The PLA And Intelligentized Warfare – Analysis


By Om Ranjan*

China is deploying advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, automation and robots, quantum computing, big data, 5G networking, and the Internet of Things (IoT), for military purposes. In its 14th Five Year Plan (FYP) (2021–25), China outlined the main aims and objectives of modernising the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), including that of ‘elevating the level to being an intelligent force’.1 China seeks to focus on accelerating military modernisation to make the PLA an automated and computerised force by 2027, the 100th anniversary of its founding in 1927. By 2035, PLA aims to become a modernised force in all spheres.2 Nevertheless, analysts note that a significant force reduction from current levels, budget boost and faster adoption of Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies will be necessary to hasten the development of an intelligent and informationised force.

Shift from Mechanised to Intelligentised and Informationised Domain

The PLA has been modernising for more than 20 years and has long been described as being “half-mechanized, half-informationized force”.3 The PLA is seeking to improve military efficacy by focusing on information technologies—particularly those connected to command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR), to become an “informatised” force.4 The move from mechanised to informationised force under the cover of intelligent network capabilities, such as IoT, 5G, Big Data and Cloud Computing, are the core ideas of the Chinese military’s thinking towards transitioning to a 21st century force. 

In essence, intelligent warfare implies the use of 4IR technologies for military use and the exploitation of such technologies to produce ‘intelligent weapons’, like AI-enabled weapons system. China’s 2019 defense white paper had noted that ‘informationised conflict and intelligent warfare’ was ‘on the horizon’.5

China believes that the emerging economic and military-technical revolutions will be dominated by AI, big data, human–machine hybrid intelligence, swarm intelligence, automated decision-making, autonomous unmanned systems, and intelligent robots.6 The PLA is adopting 4IR technologies in order to be better prepared for the growing symmetric and asymmetric combat domains, especially in geographical and cyber space. Numerous crucial technologies, including robots, big data, quantum computing, etc., are expected to enable PLA forces to be better prepared, especially at a time when asymmetric warfare is changing the dimensions across battlespace.

In its geopolitical rivalry with the United States, China places a high importance on AI as a crucial technology. Chinese military experts predict that AI will be essential to overtaking the US military as the most powerful armed force in the world.7 As a result, China has developed a plan to take the lead in AI by 2030. Beijing’s ‘New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan’ was published in July 2017, with three key strategic objectives—to raise China’s AI industry to the level of the global state-of-the-art; to make significant advances in fundamental AI theory by 2025; and to make China the world leader in AI theory, technology, and applications by 2030.8

China is seeking to ‘infuse AI’ into almost every component of the PLA’s operations and equipment. The upgrading of the PLA to intelligent warfare is linked to China’s AI plan as well as other significant investments in important technical industries, particularly in the “national defense construction, security assessment, and control capabilities”.9

Intelligentised Warfare and Military–Civil Fusion

Chinese military modernisation is expected to become more and more associated with civil technological innovation. The majority of 4IR breakthroughs—particularly in the areas of AI, machine learning, big data, etc.,—are occurring in the commercial sector. Because of this reliance on commercial technology, Military Civil Fusion (MCF), also known as ‘civil–military integration’ (CMI), has become a more crucial military-technological innovation approach.10

MCF is essential to the PLA’s embrace of intelligentised combat, as seen by efforts to use AI to this end. The New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan is being seen as the “poster child” for MCF because it takes use of developments in commercial AI to accelerate the development of technology essential for future military modernisation.11

Already, 4IR technologies are being utilised to increase the capabilities of weapons systems like drones (both armed and unarmed).12 MCF has integrated military modernisation with civilian technical innovation in a number of crucial dual-use technology areas.13 MCF has “included deeper integration of military and civilian administration at all levels of government: in national defense mobilization, airspace management and civil air defense, reserve and militia forces, and border and coastal defense”.14

The PLA’s Strategic Support Force (SSF) was established in 2015 and is in charge of space, cyber influence operations and electronic warfare. It has “energetically built ties outside the military arena, signing cooperation agreements with research universities and other research centers for developing enhanced capabilities for integration of 4IR tools to its spherical domain”.15

The ongoing technological denial by the West and the lack of expertise in technological advancement across Chinese research industries, especially in semiconductors, though, are being flagged as some of the reasons that could cause impediments to the PLA’s modernisation plan.16Therefore, even as China has made progress in its endeavour to harness commercial high technology for the PLA’s modernisation efforts and to be combat-ready in line with the needs of the 21st century, there are still obstacles that must be overcome before such 4IR technologies can be widely adopted by the PLA.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

*About the author: Om Ranjan

Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrrikar IDSA

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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