How to respond to ‘intelligent’ PLA

IN PERSPECTIVE

Beijing’s attempts to harness AI for military advancement aren’t new, but it has acquired a more purposeful drive to leverage AI under Xi Jinping’s leadership, aided by China’s expanding technology and innovation base. Photo/Reuters

Advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies over the next decade will have a profound impact on the nature of warfare. Increasing use of precision weapons, training simulations and unmanned vehicles are merely the tip of the iceberg. AI technologies, going forward, will not only have a direct battlefield impact in terms of weapons and equipment but will also impact planning, logistics and decision-making, requiring new ethical and doctrinal thinking. From an Indian perspective, China’s strategic focus on leveraging AI has serious national security implications.

Beijing’s attempts to harness AI for military advancement aren’t new, but it has acquired a more purposeful drive to leverage AI under Xi Jinping’s leadership, aided by China’s expanding technology and innovation base.

Xi’s objective is to develop the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into a world-class force by mid-century. The path to this is through mechanisation, informatization and eventually ‘intelligentization’. Think of this as first a shift from manpower to firepower, followed by building integrated networks and enhanced jointness, and finally, leveraging data and technology to enhance the autonomy of weapons systems and speed and efficiency of decision-making. Of course, this is not necessarily a linear process.

The foundations for achieving this objective were laid soon after Xi took charge. In August 2014, he led a Politburo study session calling for Chinese strategists and the PLA to adapt to a new military revolution that was underway. The Chinese leadership followed that by laying the groundwork for expanding military innovation. Civil-Military Fusion (CMF) was upgraded to a national strategy. That came along with the 2015 Defense White Paper, which argued that the revolution in military affairs was progressing to a new stage, with precise, smart, stealthy and unmanned weapons and equipment becoming increasingly sophisticated.

In late 2015 and early 2016, Xi announced a massive shake-up of the Chinese armed forces, initiating major organisational and structural reforms to enhance jointness and efficiency. A year later, the Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development was established, with Xi at its helm. The objective is to leverage the asset base and expertise of the civilian sector to meet security objectives. Finally, in July 2017, China’s State Council released an overarching plan, which laid a roadmap for AI development in the country. When the plan was launched, China’s AI industry’s scale was estimated at roughly RMB 18 billion. The target is to expand this to RMB 150 billion by 2020. While the target seems far-fetched, strategic focus has led to significant market expansion. The Internet Society of China values China’s AI market in 2019 at roughly RMB 50 billion. ISC also reports that China is home to 3,341 AI enterprises, accounting for more than one-fifth of the world’s total AI firms.

This ecosystem will be extremely useful for the PLA under the CMF strategy. This is evident in the field of computer vision, where technology developed by Chinese private firms have aided surveillance in Xinjiang. When it comes to facial recognition technology, Chinese firms are at the cutting edge. In 2018, Chinese companies bagged the top five spots at a facial recognition technology competition conducted by the US Department of Commerce.

China has also made rapid progress is in UAV and UUV development, along with swarm technology. Just recently, the Sea-Whale 2000, an autonomous underwater vehicle developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, completed a non-stop 37-day test run in the South China Sea. In addition, the Blowfish series of helicopter drones developed by Zhuhai Ziyan UAV are already in demand, with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper highlighting Chinese drone exports. Apart from this, Beijing has sought expanded AI use in military training.

For India, this means that the PLA will emerge as potentially a better informed, equipped and efficient adversary over the coming decade. For sure, there are structural limitations that will hinder the PLA’s progress, such as the pace of technology absorption and adaptation, lack of appropriate and adequate military data and the limitations of command innovation. In fact, China’s 2019 Defense White Paper acknowledges that while “great progress has been made in the Revolution in Military Affairs...the PLA still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries.” Regardless, with sustained investment, expanding capacity and leadership support, the scale and quality of equipment will continue to improve over time.

Countering this will require New Delhi to adopt a strategy that engenders asymmetry, given India’s capital constraints and technology and innovation base. Indian defence planners need to carefully evaluate the domains where the PLA is progressing and focus their efforts and investments in asymmetric countermeasures. This entails investing in unmanned and autonomous vehicles, adversarial machine learning, electronic warfare along with offensive and defensive cyber capabilities. Along with this, there is also an urgent need to engage in doctrinal thinking about the impact of such new technologies on conflict. The strategic question to consider is whether autonomous weapons systems will reduce the cost of conflict, thereby leading to greater instability.

(The writer is Fellow, China Studies, Takshshila Institution)

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