Military-Technological Superiority and the Limits of Imitation, Reverse Engineering, and Cyber Espionage
MIT Press Journals
March 25, 2019
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.

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