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Asymmetric warfare and how to boil a frog

My son just called up. His cell phone died. The phone is only a few months old.

Seems like more and more gadgets are dying prematurely these days. Of course, this could just be a side effect of the fact that we own more electronic gadgets. This could also be an effect of price competition, and the market seeking the lowest level of quality that consumers will accept.

There is another possible explanation. Assume you were in the role of a rising economic and military power - like China. If you were hoping to one day achieve military dominance, somehow you need to undercut the superiority of the US military. A direct attack is likely to be very expensive, so you need to find something less obvious.

The superiority of the US military is largely based on technology originally developed during the Cold War. Without the threat of imminent destruction, the rate of US innovation is bound to drop. Certainly you want to avoid any appearance as a direct threat. At the same time, military technology is largely dependent on electronics. If you can undercut prices, then you can kill off manufacturing in the US. You only need to do this for a few critical components - no need to capture the entire market (which might arose suspicion).

For example, capacitors are simple relatively low-tech components that are used in practically every electronic device. Not a lot of innovation going on with capacitors, so it is quite natural that the manufacturing would shift to where costs were lowest. If you can insure that your costs are lowest, you can slowly reduce the lifespan of the component, so that any electronic device is bound to fail within a few years. You might be able to manufacture components with a longer lifespan at the same cost - but you make sure that components offered for export have a short lifespan.

The consumer market is not going to care overmuch, as consumer devices tend to have a short lifespan in any case. Slowly increasing failure rates mean the US military spends an increasing amount of time and money for maintenance, and has less money for improvements. Higher failure rates mean lower readiness and a weaker military. If for any reason replacements became scarce (due to some sort of conflict - economic or military) then in the space of a few years the US military could become radically less effective.

Never ascribe to malice - in this case what could be simply explained by market forces. So I am not a big believer in the above. Still, it is a possibility.

A simple strategy should suffice to nullify an "attack" like the above, and return a long-term benefit to the country as a whole. Simply insure that a sufficient pool of expertise exists so that we can resume domestic manufacturing when needed. In the short term this means a steady supply of high reliability components (with the side benefit of lower maintainence costs and higher readiness for our military). In the long term the disparity between domestic and foreign manufacturing costs will diminish, and the country gains an economic benefit. Modest long-term investments in improved manufacturing techniques both insure that our domestic expertise does not die of old age, and is likely to bring closer the day when domestic manufacturing is again competitive.