China’s Rise and Modern Military Technology: Part I

What are the proper historical analogies to use when analyzing China’s military-technological rise in recent decades?

China’s Rise and Modern Military Technology: Part I

HMS Dreadnought (British Battleship, 1906) underway, circa 1906-07.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Naval Historical Center

We would like to thank Professor Robert Farley for the attention he has given to our article “Why China Has Not Caught Up Yet” (which has since become freely available online). We are glad to read that Professor Farley thinks the implications of our work need to be discussed further. As scholars, there is no greater reward than knowing our colleagues value and appreciate our work. In particular, given Professor Farley’s expertise in military technology and the fact that he is no stranger to controversy, we are particularly pleased to know he largely agrees with us – which suggests the road we have taken with this project was correct. The points he has raised, moreover, permit us to address aspects that either we could not, for space reasons, discuss in our article or that we intended to work on in the future.

Summary Of Our Article

Professor Farley has provided already a succinct and extremely effective summary of our article. As such, only a cursory refresher is needed. In our article, 1) we claim that, contra the conventional wisdom, imitating state-of-the-art weapon systems has become increasingly more difficult over the past 150 years – i.e., since the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1920); and 2) we test the causal mechanisms of our argument by comparing Imperial Germany’s imitation of HMS Dreadnought with China’s attempted imitation of American fifth generation jet fighters (a lengthier summary can be found in the interview with Franz-Stefan Gady).

Professor Farley has raised very valid points. Given the breadth of his comments, we have broken our reply in three parts. In this article, we focus on his first criticism, which is methodological. Specifically, professor Farley wonders whether the comparison between the imitation of Dreadnought by Imperial Germany (1890-1916) with the imitation of the F22 Raptor by China (1991-2018) is appropriate – in light of the fact that the former was an architectural innovation while the latter is not.

Methodological Considerations

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Professor Farley has pointed out that Dreadnought was an architectural innovation in that it “involved the repurposing of a variety of pre-existing technologies, rather than (as in the case with stealth) cutting edge research.” As such, Dreadnought did not pose the imitation challenges that the F-22 has entailed for China – Professor Farley argues. To prove further his point, Professor Farley adds that “the United Kingdom was not even the first country to develop the “all-big-gun” concept; Japan and the United States arrived at the idea first…” This is an insightful comment that permits to address in writing one of the several issues we worked during this project but that, for space purposes, we could not discuss in the article.

First of all, our theory intends to explain change over time, rather than change within time (diachronic vs. synchronic). Specifically, our theory claims that the challenges of imitating state-of-the-art weapon systems have grown more and more intense over the past 150 years. Conversely, theories focusing on different types of innovations generally try to explain why, within a given period, an innovation is more difficult to imitate than another one. Professor Farley refers to the latter and wonders whether Germany’s rapid success in imitating British Dreadnought battleships was facilitated by the type of innovation that the big-gun battleship represented.

We agree with Professor Farley that different types of innovation create different types of imitation challenges. However, when comparing changes over the past 150 years, we believe that differences in types of innovation are shadowed by the exponential increase in technological complexity observed over this period of time. In fact, naval shipbuilding was the aerospace industry of the late XIX century and early XX century, and Dreadnought represented the most complex weapon system of the time – which is intuitive when we compare it to radical innovations such as strut and wire airplanes.

Second, and related, Professor Farley’s comment suggests that Dreadnought could be imitated relatively easily because it was an architectural innovation. The concept of architectural innovation comes from the literature in management. This literature ranks innovations, from those that entail only limited change in both their components and in their arrangement (incremental) to those that entail massive change in both (radical). In between are innovations that entail significant change in components only (modular) or primarily in their arrangement (architectural). Intuitively, the imitation challenge will vary across different types of innovations. While Professor Farley is right in pointing that radical innovations are more difficult to imitate than architectural ones, the latter are still very hard to imitate themselves, because they directly challenge companies’ established know-how. Interestingly, as discussed before, this conceptualization still fits with our findings: in the age of Dreadnought, defense companies’ know-how was thinner than now and thus, and this is why it was easier to address any architectural change than later on in the XX century.

Third, whether Dreadnought was an architectural innovation rather than a radical is up to debate. This is a typology coined by academics to make sense of the messiness of innovation, not a factual description. According to Rebecca Henderson and Kim Clark, architectural innovations build on both radically new designs and significantly enhanced components. Dreadnought built on components that had just been invented or were under development and around a significantly different concept – the so call, all-big-gun battleship. Modern fire-control systems for long-range engagement were just emerging when Dreadnought entered into service: in fact, the Royal Navy only in 1913 selected Dreyer’s fire control tables over Pollen’s Argo system. Similarly, the steam turbines employed for propelling Dreadnought were invented in 1884, but until the late 1890s, they could not make it to warships. The same applies to the development of Harvey steel, necessary both to cast robust hulls and for long-range gunnery: it was invented in the late 1890s. Whether this made Dreadnought an architectural or a radical innovation, we leave it to the readers to discuss, but we believe it does alter our findings: although Dreadnought was the most sophisticated weapon system of its time and relied on a set of emerging technologies, Germany could quickly imitate it.

Fourth, and relatedly, if we accept that Dreadnought was an architectural innovation, there is reason to believe that also the F-22 Raptor was an architectural innovation. The F-22 was in fact a revolutionary design married, with more advanced components in comparison to those of its predecessors, the air-to-ground stealth bomber F-117 Nighthawk and the air-superiority fighter F-15 eagle. These more advanced components were superior stealth, engines, and data-fusion. With regard to stealth, Lockheed won the contract for the Advanced Tactical Fighter because of its experience in stealth with the F-117 Nighthawk. In other words, stealth wasn’t a revolutionary technology, it was a further improvement of an already existing one. Consider that the F-117 had a radar cross section equal to that of a golf ball, while the F-22 has a radar cross section equal to that of a “metal marble” (a linear improvement, not a revolutionary one). This was made possible through several key improvement in stealth design, including smoothened rather than faceted surfaces, s-shaped inlet engine, squared engine nozzle, and tailboom further shielding the engine nozzles from radar beams.

The F-22 also had superior engine technology, namely the marvel of engineering that is the F-119 developed by Pratt&Whitney. The F-119 is capable of generating so much thrust so as to allow for supersonic cruise without reliance on afterburners (supercruise). At the same time, because of the rotation of the engine nozzle (thrust-vectoring) it delivers superior maneuverability. Also in this case, however, this new extremely powerful engine was a further evolution of a revolutionary technology introduced in the 1970s, with the F-100 and F-110 engines of the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Viper, namely the application of nickel-based single crystal superalloys – further enhanced by thermal barrier coating and other features. Last but not least, the F-22 possesses situational awareness because of its advanced onboard computer systems, software, sensors and data-fusion capabilities. Also in this case, however, this was a further evolution of a technological revolution that took place in the 1970s, with the introduction of beyond visual range capabilities. The air engagement in 1982 between the Israeli Air Force flying F-15s and F-16s against the Syrian Air Force flying Soviet Mig-21 and MiG-23s well illustrates the importance of beyond visual range: because of the one-sidedness of the final score (87-2), it came to be known as “Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot.”


To conclude, Professor Farley has raised a very valid point that we did not discuss in our article – namely, whether we might have compared two not properly comparable cases, an architectural and a radical innovation. As we mentioned, the types of innovations are typologies rather than factual descriptions. As such, there is no definitive word on what an architectural or a radical innovations are. However, that regardless of the interpretation, we believe that the comparison between the Germany imitation of Dreadnought with Chinese imitation of the F-22 permit us to address almost, if not all, the most serious methodological problems such an analysis would encounter.

In the following two articles (part II and III), we will address two other aspects discussed by professor Farley, China’s accomplishments in stealth technology, as well as the policy implications of our article.

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Andrea Gilli (@aa_gilli) is a Senior Researcher in Military Affairs at the NATO Defense College in Rome, Italy and an affiliate at CISAC, Stanford University. The views expressed in this article do not represent those of NATO or of the NATO Defense College.

Mauro Gilli (@Mauro_Gilli) is a Senior Researcher in Military Technology and International Security at the Center for Security Studies of ETH-Zurich.