The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China is likely one of the leading forces in AI development as far as investment is concerned. An October 2021 report published by the Centre for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) at Georgetown University estimated that the PLA was spending between $1.6bn and $2.7bn on AI research and procurement per year, which is approximately equivalent to that of the US military.

The report, titled Harnessed Lightning, identified seven areas of interest for the PLA and its AI development that are detailed here in order of the quantity of contracts awarded as found by CSET:

Autonomous vehiclesEspecially sub-surface and aerial platforms as an asymmetric response to perceived US technological superiority.
Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; automated target recognitionMay be related to a number of key areas for the PLA, such as over-the-horizon targeting and moving through tactical/operational OODA loops at greater speeds. (Note: Automated target recognition was a low priority by contracts awarded, according to the CSET report, but it stands to reason that it should be considered alongside ISR.)
Predictive maintenance and logisticsRelated to the centralisation and modernisation of the PLA’s logistics under the Joint Logistics Support Force; designed to provide ‘precision logistics.’
Information and electronic warfare (EW)The PLA sees the control of information as critical to its concept of ‘systems destruction warfare’. EW as an adjunct to this is an important method for controlling and degrading information.
Simulated trainingThe ‘peace disease’ is the belief of the Central Military Commission that the PLA has not experienced war and so is not meaningfully prepared for it. Enhancing training is one of the primary routes to address this.
Command and control (C2)C2 structures within the PLA suffer from stovepipes and inefficiencies. Commanders are routinely berated for their lack of creativity or ability to anticipate an opponent. AI is expected to improve coordination and responsive approaches to combat.

It is notable that the priority area for the PLA is the development of autonomous vehicles, specifically sub-surface and aerial platforms. This suggests that the primary concern at present is the development of autonomous platforms that would be able to contribute to generating an asymmetric advantage for the PLA in combat with the US or a similarly advanced opponent.

Mechanisation, informatisation, intelligentisation

PLA writers refer to the progression from mechanisation, the state of military affairs where the PLA moved from a mostly infantry army to a mechanised one, to informatisation, which is a mechanised force with greater access to information and networked capabilities. Both formed the foundation for the current paradigm, which is called intelligentisation.

Intelligentisation is differentiated in the introduction of autonomy, multi-domain operations, ubiquity, evolution, and risk, two PLA authors wrote in a July 2021 article for the PLA Daily. They explain that, as well as the standard gamut of uncrewed aerial, ground, and sub-surface capabilities, autonomous warfare is defined by precision guided weapons, autonomous reconnaissance and early warning as well as automated command and control.

Autonomous platforms are likely the most demanding AI application for the PLA, but there are several projects underway. The use of autonomous platforms in swarms is divided into three types of swarms: fish swarms, bee swarms, and ant swarms for sea, air, and land use, respectively.

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Chinese autonomous platforms in development

There have been several recent developments in uncrewed ground platforms. For instance, in October 2021, the PLA demonstrated a family of uncrewed Lynx 8×8 all-terrain vehicles, some of which were armed while others were configured to provide logistics.

A different uncrewed ground vehicle was used in an exercise in January 2021 and coordinated with a swarm of UAVs during an amphibious assault, the Global Times said. However, many of the videos of Chinese uncrewed platforms seem to suggest that they are simply remotely operated vehicles, as opposed to truly autonomous platforms provided with AI-enabled software allowing them to complete missions without human intervention.

Other autonomous technologies have included leader-follower systems for logistics trucks, enabling a convoy to be crewed by just one or two soldiers driving the lead vehicle, but this was reported in 2017 and has not entered service.

“By introducing autonomous technologies with AI-enabled target recognition and ISR collect capabilities, the PLA and PLAN could improve their ability to identify and track naval targets for engagement.”

A more promising development might be the Zhu Hai Yun, a semi-autonomous ‘drone mothership’ capable of carrying multiple autonomous UAVs, boats, and submersibles for reconnaissance and ocean surveillance. It is reportedly provided with an AI operating system enabling it to launch, recover and coordinate up to 50 autonomous platforms.

The ship is notionally an ocean research vessel, although its expected delivery to the PLA Navy (PLAN) indicates that the technology could become available to China’s navy for other purposes. The PLAN is known to consider autonomous ocean reconnaissance – including deployed static sensors – as a vital element of its ocean situational awareness.

The PLA relies upon long-range precision strike using strategic missiles as part of its deterrence, but real-time targeting against mobile targets such as aircraft carriers at extreme ranges can be challenging. By introducing autonomous technologies with AI-enabled target recognition and ISR collect capabilities, the PLA and PLAN could improve their ability to identify and track naval targets for engagement.

Video: The Zhu Hai Yun is semi-autonomous ‘drone mothership capable of carrying various autonomous platforms.

China is awash with other developments in this field. More curious examples have included a ‘bionic shark’ designed to have a stealthy underwater profile and conduct reconnaissance, target search and rescue, and hydrological monitoring at depths of 600m.

Other curiosities include a psychology robot called Little Fat, which is used to encourage PLA soldiers to talk about their problems and help PLA psychologists to diagnose them, according to a January 2021 article published on the China Military Network.

China’s universities have also made progress in swarms of drones (bees), a recent example including a swarm navigating a bamboo forest autonomously. Although designed for disaster relief and area surveys, the technology is theoretically transferable into military service. The available footage suggests that the drones are communicating between themselves and coordinating their approaches through the forest, which is technologically challenging.

China has also demonstrated armed swarms launched from the rear of a vehicle and coordinating once in the air. Yet again, however, the available video appears to show PLA soldiers involved in their operation, raising questions over the level of automation.

Video: A Chinese drone swarm navigating a forest.

Will China emerge as a leader in military AI?

Autonomous systems are an interesting intersection of the PLA’s seven key areas for AI investment. They utilise AI for a number of purposes, from swarm coordination to navigation and information gathering.

Their growing role in ISR, as demonstrated by the Zhu Hai Yun, and ability to be coordinated as part of an amphibious assault suggests that they will intersect with autonomous ISR as well as automated command and control.

Central to all of this will be the development of AI to support advanced decision-making, but the success of this will depend on continued investment and experimentation within the PLA. If an economic slowdown impacts China’s GDP, it is reasonable to presume that it might reduce the defence budget and the investment in AI as a result.