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  • Elsa Kania

Launching "Battlefield Singularity"

Updated: Apr 2, 2018

My initial report “Battlefield Singularity: Artificial Intelligence, Military Revolution, and China's Future Military Power,” released through the Center for a New American Security, constituted an early attempt to create an analytical foundation for evaluating the military and strategic implications of China’s emergence as a powerhouse in artificial intelligence (AI). I was seeking to illuminate the Chinese People’s Liberation Army's (PLA) latest advances in and emerging approach to a range of military applications of AI.

In many respects, “Battlefield Singularity” was imperfect and incomplete, raising more questions than I could answer at the time, given the limitations of the available information. Certainly, the PLA’s approach to what could be characterized as a new Revolution in Military Affairs catalyzed by artificial intelligence (the AI-RMA?) will continue to evolve. At the same time, today’s emerging technologies are advancing exponentially, and it is difficult to anticipate the trajectory of progress.

Initially, I decided to embark upon this research out of concern and curiosity.

In recent history, China’s military modernization has often outpaced the expectations of analysts and observers. To be sure, the PLA still confronts tremendous difficulties, including historic reforms and a disruptive reorganization, along with persistent shortcomings in talent and training. However, the PLA is rapidly emerging as a true peer competitor with the capability to disrupt the military balance in Asia and beyond, advancing its development of asymmetric capabilities to target perceived weaknesses in U.S. ways of warfare.

The PLA’s propaganda about its own advances should provoke skepticism, but I worry that we underestimate the PLA at our peril.

Xi Jinping has called upon the PLA to pursue military innovation and to leverage today’s emerging technologies to enhance its future power. It may no longer be content remaining merely a ‘fast follower.’

Potentially, the character — and perhaps even the nature — of warfare could be transformed by this new military revolution. In the last such disruptive transition, the U.S. possessed nearly undisputed military-technological advantage, and the U.S. military was the clear leader in leveraging information technology to achieve military predominance.

This time may be different. China’s national "rejuvenation" as an economic and technological powerhouse has leveled the playing field. In fact, China is or has the potential to become a leader in “the very technologies" that the U.S. National Defense Strategy argues "ensure we will be able to fight and win the wars of the future.” The Chinese military appears to recognize a unique historic opportunity to surpass the U.S., seeking to “sharply turn to surpass” (弯道超车) U.S. military power.

The U.S. has been advancing the Third Offset Strategy, but today it’s critical to raise the question, could China’s First Offset also be underway?

If so, the PLA might pioneer new paradigms of military power, and the U.S. could, for the first time in recent history, confront a potential adversary with military-technical superiority. Of course, to achieve such an advantage, the PLA would have to overcome major challenges, including in its concepts of operations and organizational capacity.

It can be quite difficult to evaluate the veracity of reported Chinese advances, in times of fear and hype, encountering misinformation and disinformation. Has the PLA Navy truly been the first to field a railgun? Will future Chinese submarines actually have “AI-augmented brainpower”? In my own writings and research, I remain cognizant of these challenges, relying upon a range of open sources and qualifying my assessments carefully.

I would argue that Chinese military and defense innovation should be assessed skeptically but taken quite seriously. (In the process, a degree of humility is also very necessary, insofar as it is impossible to be truly an “expert” on issues of such opacity and complexity.)

As an analyst (and future academic), I am curious and enjoying the intellectual challenge of exploring these issues and dynamics, at a time when U.S.-China strategic competition is intensifying.

Arguably, the U.S. and China are trapped in a security dilemma. The actions that each takes in order to enhance its own security are perceived as threatening by the other, which then responds in kind. I frequently characterize the U.S.-China relationship as tending towards “mutually assured misperception.” Under conditions of intense uncertainty, it is natural to think in terms of worst-case scenarios. Hopefully, rigorous research and assessments can still contribute to mitigating uncertainty and potential misperceptions.

I’ve decided to continue my own research and thinking on such issues on this page. My musings — which I will post here as my analysis progresses and in response to relevant developments — will typically concentrate upon questions of Chinese military innovation. I’ll focus in particular on emerging technologies, including “unmanned” systems, directed energy, artificial intelligence, and quantum technologies, among others.

To highlight PLA views on issues, I will also include translations of the writings of Chinese defense academics and strategists whose perspectives appear to be particularly interesting or authoritative. Where relevant, I’ll post translations of plans, policies, and other documents that can inform our understanding of China's quest for innovation.

Along the way, I’ll reflect upon the strategic implications of these trends, and I’ll welcome opportunities to continue the discussions on these issues online or offline. I hope that this 'relaunch' of “Battlefield Singularity,” as an ongoing inquiry into these issues of U.S.-China competition in military innovation, will be useful and informative.