Having observed U.S. theater operations and war campaigns for more than three decades, the leaders of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are keenly aware of the huge disparity between its capabilities and those of the U.S. military in information and communication technology (ICT), and the gap seems unlikely to be eliminated in the near future.
Aside from ICT, cutting-edge technologies, also called disruptive technology, including artificial intelligence (AI), quantum, big data, cloud computing and the Internet of Things are all becoming relevant to the military domain. AI in particular is seen as a “game-changing” critical strategic technology; increased machine speed and processing power are expected to be applied to military planning, operational command and decision support as part of the “intelligentization” of warfare.
AI is most meaningful to the PLA as it provides an opportunity for Beijing to compete with Washington on an even footing to develop an emerging technology. China’s AI policy was first described in “The Development Plan on the New Generation of Artificial Intelligence,” issued by the State Council in 2017, the plan named using military-civilian fusion (MCF) as one of the “Main Duties” for AI development. MCF is being used as an approach to develop AI on the basis of China’s belief that it can accomplish “corner-overtaking” to surpass the United States.
As Xi Jinping outlined in his work report to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, the PLA must “accelerate the development of military intelligentization, [and] improve joint operations capabilities and all-domain combat capabilities based on network information systems” to fulfill China’s military development aims. The remark reflects Xi’s determination to elevate the concept of intelligentization as a guideline for future Chinese military modernization.
Echoing this, a 2019 defense white paper called attention to the changing landscape of modern warfare, stating that “the evolution of warfare nowadays is opening up toward an informationized mode, indicating a horizon of intelligentized warfare on the rise.” Meanwhile, in line with the Third Offset Strategy, the U.S. subsequently opts for AI to develop brand-new battle modes such as swarm and centaur. Beijing is certainly aware of these U.S. strategic moves, the 2019 defense white paper also expressed its vivid concern that “U.S. is engaging in technological and institutional innovation in pursuit of absolute military superiority.”
The PLA’s Views on Intelligentized Warfare
In an article published after the Fifth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Xu Qiliang, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, noted that as the PLA has entered the era of intelligentization, it must promote the integrated development of the “three modernizations” of mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization. Xu also emphasized the need for China to “broaden strategic thinking and accelerate the transition from adapting to the way of operations passively to designing it proactively.” Xu’s statements show that China aims to use disruptive technology to conceptualize and win a new type of warfare.
Chinese military thinkers believe that under conditions of informatized warfare, dominating a system of systems confrontation rather than the large-scale attrition of enemy forces is the key factor in winning. Therefore, the PLA’s main strategy to defeat an adversary on the battleground is by creating disruption or paralysis on the enemy side through a system of systems operations. AI is believed to play a central role in intelligentized warfare to target and crash key elements of opponent operational systems. A PLA Senior Colonel Li Minghai pointed out that algorithms, unmanned platforms and extreme domains are emerging factors contributing to the form of intelligentized warfare.
In the meantime, Guo Ruobing, dean of the National Security College of the National Defense University of China, believes that the PLA should have a unique way of intelligentized warfighting, based upon Mao Zedong’s concept that “You fight your way and we’ll fight our way.” Guo argues that only in this way can the PLA successfully develop technological and military abilities to seize a new force posture and create its advantages of “exploiting strength to defeat weakness” in the intelligentization era. Namely, the PLA must develop its own AI military capabilities and target the U.S.’ vulnerable underbelly rather than competing with the U.S. in a full-spectrum confrontation. Guo adds that China must be careful to avoid being trapped into an arms race and suffer the same experience of the former Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Innovation – the Doctrine of Developing Intelligentized Capabilities
In response to the U.S.’ offset strategy, Xi Jinping highlights the wholehearted effort of “building an innovative people’s army” and emphasizes the logic that “whoever implements scientific and technological innovation well will be able to get a head start and win an advantage.”
With regard to technology, China also sees the task of developing AI as a national strategic project emphasized as strongly as the “two bombs, one satellite” in the 1950s and 1960s. Beijing believes that the success of the “two bombs, one satellite” project is grounded on the Party leaders’ unwavering resolve, the devoted effort of the whole nation, spiritual attainment of those scientists as exemplified by Qian Xuesen, and the project managers with rich strategic competency. In the future, China will definitely continue with the same mindset and integrate all the resources to develop the AI weaponry.
On the other hand, the rapid development of disruptive technologies such as big data and cloud computing provides a marked contrast to conventional PLA-based military analysts, who tended to interpret military lessons via approaches such as generalization and deduction of cases in the past. Instead, the PLA in the near future may have the opportunities to develop military theory with innovative thinking before war occurs. In other words, the “design of war” has become feasible.
AI: An Effective Means in Blitzkrieg
Looking back in history, Wehrmacht highlighted the Blitzkrieg in its frontal attack to beat the rivals based upon its relative advantage of speed during WWII. For Chinese familiar with martial arts, a relevant well-known phrase captures the same: “There is no impregnable defense, but for the swiftness.” Speed in history has been strongly featured as a critical factor that determines the outcome of war.
That is exactly the case of AI. One of the advantages of AI is to speed up military decision making. More specifically, AI is particularly fit for blitz tactics. In the scenario of the PLA waging a war against Taiwan, distance makes instant U.S. reinforcement difficult. The PLA therefore would take advantage of speed in the attack so that it can demotivate any U.S. intention to come to Taiwan’s rescue. Taking advantage of AI, the PLA is expected to focus on algorithms, unmanned platforms and extreme domains and develop the intelligentized “assassin’s mace” weapons, mainly including precision guided missile, hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), UAV, cyberattack, targeting vulnerabilities of U.S. battle network systems, to exploit its relative advantages to fulfill Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD).
AI: A Psychological Offensive Tool
It is also very likely to see the PLA apply AI to the domain of cognitive warfare, where out-of-the-ordinary tactics such as disinformation, misinformation, influence strategies in propaganda warfare are in use. Cognitive warfare is a psychological approach which is in line with the traditional Chinese military wisdom that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” and “it is better to win the heart of the people than to capture the city.”
The main reason for the PRC’s victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, and its tentative dominance in the Korean War, in 1950, lie in propaganda and psychological burnout as a tool to manipulate cognitive warfare. When entering an intelligentization era, China will try to use much more advanced AI skill to fulfill the same cognitive warfare effort. Deepfake, for instance, is one AI technology currently being developed by China to generate fake news, even video and satellite pictures, against rivals in an attempt to misguide opponents and regulate public opinion at home and abroad.