Chinese military innovation in emerging technologies

China is intent on developing a new generation of military technologies that will surpass those of the United States and change the nature of warfare to China’s advantage. While the innovation strategy includes the absorption of Western technology, Beijing also emphasises innovation and disruptive advances in artificial intelligence, unmanned weapons systems and directed-energy weapons. Quantum technology leadership will give China an advantage in offensive intelligence operations and encryption. Advanced weapons systems will increase China’s geopolitical and combat options.

China may be poised to seize the initiative of technological innovation in the military domain. Beijing is pursuing a strategy of innovation-driven development to bring about its economic transformation and military modernisationFootnote 75  . During the 19th Party Congress held in October 2017, Xi Jinping highlighted the country’s ambition to transform itself into a “science and technology superpower” (科技强国)Footnote 76  . In recent remarks, he has called for breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI) and highlighted rapid, revolutionary advances taking place in AI and quantum scienceFootnote 77  . It is clear that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) views such strategic technologies as integral to the country’s future economic competitiveness and military capabilities. Beijing is actively seeking to advance military innovation, intent on leveraging emerging technologies to enhance the country’s future combat capabilityFootnote 78  . The PLA has prioritised advances in unmanned (ie, uninhabited) systems, directed-energy weapons, AI and quantum technologies, and it plans to leverage a series of science and technology plans and a national strategy of military-civil fusion (军民融合)Footnote 79  .

The PRC’s approach to and initial advances in military innovation in emerging technologies challenge our understanding of Chinese defence science and technology. Beijing’s “deliberate, state-sponsored” campaign of industrial espionage, which leverages licit and illicit means to acquire foreign technologies, has played an important role in the country’s recent military modernisationFootnote 80  . The PRC’s innovation in this domain has continued to rely heavily on the “absorption” of foreign technologiesFootnote 81  . Indeed, Tai Ming Cheung has argued, “the role of external technology and knowledge transfers and the defence industry’s improving ability to absorb these inputs and convert them into localised output have had the biggest impact” on the recent revival of China’s defence industryFootnote 82  . Although characterising China as a mere copycat would be reductionist, it has been clear that China’s approach to “indigenous innovation” has often been oxymoronic, given a strategy centred on the “introduction, digestion, assimilation, and re-innovation” (IDAR)Footnote 83  . However, this paradigm does not fully explain the PRC’s military innovations taking place today in the context of certain emerging technologies, which point to Chinese military innovation having reached a critical juncture.

The priority accorded to military innovation has become increasingly apparent in official statements and strategies. An August 2014 Politburo study session highlighted the emergence of a “new military revolution” catalysed by rapid advances in science and technology, including in AIFootnote 84  . At that time, Xi Jinping urged China to “vigorously advance military innovation” through technological innovation and “unceasing innovation” in military theoryFootnote 85  . Similarly, the official national defence white paper, “China’s Military Strategy”, published in 2015, noted that the global military revolution is “proceeding to a new stage” given the increasing sophistication of long-range, precise, smart [sic, or intelligent], stealthy, and unmanned weapons and equipmentFootnote 86  ”. Xi Jinping has consistently reiterated in subsequent remarks the importance of an “innovation-driven” (创新驱动) strategy for military and civilian developmentsFootnote 87  , calling for China to seize the “commanding heights” (制高点) of future military competitionFootnote 88  .

Beijing’s focus on military innovation has intensified since, and been influenced by, the US launching its Third Offset strategy (第三次“抵消战略”) and successive defence innovation initiatives. Prominent PLA scholars and strategists have closely tracked the progression of the Third Offset since its inception. PLA defence analysts tend to view this initiative as being directed against and posing a potential threat to China. They condemn the effort for escalating tensions and being destabilising. According to one scholar from the PLA Academy of Military Science (AMS) Foreign Military Studies Department, the core of the Third Offset is an attempt to advance disruptive technologies and weapons systems aimed primarily at Russia and ChinaFootnote 89  . This US attempt to “continuously strengthen its intervention and combat capabilities” against an “imaginary enemy” is seen as likely to “elevate the probability of a military crisisFootnote 90  ”. Likewise, several Chinese defence analysts have anticipated that this “hegemonic” pursuit of disruptive technologies would “result in further deterioration of the global security environmentFootnote 91  ”. According to Xiao Tianliang (肖天亮), then vice-commandant of the PLA National Defence University (NDU), this new US offset strategy reflects a “technology surge” intended to maintain strategic superiority, anticipating that “whoever first achieves a breakthrough in and possesses disruptive technologies will ... seize the decisive strategic opportunity in military developmentFootnote 92  ”. A researcher from the PLA’s new Strategic Support Force highlighted that as emerging technologies catalyse rapid changes, “whoever takes the lead will … decide the direction of the transformation of future warfareFootnote 93  ”. The critical factor for winning militarily could shift from information superiority to intelligence superiority (智能优势), and from the information domain to the cognitive domainFootnote 94  .

Beyond the technological dimension of military innovation, the PLA is starting to progress from speculation to experimentation and even, in some cases, initial implementation as it attempts to advance military innovationFootnote 95  .The PLA has started to explore and evaluate the potential implications of emerging technologies for future military competition. While closely tracking and seeking to learn from US military innovation initiatives, Chinese defence researchers are beginning to formulate their own theories as to potential changes in the character of conflict that could result from the introduction of AI and quantum technologies on tomorrow’s battlefield. Chinese strategists assess that the character of conflict is being transformed by these emerging technologies and is acting as a catalyst accelerating the pursuit of defence innovation. Of note, such authoritative texts as the 2013 edition of The Science of Military Strategy (SMS), published by the PLA’s Academy of Military Science, alluded to the “first signs” of future “unmanned, intangible, silent warfare” (“无人、无形、无声”战争) with an evolution towards intelligentisationFootnote 96  . In particular, the authors observed that intelligent technologies, unmanned technologies, stealth, and other “new concept” (新概念) technologies were all tending towards integration, while on track to become prominent on the battlefields of tomorrow. In their opinion, these trends require “revolutionary changes” to future operational theory, operational forms and the form of warfare, as well as the composition of armed forcesFootnote 97  . According to another AMS text, the degree of intelligentisation in the method for information operations is expected to “unceasingly increase”Footnote 98  . Overall, the PLA anticipates that today’s informatised (信息化) warfare is being transformed towards intelligentised (智能化) warfare, in which AI and other emerging technologies will be critical to military power.

Priorities in Chinese military innovation

This paper provides a quick overview of notable Chinese innovative advances in several domains, including unmanned systems, directed-energy weapons, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies.

Unmanned systems

The PLA has actively pursued advances in military robotics and unmanned systems. To date, the PLA has fielded a range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), while also developing and, to a limited extent, fielding unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs)Footnote 99  . For instance, the PLA Air Force employsthe GJ-1 (Gongji-1, 攻击-1), a medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) UAV roughly analogous to the US Predator, for use in integrated reconnaissance and precision strikes, and may soon introduce the GJ-2, a successor that is closer to the Reaper in capabilities. The PLA Navy (PLAN) operates the BZK-005, primarily for surveillance, along with more tactical systems like the ASN-209, which has used communications relays and electromagnetic counter-measures. Concurrently, the Chinese defence industry is actively pursuing research and development in a range of cutting-edge unmanned systems, including those with stealth, swarming, and super or hypersonic capabilities.

In the PLA’s efforts to assert and defend China’s territorial claims, the use of unmanned systems could serve as a ‘tip of the spear’ to introduce a persistent presence in disputed waters or territory. For instance, the use of UUVs and USVs in the East and South China Seas could reinforce China’s territorial claims in these contested waters, while also enhancing capabilities for anti-submarine warfare. It is also likely that next-generation submarines will leverage intelligent unmanned systems, which could become increasingly prominent in the maritime domainFootnote 100  . Meanwhile, the Chinese private sector’s pursuit of self-driving cars has occurred alongside parallel efforts on intelligent unmanned ground vehicles, including robust efforts by NORINCO and several DARPA-like challenges to advance their developmentFootnote 101  Footnote 102 . The PLA is on track to field more advanced unmanned systems with growing degrees of autonomy, while also exporting these systems worldwide, thereby ensuring their proliferation to a range of state and non-state actors.

Directed-energy weapons

PLA researchers actively pursued a range of directed-energy weapons, including high-energy lasers, high-power microwave (HPM) weapons, and railguns. Reported advances in HPM weapons seem to be striking, relative to the decidedly mixed US record of progress in this domain. In January 2017, Huang Wenhua (黄文华), the deputy-director of the Northwest Institute of Nuclear Technology (西北核技术研究所), received a first prize National Science and Technology Progress Award for his research on directed-energy weaponsFootnote 103  . According to Huang Wenhua’s remarks, the system in question was initially tested successfully in November 2010 in northwest China, and his team has reportedly achieved “major breakthroughs” since thenFootnote 104  . This HPM weapon could be intended potentially for initial use as an anti-missile system (反导系统), which could be used as a ship-borne anti-missile weaponFootnote 105  . This promising and impactful soft kill capability could also have applications as an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon or be affixed to a warhead to overcome enemy air defences.

As of February 2018, pictures that appeared on Twitter seem to show that a railgun has been installed on the PLA Navy’s Type 072III landing ship (Haiyang Shan #936)Footnote 106  . If this is indeed the case, the PLAN has beaten the US Navy in deploying this disruptive new capabilityFootnote 107  . For a number of years now, both China and the US have been conducting research and development of railguns because both countries recognise their potential advantages, including their range, speed (perhaps over Mach 7), and affordability. This recent, apparent success by China builds upon long-standing research undertaken by its researchers, under the leadership of Rear Admiral Ma Weiming. Similar advances in electromagnetic technologies are enabling the construction of the PLAN’s electromagnetically-assisted launch system (EMALS) for future aircraft carriers and integrated electrical propulsion systems (IEPS) for future warships. These advances have likely been made possible not only through robust, long-standing research but also through the acquisition of Dynex Semiconductor, a British firm with particular expertise and capability in these technologiesFootnote 108  . These technologies will be critical enablers of Chinese naval capabilities going forward.

Artificial intelligence

The PLA seeks to harness the AI revolution to leapfrog the US and achieve a decisive military advantage relative to regional rivals in the process. The Central Military Commission Joint Staff Department has called for the PLA to leverage the “tremendous potential” of AI in planning, decision support, and operational commandFootnote 109  . In addition, the Joint Staff Department has called for the application of big data, cloud computing, AI and other cutting-edge technologies in the construction of a joint-operations command systemFootnote 110  . According to Lieutenant General Liu Guozhi (刘国治), director of the Central Military Commission’s Science and Technology Commission, AI will accelerate the process of military transformation, causing fundamental changes to military units’ programming, operational styles, equipment systems, and models of combat power generation, ultimately leading to a profound military revolutionFootnote 111  . He warns, “facing disruptive technology, [we] must … seize the opportunity to change paradigms (弯道超车); if you don’t disrupt, you’ll be disrupted!”Footnote 112 Footnote 113

Building upon its ongoing informatisation plan, the PLA is seeking to advance intelligentisation (智能化) in the next stage in its modernisation, seeking to leverage AI as a force multiplier for its future combat capabilities. Chinese research and development is advancing a range of AI military applications, including intelligent and autonomous unmanned systems; AI-enabled data fusion, information processing and intelligence analysis; war-gaming, simulation and training; defence, offence and command in information warfare; as well as intelligent support to command decision-making. The Chinese defence industry has achieved significant advances in swarm intelligence for example and appears likely to continue doing so. In June 2017, CETC demonstrated its advances in swarm intelligence with the test of 119 fixed-wing UAVs, beating its previous record of 67. In one exhibit, China’s Military Museum depicts a UAV swarm combat system (无人机蜂群作战系统) with swarms used for reconnaissance, jamming, and a “swarm assault” (群打击) targeting an aircraft carrier.

Quantum technologies

China’s rapid advances in dual-use quantum technologies could also have long-term military and strategic implicationsFootnote 114  . To date, China has emerged as a clear leader in research and development in quantum cryptography, while constructing a national quantum communications infrastructure that could better protect sensitive military and government communications against potential adversaries’ signals intelligence and cyber-espionage capabilitiesFootnote 115  . China’s leading quantum physicist Pan Jianwei (潘建伟) has claimed, “China is completely capable of making full use of quantum communications in a local war. The direction of development in the future calls for using relay satellites to realise quantum communications and control that covers the entire army”Footnote 116  . The Chinese government is also building a National Laboratory for Quantum Information Science (量子信息科学国家实验室) in Anhui Province, which will become the world’s largest quantum research facilityFootnote 117  Footnote 118 . This new national laboratory will pursue advances in quantum computing and reportedly engage in research “of immediate use” to China’s armed forcesFootnote 119  .

Although US teams continue to lead in quantum computing, China is a relative late-comer that has started to rapidly advance in this race to develop uniquely powerful computing capabilities that could break most existing forms of encryption. In March 2017, a team of Chinese scientists from China’s University of Science and Technology, CAS-Alibaba Quantum Computing Laboratory, the Chinese Academy of Science Institute of Physics, and Zhejiang University succeeded in entangling ten superconducting qubits, an important step towards future quantum computing, which broke Google’s prior record of nine Footnote 120  Footnote 121 . The Chinese defence industry also is pursuing a range of projects for research and development of quantum sensing and metrology, including quantum radar, which could potentially undermine stealth capabilities, and quantum navigation, which could serve as a substitute for GPS. Although the trajectory of these technologies remains to be seen, their potential to disrupt the existing military, and even strategic, balance of power should not be discounted.

The future of Chinese military innovation

Beijing appears to recognise the critical opportunity that these emerging technologies represent. Whereas the US initially possessed an undisputed military-technical advantage and indeed pioneered information-centric warfare, the playing field is becoming far more level. China is pursuing ambitious megaprojects that will devote long-term, strategic investments in these domains. Chinese advances in unmanned systems, directed-energy weapons, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies show initial progress towards and clear aspirations of truly original (原始) and even “radical” (源头) innovation.Footnote 122  Through these new frontiers of defence innovation, the Chinese leadership sees a chance to surpass the US and lead in “strategic front-line” technologies, while pioneering new ways of warfare that cuts ahead (弯道超车) and change paradigms of military power to achieve a future strategic advantageFootnote 123  .

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