition would be that the police would now have less reason to be paranoid, and that Mexican cartels would be weakened. In the other direction, supporters of gun ownership and concealed carry have also cited this fact as a reason why ordinary people should carry guns for protection, because a robber or a rapist with a gun is not going to go out as quietly, or be escaped as easily, as one armed with just a knife or a bat.
  • In 2010, a Japanese amusement park built a life-sized, 60 foot tall statue of the title Gundam robot from Mobile Suit Gundam. In 2011, a Chengdu (Sichuan province) amusement park built their own 60 foot tall robot statue shameless rip-off of the statue, which they didn't get the copyrights or permission to build. The park got sued for it and re-built it shortly thereafter.
  • In the automotive world, look no further than The Canadian-American Challenge Cup, or Can-Am for short. An odd racing series, Can-Am had very few restrictions for cars: if it had an engine and was covered in an enclosed body, it was approved. Soon, companies started to make their cars more and more powerful, leading to races that went to absolutely absurd heights—by the end of the series, Can-Am cars were going up a notch at each successive race having crazy amounts of technology, from fans to increased downforce to six-wheeled cars, and regularly having more than 900 horsepower. Sadly, the series only lasted about a single decade, because the cars were getting too expensive to make and Porsche was kicking everyone else's asses with their 1500-horsepower "Turbopanzer" 917/30KL. Even so, it still was one of the most ridiculous and over-the-top racing series ever.
    • Along more tragic lines, the Group B rally series of the 1980s was based around a relaxed set of homologation rules, freeing manufacturers from the requirement to build their rally cars with one eye on commercial mass-production. The cars quickly transformed from rear-wheel-drive models powered with 200 bhp engines into four-wheel-drive monsters with 400 bhp turbo-supercharged engines stuffed into kevlar bodies that only vaguely resembled the family hatchbacks they were based on. The series developed a dangerous reputation, and in 1985 driver Attilio Bettega was killed during the mountainous Tour de Corse, when his car left the road and hit a tree. Things finally came to a head in 1986; in March, Joaquim Santos crashed into a wall of spectators, killing three, and in May Henri Toivonen and his co-driver were burned to death when their car plunged off the road and caught fire, also during the Tour de Corse. Group B was immediately cancelled.
  • Defied by Formula One. In theory, it's supposed to be the very top end of racing with the fastest cars anyone can build. However, in order to keep things competitive and prevent one manufacturer dominating if they patent a new design, there are very strict rules implemented on what can actually be done. It's now reached the point where standard consumer technology such as traction control and active suspension is not allowed, and there are even road legal production cars that can go faster. Having said that, none of those can match an F1 car's sheer cornering and braking performance (which put enormous strain on the drivers' bodies, particularly the neck; the one road car that focuses on embodying supernatural grip rather than sheer acceleration and top speed, the Nissan GT-R, demonstrated this in an on-camera incident on Top Gear by hospitalising presenter Jeremy Clarkson through sheer G-force), or are engineered anywhere near hardcore enough to survive being driven full-bore for three or more hours straight with only sub-ten-second stops for refuelling and tyre changes, so in reality would have trouble keeping up outside of a straight-line quarter-mile drag race.
  • Various technology duopolies wage their arms race over consumer dollars. Intel vs. AMD, ATI vs. Nvidia, PlayStation vs. Xbox. What makes matters worse is that brand new technologies restart the race from scratch.
    • Worth noting is that there were far more players in the semiconductor sector in The '80s and The '90s. MOS Technology/Commodore Semiconductor Group had the 6502, Motorola/Freescale Semiconductor had the famed 68000 family and the succeeding PowerPC line jointly developed with IBM and Apple, and it's very likely Intel's 8086-derived architecture would be long dead if not for the success of the IBM Personal Computer.
    • For the GPU, it was basically Cirrus Logic vs. Trident vs. S3 vs. ATI vs. Number Nine vs. Rendition vs. Matrox vs. 3DLabs vs. 3dfx vs. PowerVR vs. NVIDIA, all with their own proprietary Application Programming Interface before Direct3D and OpenGL became standardized. The few names you see above are just the ones that survived in a highly competitive market.
      • And on both counts, processor technology had advanced exponentially until late into the 2000s, when simple physics put the brakes on Moore's Law with respect to clock speed scaling. By 1989, CPUs were in the 8 to 25 MHz range for home computers; going into the 1990s pushed that up from 100 to 600 MHz, and merely halfway into the 2000s, from 1 to 3.4 GHz. Let's just say that games and professional software alike were more than happy to take advantage of these yearly improvements, and the fact that the pace has slowed down considerably eases the financial barrier to entry for PC gaming.
  • This pattern is followed in the world of business, where companies are forced to innovate so as not to get left behind by their competitors. The consumer and society as a whole stand to benefit as long as there are different companies competing to offer them the best product or the best service. On the other hand, government oversight is required to make sure that competition is actually preserved. Rival companies may form cartels and collude with each other to fix prices at the expense of the consumer, while monopolies can form if all the companies in a certain sector combine, or if one company outright 'wins' the innovation arms race and drives all its competitors out of business.
  • During the early part of the 20th century, there was competition for the title of "World's Tallest Building" which saw each construction taller than the last. To some degree, the competition still goes on, but not to the degree of the last century.
    • More specifically, the end of the Roaring 20s saw no less than three buildings in the same city competing for the title. During construction 40 Wall Street boosted its height by eighty-five feet to attempt to beat out the also-under-construction Chrysler Building, which itself added a hundred and eighty-five feet, mostly in the form of a steel tower at the top. And then the Empire State Building's architect revised its design (at that point it would have been just slightly taller than the Chrysler Building, and they were afraid that Chrysler might mount basically a steel pool cue atop their existing tower and declare victory) to add an additional two hundred feet in the form of a metal crown, and that's not counting the 222 foot mooring mast for dirigibles on top of that.
  • The war between content providers and pirates, at least outside of the legal realm of things, can be basically summed up as this, beginning with official videocassette releases which were way cheaper than pirated analog TV rips on 16mm film. There was a period in the late 2000s and early 2010s where this got so out of hand that the official releases, especially for video games, were so overloaded with copyright protection schemes that people were turning to the pirated versions (which naturally stripped all that out) just to avoid the hassle (see Spore as a prime example). The pendulum has started swinging back towards the pirates in The New '20s in regards to TV and film with the rise of the "streaming wars". To get all the content you wanted during The New '10s, all you needed was a subscription to Netflix, and perhaps Hulu to cover the bases. Now that it takes close to eight subscriptions to keep up with what's relevant, piracy has become an attractive option once again.
  • Speaking of Netflix, there is the war between it and VPNsnote . As a VPN allows you to bypass Netflix's geolocation and view content blocked in your country, which naturally runs afoul of their copyrights, Netflix is constantly attempting to detect and block VPNs on their service. Naturally, as bypassing their geolocation is a large selling-point of VPNs, to the point some like NordVPN outright advertise it as a back-of-the-box selling point, they are constantly coming up with new ways to beat Netflix's detection. Ultimately the VPNs tend to have the upper hand as streaming services don't want to be too eager to block VPNs due to the large number of legitimate users who simply use them for privacy (around 33% of all internet users worldwide use them) and blocking them is tantamount to telling them to go to their competitors or, much worse, make them say "Cowabunga it is" and just pirate what they were blocked from seeing. Also, as Netflix learned in August of 2021, it's real easy to accidentally block hundreds of thousands of non-VPN using paying customers if they get a wee bit too trigger-happy on banning IP addresses...
  • Similarly, the struggle between advertisers and ad blocking technology basically amounts to this. It started with the back and forth between pop-up blockers and constant attempts to circumvent them. This escalated to ad-blockers that effectively block everything, forcing advertisers to resort to more unscrupulous tactics like ad-blocker-blockers, tying necessary site elements to advertisements so blocking the latter renders the former crippled and/or unusable, and even hurling worse more intrusive ads at users who attempt to block the more reasonable ones. There's even been "attempts at peace" in the form of advertisers promising silent unobtrusive ads if the user whitelists them and ad-blockers allowing unobtrusive ads to come through by default to encourage this, and "threats of mutually assured destruction" by reminding users that the ads pay for the website so if enough are blocked the site will close down. And increasingly, sites create obtrusive overlays which ask you to subscribe to their newsletter before you can view the page, which internet users respond to either by using "block element" options in ad-blockers or just turning their back on the site altogether. People got to watch this happen in realtime when Youtube decided to stomp hard on the gas in their anti-ad block stance in October 2023: ad block services worked night and day like Skynet's disposal plants to circumvent Youtube's round-the-clock attempts to force their viewers to watch ads, with each side's victories often only working for hours at a time before the other patched it out.
  • In the same vein as online ads, do an online search for Facebook's "People You May Know" feature and you'll find that the results are full of complaints, people asking how to get rid of it, accusations of how intrusive and creepy a feature it is, people lamenting it being full of nudity and/or scammy "looking to date you" bot accounts, and people making the salient point that they don't want or need a website's algorithm to tell them who they know and want to be friends with. It seems that Facebook is willing to fight to the absolute last man to force the feature on people, while people are so desperate to get rid of it that several dedicated browser add-ons exist for the explicit purpose of getting rid of it (Facebook Purity being the most popular). Both Facebook and these add-ons are being tweaked and updated constantly to circumvent each other, with Facebook even going as far as to outright refuse to let you post a link to Facebook Purity's website because it "violates their community standards".
  • Humanity has entered into an arms race against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Due to antibiotic overuse and misuse, several deadly diseases has evolved resistance to antibiotics. Doctors now have to use ever more powerful antibiotics and medical researchers search for new antibiotics, but the bacteria slowly develop immunity to the more powerful and new antibiotics.
  • Related to the antibiotic resistance example above, there is the Red Queen hypothesis in evolution. The hypothesis states that organisms are all evolving "against" each other just to stay on even terms (giraffes evolve to eat tree leaves, the trees evolve tannin that makes the leaves taste bad when they produce it. Then the giraffes learn to eat a bit and move around, the trees release chemicals so that all the trees step up their tannin production, and so on).

Alternative Title(s): Arms Race, Exponentially Escalating Arms Race, Sky Shattering Arms Race