Military & Aerospace

China’s Move Towards A Smart Military
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Issue Courtesy: CLAWS | Date : 07 Dec , 2018

After the World War and certainly after the end of the cold war, the US military started to maintain a clear advantage over the whole world in the various technologies of modern warfighting—from stealth and precision weapons to high-tech sensors and command & control systems. This was possible because of its large investment in R&D as also in attracting the best brains from all over the world

Having closely watched the United States’ march to keep technological primacy and sophistication to support its military predominance, the Chinese have tried all measures to play catch up and have managed to make long strides in developing asymmetric tools—including space, cyber, and electronic capabilities. Today the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is pursuing innovations in many of the same emerging technologies that the U.S. military has itself prioritized and heavily invested in. Artificial intelligence is a prominent technology among these.

As it is being predicted in the years ahead, AI could transform the way war is conducted, creating disruptive new capabilities and changing the ways that militaries command, train, and employ their forces. Those changes will eventually shape the military balance among the various world powers – both existing and emerging.  

Till now the private sector in the United States has invested heavily in AI and maintained the lead in research in the field thus remaining the world’s leader in AI. But China seeks to surpass the United States, and it may be close to doing so. The Chinese leadership has started to prioritize AI at the highest levels. In July 2017, the Chinese authorities released the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan, articulating an ambitious agenda to “lead the world” in artificial intelligence by 2030.

China desire for world dominance in AI has been backed up with huge funding for cutting-edge AI research. As China makes big strides in the field, the United States will lose out its ‘beginners’ advantage’ and face the challenge of China as an AI powerhouse. Chinese scholars have already published more papers on AI than their American peers and China already produces more AI-related patent applications than any other country except for the United States. A Chinese facial recognition start-up took first place in a contest hosted by the ARPA. Chinese Private and government investment is amounting to billions of dollars is paving the way for Chinese accent which is all set to overtake the United States.

Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, the biggest technology firms in China are leading the charge into AI. It is understood that the PLA could have a tacit understanding with these private sector industries to use AI technologies like autonomous robots, including swarms of drones (China has already successfully flight-tested a swarm of 119 drones), intelligent unmanned systems, face recognition for target identification and advances in computer vision for military purposes.

PLA has already articulated the shift from “informatised” to “intelligentised” warfare becoming as central to future conflicts as more rudimentary forms of information technology are to warfare today. The Chinese military will increasingly draw on the private sector’s advances since they believe that AI could transform the nature of war to a different level of war-fighting. The costs of attacks may be considerably lowered by the large-scale use of AI systems to complete tasks that would normally require human labor and intelligence. The Chinese military quest for integrating AI into its tanks, naval forces and aircraft is the part of China’s asymmetric or “assassin’s mace” warfare strategy – building high-technology arms that will enable China’s weaker forces to defeat the more powerful military of the United States in any future conflict.

China is already feverishly working on automation of decision-making command and control systems keeping in mind the fact that soon human minds might not be able to keep up with the speed of the decision-making demanded by AI-enabled combat. As AI supported systems and robotics become all-pervasive in warfare, militaries could start to remove people from the battlefield, place them into supervisory roles, and let unmanned systems do most of the fighting. A case in point is the US Patriot system that selects targets automatically after tracking them. In the foreseeable future, AI will also help to analyze intelligence more efficiently and have applications in cyber-operations, helping militaries discover and then exploit cyber vulnerabilities far faster than a human.

However, on the downside, there are genuine fears that dictatorial powers and authoritarian regimes such as China’s could decide to opt for fully automated approaches to war despite several ethical and operational risks. The automated system could on autonomous deployment fail to differentiate legitimate military targets from civilian ones.


The progress of China’s advances in AI remains to be seen and studied. But seeing the progress that the PLA has already made, the world should expect that China is quickly becoming a powerhouse and possibly a world leader in AI. To match the progress of China it is imperative that the world military powers, and especially India spend a large amount of funds and invest human capital in the years ahead on next-generation AI research. 


  1. “Made In China 2025: Forget Cheap Goods, Think World’s Best Artificial Intelligence”. 2018. ABC News.
  2. China’s Brave New World Of AI”. 2018. Forbes.Com.
  3. 2018.
  4. Rajagopalan, Rajeswari. 2018. “The Trouble With China’S Edge In The AI Arms Race | ORF”. ORF.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Sunil Gupta

Senior Fellow at CLAWS.

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