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Battlefield Singularity: Artificial Intelligence, Military Revolution, and China's Future Military Power

  • Published
  • By Elsa Kania

The full report is available from CNAS 

Although technological advantage has been a key pillar of U.S. military power and national competitiveness, China is starting to catch up in its quest to become a “science and technology superpower” (科技强国). While the U.S. military possessed an early edge in technologies critical to information-age warfare, primacy in artificial intelligence (AI), likely integral in future warfare, could remain contested between the United States and China. Indeed, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is pursuing advances in impactful and disruptive military applications of AI. Although this military dimension of China’s rise in AI has remained relatively opaque, the available Chinese-language open-source materials reveal initial trends in PLA thinking and progress.

The Chinese leadership is advancing an “innovation-driven” strategy for civilian and military development, aiming to become the world’s “premier innovation center” in AI by 2030. Certainly, a range of challenges, including serious shortcomings in human capital, may inhibit progress, and China presently continues to lag behind the United States in cutting-edge research and development. However, China’s rapid rise and future trajectory in AI could be enabled by critical systemic and structural advantages, including likely levels of funding and investment, potential human talent resources, and massive amounts of data. AI is a high-level priority within China’s national agenda for military-civil fusion (军民融合), and this strategic approach could enable the PLA to take full advantage of private sector progress in AI to enhance its military capabilities.

Although the PLA’s initial thinking on AI in warfare has been influenced by careful analysis of U.S. military initiatives, its approach could progressively diverge from that of the United States, based on its distinct strategic culture and organizational dynamics. The PLA anticipates that the advent of AI could fundamentally change the character of warfare, resulting in a transformation from today’s “informatized” (信息化) ways of warfare to future “intelligentized” (智能化) warfare, in which AI will be critical to military power. The PLA will likely leverage AI to enhance its future capabilities, including in intelligent and autonomous unmanned systems; AI-enabled data fusion, information processing, and intelligence analysis; war-gaming, simulation, and training; defense, offense, and command in information warfare; and intelligent support to command decision-making. At present, the PLA is funding a wide range of projects involving AI, and the Chinese defense industry and PLA research institutes are pursuing extensive research and development, in some cases partnering with private enterprises.

This could be the start of a major shift in the PLA’s strategic approach, beyond its traditional asymmetric focus on targeting U.S. vulnerabilities to the offset-oriented pursuit of competition to innovate. The PLA is seeking to engage in “leapfrog development” (跨越发展) to achieve a decisive edge in “strategic front-line” (战略前沿) technologies, in which the United States has not realized and may not be able to achieve a decisive advantage. The PLA is unlikely to pursue a linear trajectory or follow the track of U.S. military modernization, but rather could take a different path. Since the 1990s, the PLA has focused on the development of “trump card” (杀手锏) weapons that target vulnerabilities in U.S. battle networks, seeking to develop, in the words of then-Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman Jiang Zemin, those weapons that “the enemy is most fearful of.” This asymmetric thinking will likely persist in the PLA’s approach to AI. For instance, the PLA may seek to use swarms to target and saturate the defenses of U.S. aircraft carriers. However, China is no longer in a position of technological inferiority but rather sees itself as close to catching up with and overtaking the United States in AI. As such, the PLA intends to achieve an advantage through changing paradigms in warfare with military innovation, thus seizing the “commanding heights” (制高点) of future military competition.

As the U.S. and China compete to innovate in AI, the trajectories of their respective advances will impact the future military and strategic balance. The PLA is acutely aware of the criticality of adapting to and capitalizing upon progress in AI, fearing the emergence of a ‘generational gap’ between its capabilities and that of the U.S. military, which is perceived as a powerful adversary (强敌) and thus the key metric for comparison. Since China may possess the potential to equal or surpass the United States in this critical technology, the U.S. military must recognize the PLA’s emergence as a true peer competitor and reevaluate the nature of U.S.-China military and technological competition.

As the PLA attempts to overtake, rather than just catch up with or match, U.S. progress in this domain, it will be vital to understand and take into account the PLA’s evolving approach and advances. In particular, the PLA’s capacity to leverage military applications of AI could prove distinctive due to its model of military-civil fusion, expansive concept of “intelligentization,” and focus on AI-enabled command decision-making. Certain PLA thinkers even anticipate the approach of a “singularity” on the battlefield, at which human cognition can no longer keep pace with the speed of decision-making and tempo of combat in future warfare. While recognizing the importance of human-machine collaboration, and likely concerned with issues of controllability, the PLA could prove less adverse to the prospect of taking humans ‘out of the loop’ to achieve an advantage.

Looking forward, the PLA’s militarization of AI will influence the trajectory of this unfolding military revolution, presenting a unique strategic challenge to the United States. In response, the United States must work to formulate a long-term, whole-of-nation strategy to support critical determinants of national competitiveness in AI. While taking steps to mitigate illicit and problematic technology transfers, the United States should ensure that there is adequate funding for and investments in next-generation research and development, averting the risks of an “innovation deficit.” It is also critical to sustain and build upon the current U.S. competitive advantage in human capital through formulating policies to educate and attract top talent. However, the U.S. military must prepare for a future in which the United States may no longer possess technological predominance, particularly through focusing on the human factors and organizational capacity that are critical determinants of successful defense innovation. As the intensification of military and strategic competition in AI could result in destabilizing arms race dynamics, the United States should also explore options to mitigate the risks to strategic stability that could result from great powers’ pursuit of AI-enabled capabilities to achieve military advantage.

The full report is available from CNAS