Monday, October 7, 2019

China: Military-Technological Superiority and the Limits of Imitation, Reverse Engineering, and Cyber Espionage

Why China Has Not Caught Up Yet: Military-Technological Superiority and the Limits of Imitation, Reverse Engineering, and Cyber Espionage. Andrea Gilli and Mauro Gilli. International Security, Volume 43 , No. 3, Winter 2018/19, p.141-189, February 15, 2019.

Abstract: Can countries easily imitate the United States' advanced weapon systems and thus erode its military-technological superiority? Scholarship in international relations theory generally assumes that rising states benefit from the “advantage of backwardness.” That is, by free riding on the research and technology of the most advanced countries, less developed states can allegedly close the military-technological gap with their rivals relatively easily and quickly. More recent works maintain that globalization, the emergence of dual-use components, and advances in communications have facilitated this process. This literature is built on shaky theoretical foundations, however, and its claims lack empirical support. In particular, it largely ignores one of the most important changes to have occurred in the realm of weapons development since the second industrial revolution: the exponential increase in the complexity of military technology. This increase in complexity has promoted a change in the system of production that has made the imitation and replication of the performance of state-of-the-art weapon systems harder—so much so as to offset the diffusing effects of globalization and advances in communications. An examination of the British-German naval rivalry (1890–1915) and China's efforts to imitate U.S. stealth fighters supports these findings.

Three developments help account for the increase in the complexity of military technology since the second industrial revolution. First, the number of components in military platforms has risen dramatically: in the 1930s, a combat aircraft consisted of hundreds of components, a figure that surged into the tens of thousands in the 1950s and to 300,000 in the 2010s.49 As the number of components expands, the number of potential incompatibilities and vulnerabilities increases geometrically. Ensuring the proper functioning and mutual compatibility of all the components and of the whole system thus becomes increasingly difficult.50

Second, advancements in electronics, engineering, and material sciences have resulted in the components of major weapon systems becoming dramatically more sophisticated, leading military platforms to become “systems of systems.”51 Integrating large numbers of extremely advanced components, subsystems, and systems poses a daunting challenge. More sophisticated components have extremely low tolerances, which in turn require a degree of accuracy and precision in design, development, and manufacturing that was unthinkable a century ago.52 For instance, aircraft engines in the 1900s and 1910s were “crude” mechanical devices that self-taught individuals could design, assemble, and install in their own repair shops.53 In contrast, the production of today's aircraft engines is so technologically demanding that only a handful of producers around the world possess the necessary technical expertise.54 Consider that in turbofan engines, a “close clearance between [a rotary] part and its surroundings can be critical. One-tenth of 1 millimeter [i.e., 0.00393 inch] variation in dimension can have a significant impact on system compatibility.”55 The same is true of materials, electronics, and software, where minor imprecisions can have dramatic consequences.56 For example, in modern jet fighters, software controls everything, from the operation of radars to the supply of oxygen. The expansion of onboard software functions is reflected in the increase in the number of software code lines from 1,000 in the F-4 Phantom II (1958), to 1.7 million in the F-22 (2006), and to 5.6 million in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter/Lightning II (2015).57 Even a minor problem in those millions of lines of code could ground the aircraft or prove fatal.58 This level of sophistication explains why software engineering is responsible for most of the delays and of the problems seen in advanced weapon systems.59 Third, modern weapon systems can now perform in extraordinarily demanding environmental and operational conditions, thanks to improvements in all metrics (e.g., speed, altitude ceiling for aircraft, and collapse depth for submarines).60 These improvements, however, have increased the likelihood of technical problems.61 The more sophisticated a component is, the more likely minor environmental changes will affect its performance.62 In addition, as technological advances permit weapon systems to operate in once unfamiliar environmental conditions, designers and engineers are forced to deal with previously unknown physical phenomena.63


After World War II, the advent of rocket engines, radio communications, automatic guidance and control, and high-speed aerodynamics created new challenges. In response, aircraft manufacturers had to broaden and deepen their knowledge base to include fields such as weapons design, avionics, and material structures, as well as the training of aircrews, combat tactics, and, most importantly, human physiology and atmospheric sciences.96 With supersonic speed and subsequent advances, the number and sophistication of disciplines required for aircraft development expanded to the point of being well ahead of scientific knowledge and understanding.97 Work on the SR-71 Blackbird exemplifies these trends. Because of the friction resulting from flying at three times the speed of sound, the body of the Blackbird was exposed to temperatures above 600°F. To address the resulting problems, Lockheed had to develop “special fuels, structural materials, manufacturing tools and techniques, hydraulic fluid, fuel-tank sealants, paints, plastic, wiring and connecting plugs, as well as basic aircraft and engine design.”98 With the transition to fly-by-wire, the absorptive capacity requirements grew by an order of magnitude, as aircraft production expanded to a broad set of highly demanding fields such as electronics, computer science, and communications, with “software construction [being] the most difficult problem in engineering.”99 Moreover, given the nature of these disciplines, the margin for error has continued to shrink: a minor glitch in the software or the exposure of the hardware to unforgiving conditions (e.g., extreme heat, cold, or humidity) can be fatal.100


In the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, manufacturing benefited from unprecedented and possibly unique synergies and economies of scope.102 The relatively low level of technological complexity imposed fairly loose requirements, permitting the adoption across different industries of the same machine tools, the same industrial processes, and the same know-how.103 For instance, problems related to automobile production were “not fundamentally different from those which had already been developed for products such as bicycles and sewing machines.”104 As a result, “the skills acquired in producing sewing machines and bicycles greatly facilitated the production of the automobile.”105 With mass production, the opportunities for synergies and economies of scope among different industries expanded even further.106 Automobile manufacturers during World War I could easily enter the business of aircraft and tank production by exploiting their existing industrial facilities and know-how.107 Within a year of starting to produce aircraft engines, Rolls-Royce was delivering a very reliable and high-performing engine (the “Eagle”). Similarly, during the war, the company adapted its “Silver Ghost” chassis, the same used by King George, into an armored car that proved effective during the British campaign in the Middle Eastern desert.108 Even during World War II, when the level of complexity of military technology was substantially higher than during World War I, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to convert their civilian manufacturing activities to military production at a pace and to a degree that would be unimaginable today109 As Richard Overy summarizes, “Manufacturing technically complex weapons … [such as] heavy bombers … with the methods used for Cadillacs … ultimately proved amenable.”110

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