Interviews

Andrea and Mauro Gilli on Why China Can’t Steal Its Way to Military-Technological Superiority

Why industrial espionage and reverse engineering military technology will yield less and less benefits in the 21st century.

Franz-Stefan Gady
Andrea and Mauro Gilli on Why China Can’t Steal Its Way to Military-Technological Superiority
Credit: Andrea Gilli/Mauro Gilli

The Diplomat’s Franz-Stefan Gady talks to Andrea and Mauro Gill about their recently published paper in the academic journal International Security titled “Why China Has Not Caught Up Yet,” whish outlines how the complexity of modern military technology has significantly reduced the advantage of industrial espionage and reverse engineering. Imitating modern weapons systems is a lot harder than in the past, the authors argue, and as a result China will not be able to “steal” itself to the top in the ongoing military-technological competition between the world’s great military powers.

Andrea Gilli is a senior researcher at the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) Defense College in Rome, Italy. Mauro Gilli is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH-Zurich), Switzerland. They are experts in military technology, defense policy and military affairs in general.  They have also written for The Diplomat in the past challenging the conventional view on the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles (See: “Why Concerns Over Drone Proliferation Are Overblown”). They both spoke to The Diplomat in their personal capacities and their views do not represent the official position of NATO, NATO Defense College, CSS or ETH-Zurich.

The Diplomat: In your paper you argue that countries, like China, cannot simply free ride on the research and development of the most advanced military-technological nations such as the United States any longer. China and other rising powers will first have to indigenously develop the industrial, scientific, and technological capabilities to become manufactures of advanced military hardware such as fifth-generation fighter jets. Can you briefly explain your main argument behind this?

Andrea Gilli: In our article we argue that over the past 150 years, imitating state-of-the-art weapon systems has become dramatically more difficult because of the increase in complexity of military technology. First, in order to copy foreign weapon systems, countries need a much more advanced industrial, scientific and technological base than imitators needed in the past. Second, the know-how related to the design, development and production of advanced weapon systems has now a large tacit component, and it is retained by a myriad of individuals. As a result, stealing blueprints is no longer sufficient to replicate foreign weapon systems. In other words, the idea that by kidnapping one key engineer – as generally portrayed in action movies – you can reproduce foreign technology does not hold any longer.

So, are concerns over Chinese cyberespionage activities and how they are slowly eroding U.S. military superiority overblown?

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Mauro Gilli: Cyberespionage provides access to foreign information. Of course, between having and not having foreign designs, it’s much better to have them. But the general narrative has largely exaggerated the degree to which cyberespionage can help in the production of advanced weapon systems. Stolen designs do not contain all the technical details needed; might not have been updated; might contain counterintuitive, incomprehensible or hard-to-implement guidelines; and might not provide information on the integration process or on the production procedures to attain certain materials.

This is important because in modern weapon systems, extremely tiny mistakes are sufficient to lead to catastrophic outcomes. By tiny mistakes we mean impurities in the casting of turbine blades, variations in the chemical composition of rubber seals, coding errors in the flight control software, rinsing new welds with water containing higher concentrations of chloroform, variations in the diameter of cooling holes in turbofan engines, or millimetric imperfections in the tightening of fasteners. Because modern weapon systems comprise hundreds of thousands of components, operate in extremely demanding environmental conditions, and have to withstand enemy countermeasures, countersystems, and counterinnovations, the number of possibly vital mistakes is virtually infinite. For countries that want to “catch up,” there is no way around it: they need to master all the technologies and their integration. The latter is fundamentally important: a perfect component, for instance, might display inferior corrosion resistance because of the electrochemical potential with an adjacent component; as a result, it may compromise the mission of a military platform.

I’ve noticed that you don’t mention the military applications of 3D printing. Is there a particular reason for that? Does this emerging field challenge your thesis?

Andrea Gilli: That’s a very good question. For space reasons we didn’t discuss 3D printing – in a short analysis for ETH-Zurich we talked, briefly, about it. As of now, there is no reason to believe it challenges our argument. 3D printing is going to play an increasingly important role in industrial production, including that of weapon systems. It might also pose some serious risks: in virtue of the codification of technical details and requirements, and the reliance on standardized machineries, it might facilitate the reproduction of some components. But that’s about it. A 3D printer doesn’t produce full subsystems such as engines or radars, and of course it doesn’t reproduce full systems. 3D printers can produce some components, and for sure not the most difficult to produce – given that they require specialized machine tools, casting procedures, materials, etc.

Moreover, as of now, 3D printing still faces some challenges. Consider that in some medical industries, 3D printing has severe limitations because of the porosity of the prints – since porosity compromises the sterilization process. Finally, a country that has access to foreign designs and uses 3D printing to produce components will still have to address incompatibility problems among the components. An American component that has been designed and developed with an American aircraft in mind might lead to unexpected problems when plugged in a Chinese aircraft with Chinese components, for the reasons mentioned above.

Why in your empirical analysis did you pick Imperial Germany’s naval rearmament program and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) purported first fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft, the J-20A multirole fighter?

 Andrea Gilli: There are both substantive and methodological reasons behind our empirical investigation.

Substantively, these are two rising Great Powers with ambitious and possibly expansionists goals. Both Great Powers tried to develop the most important military platforms of their time, big-gun battleships and fifth-generation jet fighters – platforms that could affect the regional balance of power. Moreover, since the J-20 appeared eight years ago, the defense communities in the U.S. and East Asia have become obsessed with whether China has in fact caught up with the U.S. in the realm of fifth generation fighters.

Methodologically, in comparison to Imperial Germany, China’s attempt to catch up in military technology represents a particularly easy case for the dominant narrative about cyberespionage and globalization. China benefited in fact from several facilitating conditions that should have significantly eased the imitation of foreign weapon systems, including the massive inflows of foreign direct investments, the unprecedented scale of foreign trade, (and hence access to foreign technology and knowledge), and its extensive reliance on industrial espionage and cyber espionage.

Did you get any pushback to your research? What were the most common objections to your conclusions?

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Andrea Gilli: The pushback came largely from political scientists and international relations scholars. Engineers, physicists, and managers of defense and commercial companies as well as personnel from the Armed Forces, procurement agencies, and defense planning branches of several countries largely agreed with us.

Mauro Gilli: Yes, the most common objection we have received is consistent with the dominant view in political science, namely that if there is a (political) will, there is a way. In our article, we try to explain why the focus on “will” is misplaced. Mastering some production procedures and techniques require extensive experience, and hence a very long time. It doesn’t matter how much a country wants something, the path will still be long. China has been working on aircraft engines (low-bypass turbofans) since the 1980s and has invested more than $20 billion in the past decade. Yet, its most advanced aircraft engines still explode in ground tests and Chinese engineers haven’t been able to figure out why.

Political scientists tend to extrapolate from past experience, such as from the rise of Imperial Germany or of the Soviet Union, which managed to achieve remarkable accomplished in the first half of the 20th century. However these two successful cases have a lot to do with the nature of the technology of the time. Already a couple of decades later, in the 1970s, the Soviet approach to keep up with American technology was no longer sufficient. This doesn’t mean that imitation is impossible. It means that it has become way more difficult than it used to be.

What do you think the policy applications are of your research? What should U.S. policymakers take away from reading your paper?

Andrea Gilli: There are several implications, and unfortunately we don’t have the space to discuss them all in depth. First, our research suggests that many of the transformations underway– such as globalization, digitalization, dual-use components, and others – are not going to deprive anytime soon the U.S. defense industry of its established advantage anytime soon. Some countries might, with time, catch up. But this will require, in fact, time and effort.

Second, our research emphasizes the importance of the thousands of women and men behind extremely advanced technological projects – something that is often missed or forgotten.  In our article, we discuss at length the importance of experience in defense production – at the design, development and production stages. This experience is the cumulative product of decades of work by teams of designers, engineers, managers and specialized workers. When not continuously used, employed and updated, this experience will perish quickly and will take a lot of time and effort to be regained.

Do you think the increasing complexity and high price tag of modern weapons systems will ultimately became as much of a disadvantage as an advantage? For example, China invests heavily into asymmetric capabilities including anti-ship missiles for attacking U.S. carrier strike groups and other naval assets in the Western Pacific. The per-unit price for long-range anti-ship missile ranges from a couple of hundred thousand to a little over a million U.S. dollars. In comparison, the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier will cost over $13 billion. Even factoring in support equipment, China appears to be getting “more bang for its buck” as the saying goes.

Mauro Gilli: This is a valid objection. Countersystems are often significantly cheaper than the platforms they try to defeat. But it’s important to keep a broad perspective.

First, no country has the monopoly on asymmetric moves. During the Cold War, for instance, the B-1 forced the Soviet Union both to divert resources away from possibly offensive platforms and to invest in extremely expensive systems, such as integrated air-defense systems. Some generals in the Soviet Union credited the designer of the B-1 with having accelerated the demise of the “Evil Empire.” Somewhat similar considerations apply to the B-2 and China nowadays.

Second, China’s buildup seem to suggests that missiles are not enough, since also Beijing has developed and deployed expensive weapon systems such as aircraft carriers, jet fighters, and attack submarines – and it plans to keep doing so for the foreseeable future. One might wonder whether these systems are part of its anti-access area-denial (A2/AD) strategy, or of a more ambitious and expansionist goal. The conclusion, either China does not believe the missiles it has developed are that effective, or it is wasting its precious resources.

What do you think is missing in the public debate about emerging military technologies in general?

Mauro Gilli: We definitively need more discussion on what these new technology can and cannot do. When we started working on our article on drones, the policy and academic consensus held that: 1) Drones were cheap and easy to build and therefore they were going to proliferate quickly and widely; 2) that more and more countries would carry out drone attacks, including U.S.-style targeted strikes; and 3) consequently, that drone wars were around the corner. This was the 2012-2016 period. Looking at it now, it looks surreal: the debate on drone warfare has almost completely faded away. What we know is that, exactly as we explained, 1) the current generation of drones are vulnerable to basic countermeasures which limit significantly their role in military operations; 2) developing reliable drones is much more difficult than most acknowledged; 3) and finally, employing drones in military operations requires a communication architecture and other types of infrastructural support that most countries lack. Now the attention has moved to new realms, such as hypersonic weapons and quantum computing. A serious discussion on what these and other emerging technologies can and cannot do seems to be the prerequisite for any other debate.

 What do you think will be the most significant military technology in the 21st century?

Andrea Gilli: Predicting future technologies is difficult, not least because technology does not evolve linearly. Moreover, in war, what matters the most is the way a technology is used rather than the technology per se. To this, one should add that some technologies might be employed in very different ways from how they were originally conceived, and still have revolutionary effects – as the application of nuclear energy for submarine propulsion show.

This said, the skyrocketing power of processors, quantum computing, progress in software, and growth in digital data are here to stay and will play an even more important role in the future. The central aspect is what will this mean for warfare, defense planning and for capabilities development. I have three thoughts in this regard. I think that human-machine interfaces will become even more important, since human beings will need systems enabling them to interact effectively with machines. Second, most of the current and future technological transformation is about gathering, processing and generating information. When information becomes more plentiful, analysis becomes more important. Which means that the human side will come to play an even more central role. In other words, a key technology of the future will be the human brain. Obviously, and finally, we should ask how “natural” the human brain of the future will be. This is a third realm where technological progress will probably matter: I am speaking about performance-enhancing drugs but also other systems connecting our brain with external hardware.

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Is the ongoing trend to expensive multipurpose platforms good or bad for maintaining U.S. military-technological superiority?

Mauro Gilli: I assume by multipurpose you mean platform like the F-35. That’s a hard question. The multipurpose nature of the F-35 adds layers of complexity, and complexity creates vulnerabilities and incompatibilities. The more requirements you have to meet, the more problems will come up. Moreover, more requirements mean more compromises – which is behind the criticism that the F-35 cannot dogfight. This is also why the F-35 has created so much controversy, about its time, cost and performance.

On the other hand, these criticisms are based on an understanding of aerial operation that might or might not apply in the future. If paired with unmanned platform that operate as forward sensors, the multipurpose nature of the F-35 might more than compensate for its compromises. If this ends up being the case, countries like China and Russia will have to follow the U.S. on the complexity path, which might turn out to be a hell of a ride for them, since these countries lack of experience with stealth projects, advanced sensors, and data-fusion of the U.S. I guess only time will tell.