The West’s terminal technology problem

Western powers are falling behind in technology, held back by systemic rot

Sep 24, 2023

Western powers are falling behind in the development of new technologies, particularly in the military domain. This is partly caused by the perverse system of incentives that suffocates research and development work, but also by a system of education that’s producing less and less technical, scientific and engineering talent. From the strategic point of view, this is a critical problem, as I elaborated in an earlier Substack, “Of Empires and Technology.”

Russia has eclipsed the West in military technology

At the 8th Eastern Economic Forum held earlier this month in Vladivostok, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin spoke about the development of a new generation of weapons: “If one looks into the security sphere, new physical principles weapons will ensure the security of any country in the near historic perspective. We understand this very well and are working on it.”

The kinds of weapons Putin was referring to include particle beams, laser, ultrasonic, radio-frequency and electromagnetic systems. That sounds quite futuristic – was Putin telling tall tales? When he announced that Russia had developed a variety of undetectable hypersonic weapons back in 2018, many in the West thought that he was bluffing and we heard much mocking and crowing: “the West outspends Russia 10 to 1, the Russians can’t possibly bla, bla, bla…” And like the Chinese, the Russians are inferior and incapable of innovating, they can’t think strategically, etc.

Fast forward to today: the Russian forces have successfully deployed hypersonic Kinzhal and Zircon missiles in Ukraine, delivering pinpoint strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure and military facilities, the crowing and the gloating about all the ways in which the Russians are inferior to us westerners has died down a bit. Still, we can’t just admit that Russian weapons systems are superior to the western arsenal, so the western press, relying on Ukrainian sources, claimed that Ukraine’s air defenses manage to intercept and shoot down Russian hypersonic missiles.

That would actually quite spectacular since NATO officials themselves have corroborated what Putin had said: that the missiles are undetectable and were not picked up by western radar systems. Either the Ukrainians have managed to develop targeting solutions very fast, using binoculars, or they’re lying. Whatever the case, Putin’s latest announcement did not trigger much mocking and crowing this time around. In fact, some western analysts now concede that Russia’s military technology has eclipsed that of the west.

The significance of hypersonic weapons

But how can this even be possible if for decades now, western “defense” spending outstripped that of Russia by a factor of 10 or even more? In a recent article titled, “Hypersonic Missiles Are Game-Changers, and America Doesn’t Have Them,” the Wall Street Journal explored why the US and the West have fallen behind.


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