In late December 2019, the Russian military defense conglomerate Rostec accused China of unauthorized acquisition of Russian military hardware intellectual property (IP), which resulted in increased tensions between the two partners. Between 2014 and 2018, Russia had been China’s biggest arms supplier and accounted for seventy percent of Beijing’s arms imports.
While it is unlikely that Russia would cut back on the sales, reverse-engineering of the military hardware has become a major concern for Moscow, which has accused China of copying everything from aircraft engines to air-defense systems. Instead of an embargo, Russia has responded by insisting that weapons are purchased in bulk to combat the likelihood of reverse-purchases that come when Beijing only bought a few samples. Moreover, Russia has largely come to accept Chinese IP theft as a cost of doing business, while at the same time Moscow could maintain a technological edge.
However, it isn’t just from a partner that China has been accused of stealing military IP.
There is no “might” that China’s J-20 “Mighty Dragon” stealth fighter was likely developed based on stolen designs from the United States Air Force’s Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. It would be a tremendous coincidence that the J-20’s development began in earnest only after the F-22 was unveiled. Additionally, many of the systems on the fifth-generation Chinese fighter are similar to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Lockheed Martin had found that Chinese hackers had stolen technical documents related to the F-35 program in 2007.
It isn’t just the J-20 that looks mighty familiar either.
In some cases the copies are good, but as with old school photocopies or other analog technologies something is lost in the process. This is true of China’s Type 726A Landing Craft, which has been described as a “near carbon copy” of the United States Navy’s LCAC hovercraft. Both were designed to move men and material to beaches, but the LCAC can handle a larger load.
The same is true of the Y-20, a slightly smaller clone of the U.S. military’s C-17 transport aircraft. While the Chinese model can still carry a main battle tank and other hardware, it still isn’t a true C-17.
Yet in one case, the Chinese have managed to improve slightly. The domestically built Chinese Z-20 was almost certainly developed from the civilian Sikorsky S-70 helicopters Beijing purchased in the 1980s. These look so similar to the military UH-60 Black Hawk that some have called the Z-20 a “Copy Hawk.” However, the Chinese model features a fifth blade not found on the Black Hawks, and the Z-20 is able to carry a bit more weight.
Going forward it is possible that China may cease stealing because it can’t actually gain an edge over its potential adversaries. This is also why Russia hasn’t expressed that much concern over the theft of military IP.
“Copying old technology takes the same amount of time as developing new technology,” Vasily Kashin, a senior fellow at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told the Eurasian Times. “It’s much easier to take China’s money, invest it in our own development, and let the Chinese do whatever they want.”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.