Can adversaries of the United States easily imitate its most advanced weapon systems and thus erode its military-technological superiority? Do reverse engineering, industrial espionage, and, in particular, cyber espionage facilitate and accelerate this process?
China's decades-long economic boom, military modernization program, massive reliance on cyber espionage, and assertive foreign policy have made these questions increasingly salient. Yet, almost everything known about this topic draws from the past. As we explain in this article, the conclusions that the existing literature has reached by studying prior eras have no applicability to the current day.
Scholarship in international relations theory generally assumes that rising states benefit from the “advantage of backwardness,” as described by Alexander Gerschenkron.1 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.2
More recent works maintain that globalization, the emergence of dual-use components, and advances in communications (including the opportunity for cyber espionage) have facilitated this process.3 This literature is built on shaky theoretical foundations, and its claims lack empirical support.
The international relations literature largely ignores one of the most important changes to have occurred in the realm of weapons development since the second industrial revolution (1870–1914): the exponential increase in the complexity of military technology.
We argue that 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.
On the one hand, the increase in complexity has significantly raised the entry barriers for the production of advanced weapon systems: countries must now possess an extremely advanced industrial, scientific, and technological base in weapons production before they can copy foreign military technology.
On the other hand, the knowledge to design, develop, and produce advanced weapon systems is less likely to diffuse, given its increasingly tacit and organizational nature.
As a result, the advantage of backwardness has shrunk significantly, and know-how and experience in the production of advanced weapon systems have become an important source of power for those who master them.
We employ two case studies to test this argument: Imperial Germany's rapid success in closing the technological gap with the British Dreadnought battleship, despite significant inhibiting factors; and China's struggle to imitate the U.S. F-22/A Raptor jet fighter, despite several facilitating conditions.
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