China’s Push To Upgrade Military Using AI For Future Warfare – OpEd

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Since the Cold War ended, the United States has enjoyed an advantage in terms of military technology. But this advantage is quickly being eclipsed by its main rival, China, which appears to have intense pressure to become a global leader in technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) that have the potential to revolutionize warfare.

The US Congressional Research Service (CRS) in its report entitled “Emerging Military Technologies: Background and Issues for Congress” states that the US still dominates technology as a whole. But China and Russia are also making progress.”

China is already seen as the US’ strongest competitor, especially in the international AI market,” said CRS, quoted by Reuters. “Recent achievements show that China has great potential. The technology can indirectly strengthen the military.”

In an effort to build world-class military capacity, the Chinese government will use artificial intelligence (AI) or artificial intelligence applied to various unmanned systems and weapons with centralized autonomous operations. Beijing focuses on defense strategy as it calls the “new era”, its goal is to integrate these innovations into the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and to create a “world class” force that counterbalances US conventional military supremacy in the Indo-Pacific and tilts the balance strength.

The importance of using AI for China’s national security and military ambitions was highlighted by President Xi Jinping’s speech during the 20th Party Congress in October 2022, in which Xi emphasized Beijing’s commitment to AI development and referenced “smart warfare” to AI-enabled military systems.

In his speech, Xi alluded to the importance of accelerating the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a world-class army. According to him, the PLA will start developing new strategies and tactics as well as researching the characteristics of computerized and intelligent warfare reinforced by the laws governing it. Xi promised that China will continue to support the integrated development of the PLA through mechanization, information technology and intelligence.

The commitment shows that China’s national leadership has shown readiness to advance the rapidly developing concept of artificial intelligence since 2019 and has been included in China’s National Defense Strategy Document. This paper will explain how AI can play an important role in the efforts of the People’s Liberation Army? Why is the US so worried?

Preparing for the Military Competition of the Century

The United States and China have entered an era of prolonged military rivalry. With the PLA’s shadow hanging over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea, it is all the more important to understand the potential revolutionary change that the Chinese military envisions for itself in this century. China believes that rapid advances in artificial intelligence and autonomous systems will radically change warfare, and plans to make that dream a reality.

The AI revolution isn’t just important for China’s military. The Chinese Communist Party sees the development of AI as part of a broader “smart era,” in which AI is transforming all parts of society. This era will be driven by the fourth industrial revolution in which the PRC will spare no expense in leapfrogging its adversaries.

China’s strategic culture values the role technology plays in the development of warfare, so the CCP believes that if it can outperform the United States in this phase of technology development, it will gain the decisive advantage it needs in geopolitical competition. The world may be on the verge of a new kind of war for which the United States is not ready.

Papers published so far by senior PLA officials and strategists indicate that the PLA seeks to use artificial intelligence in four key areas including:

  • Unmanned weapons autonomy, including the development of drone swarms. China aims to carry out highly autonomous integrated operations with a variety of unmanned systems and unmanned weapons. Additionally, the PLA has rapidly expanded its use of unmanned weapons, first entering the airspace south of Taiwan’s ADIZ in September 2022 with the number of intrusions increasing to a total of 70 by December 2022.
  • Process large amounts of information through machine learning. For example, the PLA is building a network of unmanned weapons and underwater sensors in the waters around China and is trying to process the information obtained from this network using artificial intelligence. Additionally, the PLA is considering a new form of electronic warfare that uses artificial intelligence to analyze received radio waves and optimize jamming.
  • The use of artificial intelligence to accelerate military decision-making. In the United States, research has shown that the use of artificial intelligence for decision-making, such as involving nuclear strategy, has increased the risk of “lightning wars,” in which conflict escalates instantly. In China too, there is debate about the extent to which decision-making should be entrusted to artificial intelligence given these dangers. Therefore, for now, instead of delegating complex decision-making to artificial intelligence, China will most likely leverage artificial intelligence for simple tasks such as information processing and autonomous weapons.

All three of the previous areas are common arguments for new ways of waging war using artificial intelligence in the United States, such as mosaic warfare and decision-centered warfare.

United States concerns?

The emergence of news of the use of AI by the Chinese government in its military field has worried many parties, from Silicon Valley to the Pentagon. One of those who expressed concern at the US House of Representatives meeting on China was Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO who attended as the leader of an initiative focused on accelerating the use of AI by US defense agencies.

The US must redesign its military and respond to Chinese threats according to the monthly report from the Special Competitive Study Project (SCSP) led by Schmidt. The SCSP report also explains that China continues to demonstrate advanced capabilities specifically designed to counter America’s traditional means of warfare. With the aim of penetrating US military power, China in 30 years builds efforts to study US combat operations now assisted by AI. Besides that, it is also said that the use of AI in its military capabilities is faster than its enemies.

Information submitted to Bloomberg News came from one of the authors of the report, namely Ylber Bajraktari, a report discussing the urgency of efforts to accelerate the development of US military power supported by AI addressed to congress, the Pentagon and the public. However, it is feared that it will trigger a conflict between the US and China regarding the race of AI.

China’s investment in defense is far greater than that of the US. In the field of AI and quantification, the US can be said to be slightly ahead of China, but China has more people working on strategic AI, according to Schmidt when giving a briefing to the US House of Representatives. According to several officials in the Department of Defense and congress, the US will risk losing a future conflict with China if the US does not develop AI-based weapons soon.

Since October 7, 2022, the Biden administration has tightened the pace of China’s AI ambitions, namely by tightening exports of high-end chips to companies operating in China, especially in the military field. Technologies like AI and quantum communities are industries that the White House is looking at for foreign intervention. Then in 2024 the US Department of Defense requests US$1.8 billion for AI more than in previous years.

According to the US secretary of defense, Kathleen Hicks, the incorporation of technology into daily activities will be more effective, so that funding will increase. Hicks added, artificial intelligence is one of the front-line technologies today, of course the US sees China trying to get ahead and exploit it.

Conclusion

A unique argument in China is the idea of using artificial intelligence in cognitive warfare. Cognitive warfare affects the human brain’s cognition and opponent’s will to create a strategically advantageous environment or subdue an opponent without a fight. In China, there is an active debate about cognitive warfare. For example, Qi Jianguo, former deputy chief of staff of the PLA, has stated that those who excel in developing a new generation of artificial intelligence technology will be able to control the lifeline of national security: human cognition. Li Minghai of China’s National Defense University also argues that cognitive warfare will become a key battleground for future wars.

As such, China is engaged in various military applications of artificial intelligence as well as extensive discussions about its potential uses. In using artificial intelligence to win wars, the technology itself does not have to be sophisticated. Therefore, while competition for developing new technologies is important, an approach that focuses solely on the technical aspects of new technology performance and adoption rates is inappropriate. China is actively discussing new ways to wage war using artificial intelligence. The United States and its allies must not lose in the race to develop new ways of waging war using new technologies.

This development presents many warnings and opportunities for the United States. Most importantly, the PLA can achieve its grand ambitions for a smart power. In this war environment, the American way of fighting may be at high risk. The US military could find itself outmatched and unprepared in an Indo-Pacific war scenario. Of course, the United States should prepare for this eventuality and experiment with potential AI-enabled adversaries. However, China’s savvy military would be vulnerable to enemy counterattacks. Most importantly, China’s aspirations for a highly centralized artificial intelligence system will be vulnerable to various types of options, such as electronic warfare.

The United States must watch China’s technology investments closely and do everything it can to maintain its edge in technology. These developments should highlight the urgency of Defense Department efforts to work more closely with Silicon Valley and other technology hubs through the United States and key allied nations, to ensure private sector advances in AI and autonomous systems are quickly adopted by the US military. While the Chinese nation has advanced rapidly with massive top-down investments, America’s private sector remains one of its most important competitive advantages.

*Silvanah, Bachelor of International Relations at the Islamic University of Indonesia. Inas Khairiyyah, Bachelor of International Relations at the Islamic University of Indonesia also contributed to writing this article.

Silvanah

Silvanah is an International Relations Student at the Islamic University of Indonesia who focuses on discussing environmental issues.

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