Intellectual Property Meets Military Technology
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Intellectual Property Meets Military Technology


Intellectual property, including patents, copyrights, and trade secrets, increasingly dominates the exports of advanced economies.  However, intellectual property is uniquely vulnerable to appropriation, whether by states, firms, or individuals.  Consequently, exporters like the United States have taken increasingly aggressive steps to protect their intellectual property owners and producers. Some of the most significant complaints made by the United States against China have involved poor enforcement of intellectual property law.

The economic relevance of intellectual property extends into the military sphere. Patents and trade secrets have long constituted an important proportion of the value of particular weapons systems.  On the patent side, states have generally been reluctant to directly copy the weapons of their allies without permission; even China and the Soviet Union (states not otherwise known to respect intellectual property norms) concluded licensing agreements with one another in the 1950s. Trade secrets, on the other hand, constitute the difference between Russian made engines and Chinese made engines.

Still, copying advanced foreign systems has a long, distinguished history. Russia famously replicated the B-29 Superfortress as the Tu-4, producing 847 bombers (10 of which were exported to China). More recently, the PLAAF developed the J-11(SU-27) and J-15 fighters (alleged from the SU-33) from Russian technology, exporting the former in direct competition with the Russians.  Short of completely copying foreign systems, China is widely suspected of adopting elements of U.S. aircraft designs for its own recent stealth fighter prototypes.  Nevertheless, such efforts have a cost. Reverse engineering is expensive, often doesn’t work, and always leads to hard feelings. 

As the technical sophistication of weapons systems has increased, these systems derive an increasing proportion of their value from intellectual property. The value of the F-35, for example, lies not in its airframe or engine, but rather in its software and capacity for managing networked combat. The increasing importance of intellectual property will undoubtedly affect patterns of diffusion of military technology.  Intellectual property concerns have already made Russia hesitant about additional exports of airframes to China, and of exporting the Russo-Indian Brahmos cruise missile project.

Three propositions, which we will return to in future posts:

1. The nature of intellectual property theft in the military sphere will change.  Rather than purchasing (or otherwise appropriating) entire systems and then reverse engineering, future theft will likely involve cyber-attacks on states, companies, and even the law firms that protect patents. 

2. While states such as India, China, and Russia have had strong incentives to defect from intellectual property compliance in the past, their status as producers and exporters will increasingly make them IP defenders, in general. In specific instances, however, they will continue to pursue the appropriation of critical foreign technologies, often through illicit means.

3. There is potential for cooperation between the major arms producers on an international IP compliance regime, which would set guidelines or “rules of the road” for export.  However, continuing political and strategic disagreement between these producers will limit the overall impact of such a regime.

The Tu-4 is the wave of the past. While China will continue to produce the J-15, the copying process carries too much political and legal baggage to represent a viable option for future appropriation efforts.  Instead, intellectual property law will increasingly structure how military technology diffuses across the system, affecting behavior even when its tenets are honored in the breach.

February 11, 2013 at 07:07

The B-1 and the TU-160 are two vastly different airplanes.

Aaron Bouma
February 6, 2013 at 16:41

As the Rockwell company built the B-1A and B Lancer bombers, the Russians a year or two later came out with the TU-160 BLACKJACK. Similar in certain ways to the B-29 and TU-4 BULL scenario.

Aaron Bouma
February 6, 2013 at 16:36

The Government Agencies get attacked frequently, but the people orchestrating the attacks very rarely are ever able to get through, even if it is another country such as Russia or China. If there are Black Heads, then there are plenty of White Heads too lol. My terminology is referring to the best hackers capable.

February 6, 2013 at 12:58

@John Chan
No john i think matt is saying exactly the opposite. That America is still inventive and that we need to stop the chinese theives stealing what we invent. If the chinese put as much effort into legitimate research instead of stealing technology they might get some where. stealing technology means they will always be step behind. The chines modern culture of unquestioning propoganda and rote learning system does not promote the free thinking that is typical of inventive cultures.

Kim's Uncle
February 6, 2013 at 08:42

Why am I not surprised that the biggest violator of Intellectual Property rights is People's Republic of China?  LOL  Can China build anything without a component that is not from somewhere else?  I don't think so.  I guess that's why so many people mock and riducule Chinese products.   The belligerent and triumphal postings from pro-PRC clan in this forum does not help China's image either.  Rather it only reinforces how crude Communist China really is.  

john s
February 6, 2013 at 07:04

software does not equal hardware. the affordances that software has are completely different from hardware. Software patents are also completely useless and actualy detrimental to defense industry as they impede the flow of knowledge and jack up the costs between sectors who are building defense systems.

February 6, 2013 at 05:30

Wow JC u are having a bad run of Rants lately,
like a little child….arn't you….

John Chan
February 6, 2013 at 04:00

Are you saying the American is no long inventive and they are no longer able to be on the upper hand? It is a disgrace that the American spent a trillion dollar on national security and it yet cannot stop being hacked; why there is no American asking the some tough questions about the competency of the CIA, FBI, the Pentagon, the Homeland Security, the State Department, …? Why doesn’t American ask accountability from those dimwits for their hard earn tax dollars?

February 6, 2013 at 00:42

There should be an aggresive effort to pre-emptively hack Chinese systems to keep them from successfully copying any American weapons. It would seem the ability to counter the stealing of information has never been greater. Obama should not delay in pre-emptive measures as China is certainly not.

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