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Richard Tilley is a strategist within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Previously, Richard served as a U.S. Army Special Forces Officer and a National Security Advisor in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is on Twitter @RichardTilley6 and on LinkedIn. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the United States Government. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization or any group.
Title: Assessing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Surreptitious Artificial Intelligence Build-Up
Date Originally Written: July 6, 2020.
Date Originally Published: August 14, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is an unconventional warfare scholar and strategist. He believes renewed American interest in great power competition and Chinese approaches to unrestricted warfare require the United States national security apparatus to better appreciate the disruptive role advanced technology will play on the future battlefield.
Summary: China’s dreams of regional and global hegemony require a dominant People’s Liberation Army that faces the dilemma of accruing military power while not raising the ire of the United States. To meet this challenge, the Chinese Communist Party has bet heavily on artificial intelligence as a warfighting game-changer that it can acquire surreptitiously and remain below-the-threshold of armed conflict with the United States.
Text: President Xi Jinping’s introduction of the “The China Dream” in 2013 offers the latest iteration of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) decades-long quest to establish China in its rightful place atop the global hierarchy. To achieve this goal, Xi calls for “unison” between China’s newfound soft power and the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) hard power. But, by the CCP’s own admission, “The PLA still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries.” Cognizant of this capability deficit, Beijing adheres to the policy of former Chairman Deng Xiaoping, “Hide your strength, bide your time” until the influence of the Chinese military can match that of the Chinese economy.
For the PLA, Deng’s maxim presents a dilemma: how to build towards militarily eclipsing the United States while remaining below the threshold of eliciting armed response. Beijing’s solution is to bet heavily on artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential to upend the warfighting balance of power.
In simple terms, AI is the ability of machines to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence. AI is not a piece of hardware but rather a technology integrated into nearly any system that enables computing more quickly, accurately, and intuitively. AI works by combining massive amounts of data with powerful, iterative algorithms to identify new associations and rules hidden therein. By applying these associations and rules to new scenarios, scientists hope to produce AI systems with reasoning and decision-making capabilities matching or surpassing that of humans.
China’s quest for regional and global military dominance has led to a search for a “Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) with Chinese characteristics.” An RMA is a game-changing evolution in warfighting that upends the balance of power. In his seminal work on the subject, former Under Secretary of Defense Michael Vickers found eighteen cases of such innovations in history such as massed infantry, artillery, railroad, telegraph, and atomic weapons. In each case, a military power introduces a disruptive technology or tactic that rapidly and enduringly changes warfighting. The PLA believes that AI can be their game-changer in the next conflict.
Evidence of the PLA’s confidence in AI abounds. Official PRC documents from 2017 called for “The use of new generation AI technologies as a strong support to command decision-making, military deductions [strategy], and defense equipment, among other applications.” Beijing matched this rhetoric with considerable funding, which the U.S. Department of Defense estimated as $12 billion in 2017 and growing to as much as $70 billion in 2020.
AI’s potential impact in a Western Pacific military confrontation is significant. Using AI, PLA intelligence systems could detect, identify, and assess the possible intent of U.S. carrier strike groups more quickly and with greater accuracy than traditional human analysis. Then, PLA strike systems could launch swarming attacks coordinated by AI that overwhelm even the most advanced American aerial and naval defenses. Adding injury to insult, the PLA’s AI systems will learn from this engagement to strike the U.S. Military with even more efficacy in the future.
While pursuing AI the CCP must still address the dilemma of staying below the threshold of armed conflict – thus the CCP masterfully conceals moves designed to give it an AI advantage. In the AI arms race, there are two key components: technology and data. To surpass the United States, China must dominate both, but it must do so surreptitiously.
AI systems require several technical components to operate optimally, including the talent, algorithms, and hardware on which they rely. Though Beijing is pouring untold resources into developing first-rate domestic capacity, it still relies on offshore sources for AI tech. To acquire this foreign know-how surreptitiously, the CCP engages in insidious foreign direct investment, joint ventures, cyber espionage, and talent acquisition as a shortcut while it builds domestic AI production.
Successful AI also requires access to mountains of data. Generally, the more data input the better the AI output. To build these data stockpiles, the CCP routinely exploits its own citizens. National security laws passed in 2014 and 2017 mandate that Chinese individuals and organizations assist the state security apparatus when requested. The laws make it possible for the CCP to easily collect and exploit Chinese personal data that can then be used to strengthen the state’s internal security apparatus – powered by AI. The chilling efficacy seen in controlling populations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong can be transferred to the international battlefield.
Abroad, the CCP leverages robust soft power to gain access to foreign data. Through programs like the Belt and Road Initiative, China offers low-cost modernization to tech-thirsty customers. Once installed, the host’s upgraded security, communication, or economic infrastructure allows Beijing to capture overseas data that reinforces their AI data sets and increases their understanding of the foreign environment. This data enables the PLA to better train AI warfighting systems to operate in anywhere in the world.
If the current trends hold, the United States is at risk of losing the AI arms race and hegemony in the Western Pacific along with it. Despite proclaiming that, “Continued American leadership in AI is of paramount importance to maintaining the economic and national security of the United States,” Washington is only devoting $4.9 billion to unclassified AI research in fiscal year 2020, just seven percent of Beijing’s investment.
The keep pace, the United States can better comprehend and appreciate the consequences of allowing the PLA to dominate AI warfighting in the future. The stakes of the AI race are not dissimilar to the race for nuclear weapons during World War 2. Only by approaching AI with the same interest, investment, and intensity of the Manhattan Project can U.S. Military hegemony hope to be maintained.
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