Transfer of military technologies: Imitation

Messerschmitt Me262A-1A Schwalbe

Conquest is not the only route through which war disseminates technology. War and preparation for war also encourage societies to imitate one another’s promising military technologies. Often enough, imitation of a military innovation requires assimilation of a whole new set of technologies with both civilian and military applications. In this way, copying swords may require learning to build plowshares. There are several ways in which military technologies developed by one society can spread to others. These include secondary use, simple observation, voluntary technology transfers, reverse engineering, and espionage.

Of course, several of these avenues of diffusion do not require warfare. Commercial competitors often imitate one another’s products and even engage in industrial espionage to ferret out one another’s secrets. In many cases, however, there is resistance on the part of established interests, both military and civilian, to the introduction of new ideas and new technologies that threaten the existing order and their power and prominence in it. Established nineteenth-century physicians disputed the germ theory of disease as early twentieth-century physicists resisted the idea of quantum theory. Peacetime navies commanded by battleship admirals denied the value of aircraft carriers that, among other things, would enhance the power of their rivals within the navy. American auto executives in the 1960s were confident that the huge, gas-guzzling vehicles upon which their careers and profits had been built would always rule the road and dismissed Japanese auto engineering innovations. The list of examples is endless.

War, however, puts enormous pressure on societies to identify and assimilate useful innovations. Though it offers no guarantee that innovation will prevail, in war, the penalty for failing to acquire and learn to use important new technologies or modes of organization can be quite severe. Hence, in wartime, the objections of established interests to innovation are more likely to be brushed aside as detrimental to a society’s chances of survival. War-driven acceptance of innovation takes many forms. During World War II, for example, Joseph Stalin decided it was better to follow the example of other armies and reduced the power of the Red Army’s political officers while increasing the authority of the army’s professional soldiers to make tactical decisions. Apparently Comrade Stalin disagreed with the slogan of America’s post-war peace movement and decided it was not better to be “red than dead.”

The most obvious and, perhaps, most common vehicle of military technological diffusion is what might be termed secondary use. This term simply refers to one state or society acquiring and using weapons built by another. The method of acquisition might be theft, purchase, or even battlefield scavenging. For instance, as I noted previously, long before they were fully conquered, some indigenous North American tribes acquired and became quite proficient in the use of firearms. Sometimes they purchased these weapons from traders; sometimes they were issued weapons in exchange for service in the US military; in some instances, they acquired them through raids and theft. Whatever the precise mode of acquisition, this form of secondary use represented a very limited transfer of technology. Indigenous tribesmen learned how to fire weapons but lacked the technological base from which to actually build firearms and produce ammunition for them. Generally speaking, the wider the technological gulf between the recipient and source of military technology transfers, the more likely that the transfer will be limited to secondary use.

This principle usually holds true in the case of a major source of secondary use today, namely, arms sales. The United States sells tens of billions of dollars of arms every year, mainly to nations in the Middle East and Asia. Most of America’s Middle Eastern customers, Saudi Arabia in particular, have little in the way of manufacturing capability, much less a sophisticated arms industry. These recipients of American arms are dependent upon the United States for maintenance, spare parts, and ammunition, hence the transfer of technology is very minor. America’s Asian customers, on the other hand, most notably Japan and Taiwan, have very large and sophisticated manufacturing bases and could probable copy the American weapons they purchase. These nations are, however, constrained from so doing by agreements with the United States, as well as a calculation that it would be too expensive and politically risky to build the most sophisticated weapons in their own factories. While the Japanese and Taiwanese undoubtedly examine and are capable of reverse-engineering the aircraft and antimissile systems they purchase, the actual technology transfer is limited.

Whenever weapons are sold to a technologically sophisticated customer, however, there is a risk that the weapons transfer will not be limited to secondary use but will rather be reverse-engineered so that their secondary users learn the principles required to build them. Israel, for example, had sufficient technological capability to reverse-engineer the weapons it purchased from the United States and other suppliers and to use them as the foundations of its own arms industry. According to press reports, Israel routinely makes use of the underlying technologies of weapons it purchases from the United States. Of course, to build a modern arms industry, the Israelis also had to develop the ability to manufacture sophisticated computer and electronic components, and today Israel boasts an enormous number of technologically advanced start-up firms that serve both the military and civilian markets. In this way, the transfer of military and civilian technology went far beyond the narrow secondary use that might have been intended by Israel’s arms suppliers.

In some instances, nations have been able to purchase weapons, components, and plans on the international arms market from third-party suppliers. Such purchases often circumvent any restrictions that might have been place to prevent secondary users to build their own weapons. Indeed, in several cases, nations seeking to acquire modern arms technology have purchased American or other Western firms in possession of such know-how. The Chinese have sought to buy American technology firms. The Iranians, it has recently emerged, were able to acquire a factory in Germany that had the ability to manufacture components that might have been useful in Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Of course, one might say that there is nothing new here. Nineteenth-century British and German arms manufacturers sold their wares and their nations’ technologies to the United States and any other nation that could pay for them.

Reverse-engineering has been an important element in the dissemination of military technologies. Unlike simple secondary use, reverse-engineering requires a level of technology similar to that of the society that produced the weapon or weapons system in the first place. The new user must be able to grasp the engineering principles represented by the weapon and possess an industrial base capable of producing copies of the weapon. Thus, the extent to which basic technology is actually transferred may be militarily important but limited in scope. Often-cited examples of reverse-engineered weapons include the Soviet Tu-4 bomber, which was directly copied from the American B-29 bomber. The Soviets had a chance to closely examine the B-29 during World War II when several American planes on missions over Japan developed problems and landed on Soviet territory. Similarly, the Soviet K-13/R-3S air-to-air missile was a reverse-engineered version of the American AIM-9 Sidewinder. The Soviets were able to examine the American missile after one fired by a Taiwanese fighter hit a Chinese MIG without exploding. Today, Iran claims to have reverse-engineered the American Predator drone and to have produced its own version of the American unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that has proven to be a useful weapon in America’s arsenal.

Again, while reverse-engineering can be militarily useful, the actual extent to which technology can be transferred in this way is limited. Only those who already possess a level of technology sufficient to understand the principles embodied by the weapon and to build factories capable of making their own versions can benefit from reverse-engineering. A Predator drone somehow captured by a tribal group in the jungles of South America would not offer much in the way of benefits to them.

Another very common vehicle for the diffusion of military technologies is simple observation. One nation, observing a potentially useful weapon or weapons system fielded by others, may endeavor to build its own version of the weapon. Like reverse-engineering, imitation—though an important form of flattery—is not a particularly powerful instrument of technology diffusion. Weapons can only be copied by societies whose own level of technology is comparable to that of the society that produced the weapon. Thus, copying is more likely to diffuse weapons than engineering skill or scientific understanding. Take the case of naval power in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe.

Political scientist Michael Horowitz writes that during the first half of the nineteenth century, Great Britain was the world’s dominant naval power—a dominance based upon heavily armed, wooded-hulled sailing ships. However, the British observed the launch of a new French ironclad, steam-powered vessel, La Gloire, whose armor was capable of withstanding British gunfire. When the British also analyzed reports of the clash between the Monitor and Merrimack in America’s Civil War, they quickly shifted their production of warships first to iron and then to steel. The use of these materials and steam rather than wind power allowed the construction of warships much larger than any that had been built before and permitted their builders to mount huge guns with rotating turrets on the vessels’ decks. Indeed, the new guns, with their own armored turrets, were too heavy to be mounted at a ship’s sides and had to be installed midship, and ships redesigned to remove obstacles to the rotation of their turrets. The construction and deployment of these ships required changes in naval organization and methods of training, the development of new technologies in the production of steel, as well as the development of turbine engines capable of powering the enormous battleships and battlecruisers introduced by the Royal Navy in the early years of the twentieth century.

The 1906 launch of the HMS Dreadnaught, followed by a series of other powerful warships, as well as the reorganization of the Royal Navy’s tactics emphasizing battle fleets of auxiliary vessels organized around capital ships, was closely observed by the world’s other maritime powers—including in particular Germany and Japan. Many maritime powers halted their naval construction programs while they considered how to best respond to the British innovations. Several of these states possessed adequate levels of technology, as well as the organizational and financial capabilities, to imitate the British and proceeded to do so. Germany, for example, concluded that the new British warships represented a significant change in naval warfare that rendered existing vessels and fleets obsolete. Germany possessed a large and modern steel industry as well as the industrial infrastructure to build powerful warships on the British model. German military planners, moreover, had little difficulty understanding the organizational and tactical changes introduced by the British and adapted them for their own use.

In a similar vein, Japan was eager to imitate the Royal Navy’s new warships and tactics. In its efforts to build a modern navy following Commodore Perry’s 1853 visit, Japan had adopted the British Navy as a model for its own ships and tactics. For a half century, Japan had worked to build an industrial base that would allow it to compete with the West. By the turn of the century, Japan possessed an adequate level of technology to copy the new British warships. What the Japanese were not able to do for themselves, the British were more than happy to do for them. Britain viewed Japan as a counterweight to its rival Russia and encouraged Japanese naval modernization, selling the Japanese ships, large-caliber naval guns, and technologies and helping Japan to organize its own naval academy modeled on the British naval academy at Dartmouth. The Japanese were, as a result, able to quickly copy the new British warships and assimilate the British naval tactics designed to make best use of the ships. Ironically, of course, within a few years the Japanese used their new navy to attempt to drive the British from Southeast Asia.

Dissemination by observation was also important in the case of the tank. Tanks were introduced by Great Britain toward the end of World War I. The British believed that tracked, armored vehicles had the potential to penetrate heavily defended German trenches and pave the way for successful infantry assaults. Though early British tanks were slow and cumbersome and prone to mechanical breakdowns, it was evident to all sides that the tank could become a formidable weapon. The Germans decided to copy the British tanks but did so in a desultory manner until the British offensive of 1918, in which large numbers of improved British tanks, attacking in waves, were able to achieve decisive breakthroughs and penetrated deep behind the German lines. Watching their defense lines crushed by massed British armor convinced the Germans that the tank was, indeed, a powerful weapon. This realization came too late to affect the outcome of the war, since Germany soon capitulated, but it was to have a profound impact on German planning for the next war.

After the Versailles Treaty was signed, the army of the new German republic was severely limited in size and weaponry and could build no tanks. The Germans circumvented this restriction by entering into an agreement with the Soviet Union. The Soviet military, too, had been impressed with reports of the power of British armor and, indeed, during the Russian Civil War, had faced a small number of tanks fielded by the White Russian Army. After the Communist victory, Soviet officers had studied theories of armored warfare and very much wished to copy British tanks, but Soviet factories lacked the technological capability to build modern tanks. The Germans proposed a deal. The two nations would collaborate on tank design, with the Germans providing technical assistance for tanks that would be built in the USSR. Officers from both nations would train in a tank school established in the Soviet city of Kazan.

From this beginning, the German and Soviet armies both developed powerful tanks and doctrines of armored warfare emphasizing what the Germans would call blitzkrieg, or lightning war, and the Russians would call “deep battle.” In both cases, the emphasis was on the use of massed tank formations to break through, envelop, and cut off enemy forces with infantry following to exploit the armored advances. Initially, the Germans and Soviets both copied British tank designs. Gradually, however, they introduced improvements, but, of course, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, this episode of German–Soviet cooperation came to an end. Within a few years, tank officers who had trained together at Kazan faced one another in battle. Interestingly, the Germans had provided the technical expertise in the 1920s but by the 1940s the Soviets had learned to build better tanks, including the T-34, generally thought to have been the best tank of the war. Indeed, the Germans found themselves copying the armor from the T-34 for their own tanks.

Again, successful imitation requires a level of technology similar to that possessed by the nation whose weapons are being imitated and is, as a result, not the most robust mechanism of technology transfer. British tanks were easily copied by the Germans and Russians. Germany and Japan, along with the United States and, to a lesser extent, France, Italy, and Russia, were able to copy British naval innovations. These nations already possessed the level of technology needed to build British-style battleships and battle cruisers and, once shown an example, imitated it with relative ease. Those who did not possess the technological ability already could not copy the ships.

This limitation is not true in the case of a fourth form of imitation—voluntary technology transfer. Technology transfer differs from, say, arms sales, insofar as the donor or seller provides not only finished weapons but also donates or sells the technology needed to manufacture and maintain the weapons. This sort of sale or donation involves a more substantial transfer of technology than the simple sale or donation of the weapons themselves. Understanding the technology may allow the recipient to move forward scientifically or technologically and move on to produce other civilian and military products that might previously have been beyond their reach. Such transfers take place for a number of reasons and, despite frequent efforts on the part of technology-rich nations to prevent their technological assets from being acquired by others, such flows are difficult to control. In some instances, nations are willing to share military technology with their allies in order to promote its use against their enemies. As noted above, in the early twentieth century, Great Britain shared naval technology, including plans for the construction of modern warships, with Japan as part of its effort to blunt Russian power. This transfer of technologies is a classical case of a tactic that seemed to be a good idea at the time, but was discovered out later to have been rather problematic.

In other cases, a transfer of technology involves civilian technologies that turn out to have military uses. Take, for example, the enormous transfer of American manufacturing technology to the Soviet Union that took place before and during World War II. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet leadership was quite conscious of the fact that the USSR’s level of industrial development was far behind that of Western Europe and the United States. Always fearing attack from the capitalist West, the USSR was especially anxious to develop its armaments industries. Accordingly, the USSR contracted with American industrial firms to build plants such as the Kama River truck factory, in which Soviet engineers learned how to build modern trucks—a skill set that transferred quite easily to the manufacture of military vehicles.

Today, the United States seeks to monitor and prevent the transfer of technologies with military potential. In practice, such transfers take place every week. American corporations often sell technological know-how to foreign purchasers. These corporations usually claim to have been unaware that the technology had military applications. In 2011, for example, the United Technologies Corporation, a major American defense contractor, paid a $75 million fine for selling engine-control software to China that the Chinese used to build that nation’s first military attack helicopter. The firm’s Pratt and Whitney subsidiary had initially claimed to be unaware that the software had potential military uses, but then acknowledged that some of its executives had made false statements to the government when denying the allegation.

In some instances, foreign governments will demand a transfer of technology as a condition for purchasing American products. In a recent case, Brazil threatened to purchase military aircraft elsewhere if the United States continued to impose restrictions on technology transfers. Brazil wanted to sell twenty-four aircraft containing US-built components to Venezuela. The components had been sold to Brazil with the stipulation that they could not be transferred to a third nation. Brazil declared that if the United States refused to lift this restriction, it would award a fighter plane contract worth as much as $7 billion to a French or Swedish company rather than an American firm.

A recent case of voluntary technology transfer poses grave dangers. Nuclear technology developed in Pakistan was sold to both North Korea and Iran. The technology was sold by prominent Pakistani engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan, possibly with the connivance of some Pakistani officials. North Korea has tested an atomic bomb it was able to develop with the help of Khan’s information, and Iran is making every effort to build its own nuclear weapon. Iran asserts that it seeks nuclear technology for peaceful uses, while North Korea enjoys threatening the United States with a nuclear attack. In all likelihood, both states are lying.

The Khan case also illustrates another common factor in voluntary technology transfer—the internationalization of scientific training. Every year, American and European universities train thousands of scientists and engineers in the most advanced technologies. Some of these individuals remain in the countries where they received their training, but the majority return home with the skills they have acquired. Abdul Khan, for example, was trained in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. In the Netherlands, Khan had access to documents concerning gas centrifuge technology, an important element in the fabrication of nuclear bombs. Of course, America’s own atomic bomb was originally devised by scientists trained in Germany. No doubt, engineers trained in the Roman army later built ballistae for the Goths.

Finally, there is the matter of espionage. Since ancient times, nations have relied upon spies to inform them of one another’s plans and capabilities. One important form of espionage is collection of information on the use and manufacture of weapons. In some instances, espionage has provided information that allowed one or another nation to copy complex weapons systems that it might not easily have been able to develop on its own. In the 1940s, for example, Soviet spy rings penetrated American security and copied the plans and designs for American nuclear weapons. This intelligence coup allowed the Soviet Union to build an atomic bomb years earlier than its scientists and engineers might have been able to construct such a weapon on their own.

In recent years, China has been quite active in the realm of technological espionage. Chinese agents allegedly were able to acquire microwave submarine detection technology, space-based intercept systems, electromagnetic artillery systems, submarine torpedoes, aircraft carrier electronic systems, and various other military technologies. Recently, a Chinese citizen, Sixing Liu, was sentenced to seventy months in federal prison for attempting to transfer information about the “disk resonator gyroscope,” a device that allows drones, missiles, and rockets to hit targets without satellite guidance, to the Chinese military. Liu was employed by US defense contractor L-3 Communications, where he had access to the gyroscope. Similarly, Chi Mak, another L-3 employee, was convicted of passing information on the navy’s quiet drive submarine propulsion technology to China, while another Chinese agent was convicted of acquiring American microwave submarine detection technology for China.

Of course, China is not the only nation that uses covert means to acquire American military technology. In recent years, Russian agents have been accused of attempting to export US military equipment and technology, and a number of Iranian agents have been apprehended seeking to obtain American technology and hardware for Iran’s military and nuclear programs.

Mid twentieth-century Soviet atom spies generally had to physically obtain or photograph documents and components. While this traditional form of espionage continues to be important, today’s spying also includes cyberattacks on computer systems that store useful military and technological information. In recent years, computer attacks, mainly originating in China, have targeted a number of American defense firms, including Northrop Grumman, whose computer systems contain valuable information on American military systems. What, if any, technology was transferred through these attacks has not been made public.


War and preparation for war provide nations with a powerful incentive to identify and copy one another’s useful military technologies. Whatever form such imitation takes, with the exception of simple secondary use, imitation of a foreign military innovation may allow—or indeed, require—learning and assimilating whole new sets of technologies with both military and civilian applications. As I observed earlier, copying swords may teach societies how to build plowshares.

Take the case of jet propulsion. Work on jet engines had been undertaken in Britain, France, and Germany during the 1920s. In the 1930s, however, German industrialist Ernst Heinkel saw the possibility of attaching a jet engine to an airplane. Along with an engine designed Hans von Ohain, Heinkel built the He 178, the world’s first jet plane. With subsequent technical improvements, the Germans were able to build the world’s first jet fighter, the Me 262, which entered combat in 1944. The Messerschmitt jet could attain a top speed of about 550 miles per hour, which was more than 150 miles per hour faster than conventional Allied fighter aircraft. The Me 262 was quite successful in downing Allied bombers, particularly after the introduction of a two-seat version with radar gave it an enhanced ability to fly and fight at night.

The Me 262 was introduced too late in the war to have any appreciable effect. Other air forces encountering the German jet fighter, though, recognized its clear superiority to piston engine aircraft, as well as to the British Gloster Meteor, a somewhat more primitive jet fighter developed by the British. Accordingly, Allied forces made every effort to capture an Me 262 for study, hoping to copy its design and technology. The US Army Air Force had created an intelligence effort dubbed “Operation Lusty,” tasked with acquiring German aircraft and weapons technologies. No Me 262, though, was captured until the end of the war, when both the Americans and Soviets were able to seize a number of the jets in fairly good condition. The United States shipped nine of the Me 262s, along with other German equipment, to an airfield in Newark, New Jersey for study. There the German planes were reverse-engineered and immediately became the basis for America’s jet fighter and jet bomber programs.

Within a few years, of course, jet engines were being used to power commercial airliners. With improvements in their power, reliability, and fuel efficiency, they soon replaced piston engines on most large civilian aircraft. The jet engine has dramatically shortened flight times and reduced the costs associated with travel and commerce. Copying the sword produced a very important plowshare. Of course, jet technology had been under development before the war and had not been exclusively intended for military purposes. This point, however, raises the larger issue of how technology is transferred between civilian and military uses, a question to which we shall now turn.

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