ISSN 2330-717X

China Aims To Augment Its Military Strength Using AI – Analysis

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By Javin Aryan

In its quest to become a formidable superpower, China under Xi Jinping has placed special significance on Artificial Intelligence (AI). The dual-use nature of AI—i.e., its use for both civilian and military purposes—underlines the appeal of its development and utilisation for Beijing. Hence, while advancements in AI can contribute to China’s economy and healthcare, among others, it can also strengthen the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by enabling it to engage in “intelligentised warfare” (智能化作战), defined by PLA strategists as “the operationalisation of artificial intelligence and its enabling technologies, such as cloud computing, big data analytics, quantum information and unmanned systems, for military applications.”

China’s military leaders and strategists have astutely recognised that AI and related technologies—such as machine learning, human-machine teaming[i], neural networking, and autonomous systems (also referred to as “intelligentised weapons”)[ii]—are key to gaining an edge in the next generation of warfare. At the same time, they are also anxious that other countries, mainly the US, may beat them in this realm and acquire the capability to overwhelm China’s air defenses and attack their command-and-control systems. Thus, a whole-of-society approach is underway which includes China’s central and provincial governments, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), all branches of the PLA, and the country’s state- and privately- owned businesses. Thus, a whole-of-society approach is underway which includes China’s central and provincial governments, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), all branches of the PLA, and the country’s state- and privately- owned businesses

Progress so far

Mandated by Xi Jinping to become “fully modernised” by 2035 and at par with the US military by 2050, the Chinese military is striving hard to research, develop, and operationalise AI for military purposes (see table 1). In this endeavour, they are being aided by laws and initiatives—such as the National Security Law (2015), National Intelligence Law (2017), the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan, and Civil-Military Fusion—that have been brought forward to ensure complete compliance and synchronisation between all Chinese entities.

While the National Security Law (2015) and National Intelligence Law (2017) compel all Chinese organisations and citizens to act as agents of the state and help facilitate the establishment’s efforts, Civil-Military Fusion (CMF) seeks to take advantage of the resources and research capabilities of the country’s privately-owned companies, universities, and research institutions (see table 2). CMF will enable the PLA to benefit from the relations these civilian entities have with overseas institutions as well.

Outlining its strategy for the development of AI, China unveiled the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan in 2017. Among other things, it called for China to strengthen the use of AI in military applications, providing support to command and decision-making, military deductions[iii], defence equipment, and other applications. It also emphasised the need to “form an all-element, multi-domain, highly efficient new pattern of civil-military integration.”

In another initiative, China started designating Chinese tech companies as “AI Champions” beginning in 2017 and allocated a particular area of AI to each to pioneer. Well-known names like Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, Xiaomi, and Huawei figure on the list. The fruits of investments they have made in AI are sure to be readily accessible by the PLA.

Table 1: PLA’s advancements in AI and related technologies

PLA BranchSystemNotes
PLA Ground ForceMilitary robotics and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) under development.
Older models of tanks developed to operate via remote control or with some degree of autonomy. (Source)
PLA NavyJARI multi-purpose unmanned surface vehicle (USV)Unveiled in September 2018. Undergoing sea trials as of January 2020.
Autonomous/ AI-enabled submarinesUnder development
Undersea gliders (such as the HN-1 glider) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs)Tested and operated
Sea Iguana (also known as Marine Lizard, 海蜥蜴) USVHas undergone navigation tests. Operational status is unknown.
PLA Air ForceAdvanced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with limited autonomyOperational
Drone swarm (with 1,000 UAVs)Displayed in 2017
Manned-unmanned teaming capabilitiesUnder development
Hypersonic Glide Vehicles with neural networks that enable adaptive control and greater autonomyUnder development
PLA Rocket ForceRemote sensing, targeting, and decision support capabilities may be developed. (Source)
Cruise missiles to be integrated with a very high level of artificial intelligence and automation that will allow commanders to control them in real-time or use a fire-and-forget mode. (Source)
PLA Strategic Support ForceCould apply advances in AI to its missions in space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare. (Source)

Table 2: Examples of collaborations under Civil-Military Fusion

CollaboratorsAreas of research
Key Laboratory of Precision Guidance and Automatic Target Recognition at the PLA’s National University of Defense Technology (Source)Automatic target recognition techniques
Tianjin Binhai Artificial Intelligence Military-Civil Fusion Center (established in partnership with the PLA’s Academy of Military Science) (Source)Developments in autonomy and the capacity for coordination of unmanned systems
China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) (Source)Core technologies including target detection and recognition techniques based on deep learning and deep neural network compression, and smart sensors, combining data from multiple radars
High-End Laboratory for Military Intelligence (HELMI) (established under the Military-Civil Fusion for Artificial Intelligence Development program, a collaboration between Tsinghua University and the Central Military Commission (CMC) Science and Technology Commission) (Source)To serve as starting point for developing “AI superpower strategy”

Challenges

China is on its way to unlock AI’s potential in military application and is making considerable effort to outdo the US. However, as Chinese scholars themselves point out, it is at least a few years behind the reigning superpower. More importantly, still, many of the challenges Beijing faces, such as shortage of talent and technical know-how, inadequate infrastructure, and external dependence for critical components like semiconductors, have been compounded due to the ongoing US-China confrontation. Time will tell who comes out ahead, and whether China’s imprudent actions are penalised or rewarded.

[i] Human-machine teaming refers to developing artificial cognitive capabilities similar to or at par with those of humans, like military commanders, that can be used in command-and-control systems, for making more efficient and informed decisions faster, for training, etc.

[ii] Intelligentised weapons, or AI weapons (人工智能武器), are defined as those that “utilise AI to pursue, distinguish, and destroy enemy targets automatically; often composed of information collection and management systems, knowledge base systems, decision assistance systems, mission implementation systems, etc.”

[iii] A reference to wargaming and simulations carried out by the Chinese military

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