"[W]e are being more effectively challenged militarily today than at any... any other time in our history... Hypersonic weapons, a full range of anti-satellite systems, plus cyber, electronic warfare, and challenging air to air missiles are all part of the growing inventory of Chinese capabilities." — Secretary of the US Air Force Frank Kendall, September 23, 2021. Pictured: Military vehicles carrying DF-17 missiles, which are able mount the DF-ZF Hypersonic Glide Vehicle, participate in a military parade in Beijing, China on October 1, 2019. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)
"Since 2010, I have been pounding the drum about how serious a threat the People's Republic of China's military modernization program is to the ability of the United States to project power into the Indo Pacific, and more broadly our ability to protect our interests and values around the world.... While America is still the dominant military power on the planet, we are being more effectively challenged militarily today than at any...any other time in our history." These were the words of US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall at the Air Force Association's Air, Space & Cyber Convention on September 20.
China has been modernizing its military for several decades to become a "world class military" -- equal to, or in some cases superior to, the U.S. military -- by mid-century. China aims to "complete national defense and military modernization by 2035". In this year's Annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, the U.S. intelligence community called China an increasingly "near-peer competitor, challenging the United States in multiple arenas—especially economically, militarily, and technologically" that has "demonstrated the capability and intent to advance their interests at the expense of the United States and its allies."
"Chinese leaders characterize China's long-term military modernization program as essential to achieving great-power status," Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April.
"The PLA [People's Liberation Army] modernization agenda focuses on developing and fielding advanced military capabilities in all warfighting domains...The PLA seeks a force capable of winning a number of high-end regional conflicts, including the forcible unification of Taiwan, while dissuading, deterring, or defeating third-party military intervention. At the same time, we expect the PLA to expand its capability to carry out smaller operations globally to support China's interests."
According to Kendall, China's modernization of its military is taking place on all levels:
"Simultaneously, China is increasing inventory levels and the sophistication of their weapons and modernizing centers and command and control networks throughout the kill chains that support their weapons. Hypersonic weapons, a full range of anti-satellite systems, plus cyber, electronic warfare, and challenging air to air missiles are all part of the growing inventory of Chinese capabilities."
As an essential part of its modernization, China is focused on technological innovation, especially the operationalization of emerging technologies for military purposes. China pursues a strategy of civil and military fusion, a whole-of-society effort whereby China's science and technology innovations, its civilian technology and industrial bases are leveraged and fused across military and civilian sectors. According to the Pentagon, the fusion happens, among other things, by "blending military and civilian expertise and knowledge, building military requirements into civilian infrastructure and leveraging civilian construction for military purposes". Artificial intelligence (AI), which Beijing specifically views as "critical to its future military and industrial power" is a case in point because of its dual-use nature, meaning it can be used for both civilian and military purposes:
"China is making strategic investments worldwide in AI to reap national security and economic benefits..." wrote the Pentagon in its 2020 report to Congress on China's military power.
"The PRC is pursuing a whole-of-society effort to become a global leader in AI, which includes designating select private AI companies in China as 'AI champions' to emphasize R&D in specific dual-use technologies. Many of these 'AI champions,' including Huawei and Hikvision, are major suppliers of AI surveillance technology worldwide. In 2019, the private PRC-based company Ziyan UAV exhibited armed swarming drones that it claimed use AI to perform autonomous guidance, target acquisition, and attack execution. During the past five years, China has made achievements in AI-enabled unmanned surface vessels, which China plans to use to patrol and bolster its territorial claims in the South China Sea. China has also tested unmanned tanks as part of research efforts to integrate AI into ground forces' equipment."
China aims to become a global leader in AI by 2030.
China's current Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development (2021-2025) focuses on accelerating China's research on AI to harness its commercial technology sector to accomplish the People's Liberation Army's goal of so-called "intelligentized" warfare, which broadly speaking can be explained as the use of emerging technologies in war. According to the Pentagon's 2020 report on China's military power:
"The People's Liberation Army (PLA) sees emerging technologies as driving a shift to 'intelligentized' warfare from today's 'informatized' way of war. PLA strategists broadly describe intelligentized warfare as the operationalization of artificial intelligence (AI) and its enabling technologies, such as cloud computing, big data analytics, quantum information, and unmanned systems, for military applications. These technologies, according to PRC leaders—including Chairman Xi Jinping— represent a 'Revolution in Military Affairs' for which China must undertake a whole-of-government approach to secure critical economic and military advantages against advanced militaries.
"China seeks to lead the shift to "intelligentized warfare" through its Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) Development Strategy and by reforming both its research and development (R&D) as well as strategy and doctrine organizations."
Some of the advanced and disruptive military capabilities that China is developing based on emerging technologies include "hypersonic weapons, electromagnetic railguns, directed energy weapons, and counterspace capabilities."
The technology race between the US and China, therefore, has extremely tangible consequences for national security. Last year, Michael Brown, director of the Pentagon's Defense Innovation Unit, said there are already technological areas where Beijing is ahead, including facial recognition software, small drones and quantum communications, while China is challenging the US lead in areas such as artificial intelligence, rocket launches, quantum computing, quantum sensing and supercomputing.
"We're a year or two ahead of China [in AI]," Eric Schmidt, former executive chairman and CEO of Google and the chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, said last year. "We're not a decade ahead."
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.